Marketing and English

One area where your degree can be applied is advertising (and associated areas such as sales, political campaigning and speechwriting, publicity, public relations, and so forth). Some time ago, PBS ran a show called "The Persuaders" (watch it here). It described the work of hundreds of thousands of people who work to persuade you to buy their products. From establishing quasi-religious cults associated with brands, to recasting political language to attract your vote--the art of persuasion depends upon the kind of knowledge an English degree can offer.

Marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille, who commands hundreds of thousands of dollars for one of his invitation-only seminars, describes how people form attachments to images, words, and ideas. (You can read an interview with him here; one of his books is The Culture Code). Most of these attachments are made very early in life, and most are sentimental, not rational. He told SUV makers to bulk up their products, and they did. Sales went through the roof. Why? Not because a bulkier SUV is practical; not because it carries more or gets better mileage. Sales exploded because bulk sells—women like the Hummer, says Rapaille, because "it's a new way to scare men."

Clotaire Rapaille

This approach to persuasion is not argumentative. It does not follow from carefully made premises, through carefully wrought arguments, and to a rational conclusion. Instead, it feeds off sentiment and association. Emotion is and has always been the most powerful form of persuasion. Logos (logic) and ethos (ethics) are also persuasive, of course. But people are more often persuaded by emotion. This was one of the contributions of the Freud family to the American marketplace, especially Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, the "father of public relations." An interesting history of the role of psychoanalysis in advertising and politics is the BBC's The Century of the Self (available in pieces on YouTube, its paranoid left-wing bias is mediated by its otherwise sane observations.)

One recognizes two distinct areas of concern here. First, we have semantic fields. These are clusters of associated words and phrases. The associations derive primarily from common usage not from personal experience. For example, the word "blue" is commonly associated with the blues, blue movies, the blue sea, blue language, feeling blue, and so forth. These are all phrases in common use, and any competent speaker of the language will know them. Semantic fields are also enriched by literature—not writing, but literature (that is, those poems, plays, and prose works that have significantly influenced the language and culture). Second, we have personal associations. These are your own feelings about images, words, and phrases. For example, you may have accidentally drunk blue Windex as a child and forever associate blue with nausea. Or you saw your uncle wearing a blue hat and feel the closeness of family whenever you see blue. These are associations hard-wired uniquely into your own brain. They are usually not shared by others. Unlike these personal associations, semantic fields are shared by others and generate their own associations, which you may come to believe are personal. Almost everyone associates the word "mother" with positive feelings. It's not just you! Almost everyone associates the word "ice" with feelings of cold. You learn to dissect semantic fields in English classes; to understand personal associations, you don't need to go to school. Semantic fields give rise to emotional associations.

Fabulous and Practical

Fabulous or practical?

The most effective form of persuasion is not logic (as we may like to believe), but pathos, or feeling. Our feelings and emotions have their own persuasive power, and they are extremely powerful. Let's say that someone you don't like makes a good point in class. Would you overcome your emotional distaste of that person in order to agree, or would you disagree out of spite? (Be honest!) How many good arguments do your political enemies make, and do you acknowledge them? Emotion is a powerful motivator.

Let's say that you want to buy a car. You probably won't buy the ugly, cheap one with the best mileage and the best safety ratings—you'll buy something that appeals to you. No matter how practical the ugly car is, it just doesn't make you feel good. The auto industry depends on the strengh of your emotion. Most of us don't buy the cars with the best gas mileage or the lowest price: we buy ones that confirm our emotional fantasies of our own identity, whether that be radical individual (VW Bug), hipster (Mini Cooper), or sedate and secure (Volvo). We form attachments to ideas, and those ideas are populated with objects, colors, characters, and so forth. At their most reptilian level, those ideas are called lifestyles, a marketing model invented in the 1970's by the SRI. And lifestyles are comprised of discrete sets of commodities and attitudes. These lifestyles are also known as psychodemographic categories. And marketers, politicians, and advertisers are exploring "behavioral targeting" or "narrowcasting" of our country's fifty to sixty psychodemographic profiles. (For example, Acxiom Corporation.)

