We all know that language can affect our behavior. For example, chances are you would react much differently to hearing "Aww, wook at da fuzzy widdle bumblebee!" than you would to "OH MY GOD THERE'S A BEE ON YOUR FACE! RIGHT ON IT!" But language can manipulate you in ways much more subtle than that, and trust us, marketers know it very well. That's why ...
Here's a little question for you to ponder: When's the last time you heard someone's boner deficiency syndrome referred to as "impotence"? Unless you recently awakened from a long-term coma or are a time traveler from the '80s (and in either case, welcome! Love the frosted jeans!), chances are it's been a good long while. That's because today it's known as "erectile dysfunction." Huh. Ever wondered why that is?
Because doctors get paid by the syllable?
So What's Going on Here?
The pharmaceutical industry is fond of taking conditions that were once considered a normal (if annoying) part of life and encouraging the use of their clinical names. Why? Probably because the use of "medicalese" results in people perceiving a condition as more serious and rare, which in turn leads to a shitload more frightened potential drug buyers. That's right: All you have to do is start calling male pattern baldness "androgenic alopecia," and all of a sudden people will be clamoring to run marathons for it.
But this psychological effect also works the other way around: Some diseases currently don't sound serious enough to our easily manipulated brains. For example, there's an initiative being pushed by the Rheumatoid Patient Foundation to rename rheumatoid arthritis, because they claim that calling a systemic autoimmune condition "arthritis" hampers research funding and insurance coverage. So, your medical condition getting insurance coverage might be seriously affected by the stupid name someone gave it in the past. Here's an idea: Let's just start calling all diseases "-rot" (joint rot, brain rot, dick rot, etc.). That way, they all sound equally serious and insurance companies will have no language-influenced reason to deny coverage for treatment.
"Facial pus explosion" opens a lot more doors than "acne."
And speaking of treatment, have you ever noticed how pharmaceutical companies regularly throw ridiculous wads of cash at a consultant to come up with names for their pills, yet new drug names all end up sounding the same? It's as if said highfalutin consultant laced his dog's food with Scrabble tiles (with an extra dash of Xs and Zs) and jotted down whatever Rover shat out. Prozac, Lexapro, Paxil, Zoloft, Luvox ...
That's because, for a bunch of wacky historical reasons, the letters X and Z have become associated with technology and innovation -- stick one or both of them in a drug name, and you have something that just screams "SCIENCE!" On the other hand, the magic of sounds can also make your drug appear gentle and non-threatening. For example, Prozac -- all efficient-sounding and full of plosives (consonant sounds like k and p that produce a short burst of sound, like little mouth-explosions) -- was also marketed as the premenstrual aid Sarafem, which manages to bring to mind a common female name, "femme," and angels, all at once. This is why that consultant we mentioned can afford the expensive brand of dog food, people.
Have you ever wondered why marketers advertise breakfast cereal as "crunchy," even though crunchiness is pretty much inherent to the concept of breakfast cereal? Seriously, if the new cereal you just came up with is, like, chewy or something, it may be time to re-examine your career choice as a breakfast cereal development specialist.
That's why we have our Lucky Charms with a side of gummy bears.
Well, it turns out that's actually a form of marketing known as meaningless differentiation. The words don't convey any information, but their presence flips a switch deep in your brain.
So What's Going on Here?
According to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, meaningless differentiation occurs when somebody tries to sell you something based on a "special feature" that is really just some random word they pulled out of their ass. For example, the researchers discuss a company that sold "flaked" instant coffee. It turns out that the shape of an instant coffee grain has absolutely zero effect on the drink itself -- instant coffee dissolves, so its shape is purely aesthetic. It could be shaped like a giant turd and it'd still taste like instant coffee (which, incidentally, tastes like a giant turd). That extra, totally random adjective makes you want it. Here, we'll let Don Draper explain why Lucky Strikes tout "toasted" tobacco:
In one study, researchers tested participants with two different kinds of jackets, one that had normal jacket filling, and one that had "alpine class fill" (which, you'll notice, means precisely nothing). They found that when people were confronted with two identical products, they were far more inclined to choose the one with an added (meaningless) attribute. And here's the kicker: Even after being told that the feature was meaningless and that they had been force-fed a heaping load of horseshit, people still found it impossible to lose their stronger attraction to the meaninglessly differentiated product.
Suddenly, infomercials make a whole lot more sense.
Pop quiz time, monolinguists! Of the two Mandarin words "qing" and "zhong," one means "light" and the other means "heavy." Which do you think is which?
If you guessed that "qing" means "light," you're not alone. English speakers are far more likely to guess this, and guess what? We're correct! We're all some kind of secret linguistic savants! Or really lucky guessers, maybe!
What do you think it is, History Channel?
So What's Going on Here?
For some reason, "front" vowels made with the tongue forward in the mouth (i and e) bring to mind "small, fast, or sharp" things, while vowels made with the tongue further back in the mouth (o, a, and u) make us think of "larger, heavier" things. And this applies not only across languages, but also to made-up words: In a study where researchers pulled some brand names straight out of their asses, participants assigned names containing front vowels to objects like small cars and knives, while they preferred back vowels for objects like Thor hammers and SUVs. In other words, guys, be sure to consult at least one linguistics expert before naming your penis.
In retrospect, "Needley Pete" could stand a redo.
This effect is so strong that it overpowers things you'd think we would have pretty much grasped by adulthood, like, you know, counting to 10. "Six" has the double whammy of a sissy non-plosive sound at the beginning and a puny-sounding front vowel, while "two" has a badass face-punch plosive followed by a powerful back vowel. So subjects who were told to mentally repeat the prices $7.66 and $7.22 for a scoop of ice cream (Starbucks serves ice cream now?) ended up rating $7.66 as the better value, simply because the larger numbers at the end sound so teeny-tiny.
"Thank goodness they cut this down from fifty-five thirty-three."
This "vowel size" effect applies not only to size, but also to gender. Researchers have found that larger vowels are associated more with masculinity, whereas smaller ones are associated more with femininity. For example, the "a" in "Brad" is a deep, masculine sound, whereas the "e" and "i" in "Angelina" are more feminine. The research found that boys were one and a half times more likely to have a large vowel sound in their name than girls, and also that, paradoxically, boys named "Sue" were 100 percent more likely to grow up to be badasses. And if you want to target a product toward dudes, you want those back-vowel sounds -- Axe, Maxim, Xbox, Dodge Ram, etc.
But when it comes to how a person's name can manipulate the brains of others, there is something else to consider ...