Good Copy, Bad Grammar In Advertising

May 19, 2016

By the time this blog post is complete, it will have been subject to several rounds of rereading, proofreading, editing and tweaking. Commas will be added or removed. Tenses will be changed. Words will be switched in favor of ones deemed more appropriate. It’s all done for the sake of clear communication, the basis behind all marketing and advertising.

Well, with that in mind, how do so many successful brands get away with poor grammar in advertising? 

Common Contrarians

Perhaps one of the most famous grammar-defying examples is California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” which launched in 1995 and remains an enduring slogan today (despite being retired in 2014). Grammarians everywhere will be quick to point out that the line could be revised to “Do you have any milk?”— but even the strictest of sticklers would probably see how that wouldn’t quite strike the same chord.

Bending the rules allowed the campaign to not only boast an elusive two-word headline, but also usher in a truly lasting catchphrase. It’s easy to say, easy to remember, and has the call to action built right in. No doubt about it, when you hear those two little words, milk is on the mind.

But “Got Milk?” uses conversational, familiar language. Any grammar violations may be forgiven. A similar example is Apple’s “Think Different” (which, revised, should be “Think Differently.”) What about those advertisers who commit the harder grammar crimes?

Bending Rules

A common rule-breaking tactic in the industry is the practice of making adjectives into nouns. Think of Nutella’s “Spread the happy” or Sephora’s “Celebrate your extraordinary.” The resulting expressions are punchier, cuter and more personal than the grammatically correct alternatives (“Spread the happiness” and “Celebrate being extraordinary”).

Essentially, in advertising, good grammar gives way to more artful constructs. By skirting the rules, there’s more flexibility for rhythm and unexpected turns of phrase, and in the end, headlines are more memorable.

And even beyond headlines, like in body copy, traditional grammar goes out the window. Bullet points don’t always have periods. Hyphens are often absent, much to this author’s dismay. Incomplete sentences abound (like the quintessential “And so much more!”)

Whether it’s visually cleaner, or just a shorter way of phrasing the details, shattered grammar can be found across the entire span of marketing and advertising. Considering all of this, the most crucial thing to remember is that there is always a specific reason that this use of non-traditional grammar actually works. These deviations are done purposefully to bring consumers closer to the brand, and in these cases examined by vocabulary.com’s Nancy Friedman, copywriters break the rules knowingly.

Of course, that means that breaking the rules unintentionally can have the exact opposite effect. And it’s usually fairly clear when a true grammar mistake has been made. Take these ad snafus, for example, compiled by Hubspot. It’s likely that McDonald’s drove a few customers away by announcing its menu of “Anus” burgers.  

The Verdict Is In...

It’s clear that grammar — and non-grammar, for that matter — holds a lot of power. When considering how to deal with grammar in advertising, it’s important to think of communication as target-specific. That’s why Entrepreneur’s Susan Gunelius advises copywriters to consider the audience before going rogue. “Think of it this way,” she writes. “You use a different tone in communicating the same story to your boss than you use with your family, right? The same theory holds true in copywriting.”

This is the reason that a blog post like this may undergo more stringent grammar adherence than, say, a headline for Nutella. When it comes to long-form writing, readers are more invested in the communication. That means there are perhaps fewer opportunities for creative grammar…for playful language…oh what the heck — for off-road grammaring.