Consider the typical American college student. Look around the UMass classroom today and you will rarely see anyone without a solid-color shirt (men, baggy, and women close-fitting). Pants range from jeans to cargo's, but all are considered "casual" dress. No creases! A generation ago, such dress would have been considered too sloppy for class. But now, sloppy has become associated with the psychodemographic aspect of relaxed, or easy-going. It is a style that you put on in order to outwardly manifest, not "who you are," but who you want to be. As Brad Pitt said in Fight Club, "You are not your khakis." Psychodemographic characteristics are not always innate, but often outward stylistic manifestations of an allegiance to a fantasy. (Putting a Ramones t-shirt and ripped jeans on a self-righteous jerk does not suddenly make him cool and easy-going. Wardrobes, like speech patterns and behavior, are linked to a very limited set of cultural codes. That's why there are billions of individuals, but only a limited number of lifestyles. Look at it the other way: how can you seriously express your individuality with mass-produced goods?)

One example of how individuals class themselves into lifestyle clusters is the category of "yupster" or, as one author calls them, "grups"—the article is here in New York Magazine. Here is a picture of male grups from Manhattan:

And female grups:

Text from New York Magazine:"Rotterdam-based photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek have collaborated since 1998 on a series they call "Exactitudes," inspired by a shared interest in the dress codes of various social groups. The subjects are real people, dressed in their own clothes. The pictures here represent their first "Exactitudes" project in New York. (Photo: Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek)"

Note the overwhelming similarities, despite minor variations. (To ignore the vast similarity in order to stress the minor differences is what Sigmund Freud called "the solipsism of small differences." It's like one identical twin complaining, "We don't look anything alike: your left ear is a millimeter higher than mine.") One of the grups' fantasies is that they're doing something absolutely new. They thrive on the idea that everyone who matters lives in New York City, and that every American cares what brands are popular in Park Slope. The fact is that grups do not define their generation: millions of American forty year-olds work regular jobs and don't skateboard (they just don't write for New York magazines).

Whose shoe?

Who is being targeted?

Perhaps the most successful marketer of the laid-back teen lifestyle is Abercrombie & Fitch, who identify themselves as a "lifestyle brand." Particular attitudes and feelings are part of the A&F lifestyle cluster, attitudes and feelings slightly different from the brand lifestyle promoted by The Gap, for example. A&F are now advertising the paradoxical notion of "casual luxury." The term luxury is now (that is, 2007) at the heart of a concerted advertising push, and we can expect to see reformulations of luxury for each psychodemographic category. The question is, What is luxurious to someone who reads The New Republic, drives a Toyota Prius, shops at Whole Foods, wears fleece and Birkenstocks, and votes Democrat or Progressive? Certainly not diamonds and leather. But one can imagine such a person shelling out $35 for a pound of coffee, $50 for olive oil, $250 for spine-correcting Italian shoes, $1000 for an exhaust-reducing filter on the car, and so forth. Luxury has a very public face (so other people can see it), a psychodemographic interpretation, and personal associations.

So, what kind of language appeals to particular psychodemographic categories? This question leads us to literary analysis. The same content can be expressed in many different ways--the means of expression is called style. And it is more often style than substance that appeals. Take the following example: "Jim likes ice cream. He likes vanilla. He eats it a lot." Sounds childish, no? Simple-minded? Now, let's add some rhetorical tropes, tropes that don't change the content of a phrase, but that makes it seem intelligent. That requires us to interrupt the normal pattern (Subject-Verb-Object) of an English sentence.

Jim likes ice cream. Ice cream is something that Jim likes.
He likes vanilla. What he likes is vanilla.
He eats it a lot. It is a lot of it that he eats.

