In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell used term doublespeak referring to a proclamation that contained two or more ideas with opposite meanings. The aim of doublespeak was to make people believe in something without any real evidence to the truthfulness of the information. Nowadays, companies and advertisers all around the globe use weasel words to attract the attention of the consumers. Weasel words or phrases present qualifiers to describe products or services in a captivating manner but without any proven facts. These qualifiers help to make a product more recognizable on the market when it lacks individuality in comparison with other existing goods of the same type. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the nature of weasel words, present examples of their use in magazines and by companies in their advertising campaigns.
The Nature of Weasel Words
Nowadays, people are surrounded by various advertisements to the extent they ceased to recognize them as such. Lyons states that “newspaper hoardings, advertising posters, and brand pay-off lines conspire in an urban ‘poetry’ familiar to many”. Walking along the street, reading magazines, or checking the news on their smartphones, consumers see or hear notable phrases urging them to buy certain products or use particular services. These catchy phrases do not contain any definite characteristics of the goods they advertise.
Instead, they appeal to the ego of consumers, promising that they will become more attractive, successful, and happy using so-and-so products or services. According to Kannan and Tyagi, “there are some social issues also which advertising deals with like child labor, liquor consumption, girl child killing, smoking, and family planning education” (10). Therefore, advertisements influence virtually every aspect of human life and, to some extent, defines the preferences and relations of people.
Advertisers use various means of expression to attract potential consumers. Among them are hyperbole, neologisms, puns, euphemisms, and humor. Weasel phrases stand out because they can use any of these and other expressive means to affect people. As a real weasel sucks the content out of an egg, these phrases eliminate the definite sense of words leaving only a bright shell.
Weasel words are the most common means to advertise any products or services. Due to the indefinite nature of their claims, the same catchphrases can be used for a wide variety of goods. Such slogans as “quit conformity, be a rebel” will ideally suit the advertisement of a new car model, trousers, or a soft drink. It is not important if the product really contains alleged rebellious features or if it is just another faceless clone in the multitude of others.
Some consumers tend to believe in weasel words only because famous companies write them on big billboards. In other cases, weasel statements make use of facts and statistics, exaggerating the usefulness of the products. In order to do so, they use descriptions with very broad meanings “to avoid allegations of breaching advertising or labelling regulations, while being such a commonly used word that it is overlooked by the consumer” (Jones 45). For example, weasel claims state that certain products can help to lose weight, omitting the fact that people should also follow a healthy diet to achieve any positive results.
Weasel Words in Magazines
A weasel claim usually contains a word that changes the whole meaning of a phrase that follows it. Nevertheless, such words are too commonly used to be suspicious of a regular customer. According to Danciu, “some of the most common weasel words include helps virtually, acts, can be, up to, refreshes, comforts, fights, the feel of, the look of, fortified, enriched and strengthened” (26). These words underline the benefits of certain products, promising nothing in particular. Danciu claims that “prepositional phrases such as “the feel of“ and “the look of“ are intended to make the consumers think that the product is of high quality or is similar to another product because they imply a comparison between two things” (26).
Weasel words are a common part of newspaper and magazine headings and support the claims of reporters. Lyons compares “the vocabulary of news reporting – ‘true events’ happening ‘right here, right now’” to “the vocabulary of aspiration and desire seen in brand advertising within intimate urban spaces.” The fact that weasel words do not require evidence to their credibility and attract attention right away makes them irreplaceable in advertising goods and solutions of all sorts in magazine articles. Apart from headings, weasel claims can be used as lead paragraphs. Whenever an author feels that there are not enough solid facts to support his or hers point of view, weasel phrases can help to add credibility to the materials.
The most common place to meet a multitude of weasel words is a magazine covering particular products or services. Among all others, a group of words commonly used by advertisers and journalists openly points to the weasel nature of their claims. “Help” is the most popular weasel word. People will buy anything that will help them to get rid of their problems. Likewise, they like to read helpful materials. Headlines containing “help” immediately become popular. People are interested to know how social networks help to build a career, or how sandwiches help to save children. The lack of information and incredibility of some claims only make them more appealing to potential readers. According to Singh, a message containing weasel words “gets the potency to rise above the clutter, stand apart without being misleading or deceptive” (74).
