Bad Grammar in Advertising

Why Bad Grammar in Advertising is a Good Thing

In July 22, 2014
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One of the things that immediately attracted me to the wacky but wonderful world of advertising was the concept of taking “creative license.” I loved the idea of bending (okay, breaking) rules to make a communication more powerful, emotional or comical.

In my early days as a copywriter, I worked with a proofreader who was up in years, at least by ad agency standards. (She claims to have dated Ansel Adams “back in the day” if that tells you anything.) She would shuffle into my office holding one of my scripts like it was a used tissue, and smugly point out all of my grammatical transgressions. To her, bad grammar in advertising was no less sinful than bad grammar in an Ivy League commencement speech.

But here’s the truth: Advertising needs to be attention-getting and persuasive. The most effective headlines and copy are disarmingly simple, intuitive, true to a brand voice and relevant to a predetermined target audience. Sometimes that requires writing in such a way that flies in the face of everything you learned in English class. An oft-cited example of bad grammar in advertising is the blockbuster “Got Milk?” campaign. Would that tagline have been as wildly popular if it said, “Do You Have Milk?” Nope. On the other hand, an ad for a wealth advisor asking, “Got Bucks?” would also be inappropriate for a target audience in search of experienced, credible financial guidance.

One of Melamed Riley’s current B2B advertising campaigns is for MiraTEC® Treated Exterior Composite Trim. This product was not created out of a material initially intended for another purpose. It was developed from scratch specifically to make it perform better than all the other man-made products on the market and standard wood trim, which is vulnerable to moisture and insects. So, while we could have said it was “born to be the best,” we decided that a stickier, more colloquial way to say it was, “Born to be Baddest.” Does spell check love it? No. Would my octogenarian proofreader love it? Not so much. Do the builders and remodelers who are likely to buy MiraTEC® love it? Yes, in all its slangy glory.

There is a time and place for playing loosely with grammatical rules, particularly in the world of advertising. Executed smartly and purposefully, bad grammar in advertising can help make the difference between turning the page and lingering just a moment longer to absorb the message. As for the purists who blanch at such travesties, chances are good that the offending advertising message wasn’t intended for their consumption in the first place.

Rick Riley

Mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to blog, don’t blog anything at all.” Okay, that’s not true. In fact, mom never read a single blog, nice or otherwise. But it’s still good advice. So look to me for nice … or at least interesting, relevant or funny. Well, maybe smartass or irreverent or sarcastic, too. But that’s it. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories, you didn’t hear it from me.