Now, we add appositive phrases in subordinate positions, find some synonyms, and recast the sentences:

Ice cream is something one of the things that Jim likes enjoys a lot immensely. He likes is especially fond of vanilla ice cream flavored with vanilla, and, if one were pressed to say, it is also something that he eats a lot great deal of.

Compare that to our original set of sentences. Any difference in content? Not really. Both sets of sentences make the same three points. But the style is different. The longer version seems more intelligent, more perceptive, more informative. In fact, it isn't. But it seems that way. Our original, simple style is called the Attic style, and the longer, more complex style is called Ciceronian style.


Same dark suit and plain, red tie. It's no coincidence. Marketers thought long and hard about this.

When did you last see a politician wear tweed? Why?

Which is heavier? Image versus reality. Check here: Ford, Volvo.

If you were asked to write a political speech, which style would you choose for the Farmworkers of America? Attic or Ciceronian? Which for the Amherst Green Party? Why? You recognize that the substance of your speech might not change for either venue (you would probably use the same facts, speak your opinions, and come to the same conclusions), but the style would change. The attractiveness of style is of central concern to John Milton in Book 2 of Paradise Lost. He asks whether one can discern truth amid the manipulations of style. When one listens to a political speech, for example, is one convinced chiefly by the logic, or by the style? Again, Milton implies it is the style. His own Areopagitica is a stylistic masterpiece, but his arguments are not very strong (e.g., don't censor books because Catholics do, and good Englishmen hate Catholics). Political parties today, especially Democrats and Republicans, depend upon the power of branding to sell their platforms. Democrat is a lifestyle category more than a political designation. Same for Republican. Public political discourse is rife with emotional appeals, often to the exclusion of logos. In fact, some academics claim they can predict 70% of elections by people's reactions to the physical features of a candidate. (Don't wear a beard!) Ask any Democrat about his or her party's stand on free trade with South America, and he or she likely won't know. But ask them whether a Democrat would wear L.L. Bean or Brooks Brothers, and they'll have an answer! There's the power of branding and reptilian, sentimental associations! One indication of successful, sentimental political branding is that a die-hard Democrat doesn't just disagree with Republicans (disagreement is a function of rational debate), he or she detests Republicans (which is an emotion). The same is true of die-hard Republicans. Some people rationalize their emotional response afterwards in sophisticated language, but theirs is nevertheless primarily an emotional, not an intellectual, response. Thus, a study of the rhetoric and style of political, social, and literary discourse is as much about the culture-wide emotional associations of words as it is about discovering arguments.

English is in part the study of how human emotion and intellect combine and how language affects that combination. So, the study of literature offers you a systematic approach to influence people with language. It gives you a method by which to understand the clusters of ideas and images that constitute our shared semantic fields and popular associations. And it takes you on a historical tour of the texts and contexts that have had the greatest influence on Western civilization. If you are intent on the practical use of literary study, such a tour offers case studies in the gentle manipulation of sentiment and public opinion, in marketing, and in the masterpieces that comprehended the contradictions of such diverse sentiments and opinions.

Code Breakers

What happens when something is "out of code"? In other words, how do we react to people, poems, objects, or ideas that fit into one psychodemographic (or lifestyle) category, but stick out in particular aspects?

One example is a banker who wears a pin-striped suit and tennis shoes. That combination invites us to imagine him as slightly radical (since tennis shoes evoke casual and pin-striped suits are not). But what of his opposite: a radical who insists on wearing a tie? Or a hippie who drives a clean, dark-blue, late-model Buick LeSabre? Why wouldn't we also consider them radical?

Americans share a familiarity with these codes, and our likely reactions to codebreakers are as illogical and emotional as they are deep-seated.

Literary analysis works in similar ways. Levels of discourse have their own codes, as well. Formal discourse requires Latinate vocabulary, complex sentences, and rhetorical flourishes. You know that instinctively, not consciously, as a speaker of English. When E. E. Cummings (he really did capitalize his name) writes, "Ponder, darling, these busted statues," he breaks code by introducing a word ("busted") that doesn't fit the formal discourse introduced by both the syntactic and lexical sophistication of "Ponder, darling...." He breaks code.