“New and improved” claims also quickly attract the attention of the readers. The headlines about products and services often do not specify what is improved or renewed. They just state that particular changes will make the life of consumers better. A claim “Improved tires for superior performance” does not tell the reader what new technologies have been implemented and what characteristics of these tires have become better. Nevertheless, the consumer is already interested to read further because of the proposition that he or she will benefit from these improvements. In the meantime, the weasel claim might simply imply minor changes in design or color of the product. This situation has drawn attention not only from readers but also of legal organizations. According to Singh, “As part of the new strictures, the advertiser has to specifically mention what aspect of the product is new” (75).
Comparative forms of adjectives are irreplaceable weasel words for advertisers and reporters. The use of adjectives can differ in various countries around the globe. Danciu claims that “In certain countries, the word best can be used to describe the parity products because if all products are equally good, they can all be considered the best” (26). Nevertheless, comparative adjectives are very popular for making statements that involve the imagination of consumers. The majority of statements with comparative adjectives are unfinished claims.
When a reporter writes in a headline “Coaching centers make your English better”, a reader is likely to conclude that his or her language skill will improve in comparison with their current state (Singh 75). The following article might contain details that these particular coaching centers improve knowledge of average non-native speakers, but the purpose of the headline is fulfilled. Unfinished claims often rely heavily on “more”. Danciu claims that “a clear example is the expression “20% more cleaning power” which could be interpreted as either “20% more cleaning power than competing brands” or 20% more cleaning power than earlier version of the some product” (27). The use of comparative adjectives is regulated by the norms for disclaimers. Singh claims that “The latest strictures stipulate that the purpose of disclaimers is to clarify and explain the claim made by the advertiser” (76).
The articles in magazines not only answer to the existing demand on news and themes but also state particular values and needs for the readers. Weasel phrases in headlines and lead paragraphs propose that some products and services “are worth” their consumers or that they are “all that one needs”. For example, a headline “You deserve this townhouse” in a magazine on building design does not contain any information about the benefits of this particular construction. Nevertheless, it will be appealing for people interested in building their own townhouse because they know what suits them and hope that the article can be useful in the implementation of their ideas.
On the whole, weasel words and phrases are highly effective means of attracting readers. They do not only present people what they want to read but also lead them to particular conclusions and form certain values and preferences in the society. There are numerous types of weasel words, but they all make a statement without promising anything in particular. Their claim is always hollow like an egg sucked out by a real weasel. Phrases with weasel words are common to the advertisements on billboards, television, internet sites, and product packages. Newspapers and magazines have also adopted weasel words for their headlines and lead paragraphs. There are several groups of weasel words and phrases used in various magazines. “Help” is a universally adopted word for promising headlines.
People want to know everything about any products and solutions that can resolve issues in their lives. “New and improved” headlines also appeal to readers who are eager to use all goods and benefits of the progress. Comparative forms of adjectives often mislead the readers into believing that particular products and solutions will make their lives better, brighter, and happier. Some of the weasel words do not only answer the demands but also set their values for readers. They inform that people are worth some products or need particular services without giving any distinct reasons for their claims. Weasel words are highly influential and can affect any sphere of human existence. Therefore, it is crucial to control the use of weasel words in newspapers and magazines and make reporters support their claims with facts and statistics. Some regulations are already in use, but they are not able to diminish the power of weasel words.
Singh, Jagandeep. “The Gamut of Weasel Words.” The Catalyst Journal of Management, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016, pp. 73-77.
Danciu, Victor. “Manipulative Marketing: Persuasion and Manipulation of the Consumer Through Advertising.” Theoretical and Applied Economics, vol. 21, no.2 (591), 2014, pp. 19-34.
Jones, Sandra. “Fat Free and 100% Natural: Seven Food Labelling Tricks Exposed.” Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, vol. 21, no.1, 2014, 44-47.
Kannan, R., and Sarika Tyagi. “Use of language in advertisements.” English for Specific Purposes World, vol. 13, no. 37, 2013: 1-10.
Lyons, Toby. “Weasels & Chameleons: The New Normal.” Sheffield Hallam University, 2017.