Often, breaking code is considered artistic, and bad artists are those who do little more than merely break code. The easiest way to break code is to offend people, usually regular, hard-working, faithful, family-oriented people. Rip up a picture of the Pope, or sing a sexually explicit song. In poetry, it means graphic langage or topics, anti-establishment screeds, and so forth. Easy code-breaking is Instant Radical--or radical chic, as Tom Woolf called it.

But more fundamentally, poetry works by employing our emotional associations to words and images, rather than acting on a chain of reasoning. (There are a few obvious exceptions, but they don't invalidate the point.) The better the poet, the more subtle and complex and consistent is the manipulation of feeling and thought. Here is Seamus Heaney:

And here is love
Like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin

How can love be like a scoop? That claim is completely illogical, a categorical error: love is an emotion, or a state of mind, or something far more abstract than a scoop, however far it may be sunk into a bin of meal.

If we consider the semantic fields that surround Heaney's terms and images, we can begin to constuct a chain of emotional associations which suggest a series of rational claims. A scoop is a modest, but necessary tool in a modest home (like a red wheelbarrow, filled with rain water). "Gleam" implies a polished shine, and can be used abstractly to refer to an accomplishment or bright point in someone's life--a shining moment. This scoop is "past its gleam," which suggests someone or something past its prime. The verb "sunk" is both transitive and intransitive, implying both an incautious hand plunging the scoop into the meal, and a scoop that has been unceremoniously so plunged! But the modesty of tin, and thus of a tin scoop, keeps the image from stumbling into an embarassing, mawkish austerity. And the modesty also combines consistently with associations gleaned from other words and images to imply a claim that while love is sometimes modest, quiet, and underappreciated, it is as necessary as food. The sack of meal further suggests settings such as kitchen, which has its own associations, or barn, with similar homely associations (you wouldn't find a sack of meal in a conservatory, for example). Heaney also evokes modest and homely associations with his syntax and meter. In the end, we put this poem together by coordinating its associations, and contemplating the implications of its images. Heaney has scored the poem: we are the ones who give it sound.

Part of the intellectual toolkit of an English major is explaining rationally, clearly, and logically people's typical emotional reactions to words and images.

As a commodity, poetry participates in the psychodemographic categories of the Western marketplace. People are often surprised to hear that Wallace Stevens, one of the great American poets, worked as an executive in an insurance company in Hartford, CT. Poets aren't supposed to do those sorts of things. Writers are supposed to be like Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys: dishevelled, drunk, angst-ridden, living in a modest and messy home, dressing like a line worker in a Detroit factory. If they dress well, they are considered eccentric (like Tom Woolf, for example), or they are making a statement about their art. (See poetry movements and poets at This marriage of poetry and lifestyle is arguably a result of Romanticism, which proposed that poets are somehow capable of seeing or knowing or sensing more than ordinary mortals. During the Romantic ersa, poets began to consider themselves outsiders, observers, disconnected. And their manners and morals were shaped to buttress that view. It wasn't always so. In Shakespeare's day, one common idea was that a poet could be made through proper study, practice, and training. Poetry was a craft. The idea survives in Acmeism, a chiefly Russian literary movement. With the influence of Romanticism, prospective poets thought they had to get drunk to write like Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan, or to take drugs to write like Coleridge or William S Burroughs. It is often as much about the lifestlye as it is about the words.

Studying the relation of codes to poetry allows us to gauge the limits of codes, to see beyond them to what is permanent in life. Surface is not depth. But only by taking a long view, and seeing the contours of artifice, can we ground ourselves in what is beyond style, beyond fashion, and beyond the trivial manipulations of emotion to what is fundamental, rational, essential, and permanent. That is the challenge of literature, and its most compelling potential.