by Summer Worsley
It is no secret that language can wield great power and impact. From metaphors that shape and influence our ideas to idioms that reflect our allegiance to a given community, our day-to-day speech is peppered with numerous communication strategies. Oftentimes, we are not even aware of our use of these tactics, they roll off our tongues like water off a duck’s back.
One such strategy which is deeply embedded in our speech and written works is presupposition. Here, we take a look at how this linguistic function works in text and how it can be used as a powerful and persuasive tool in business copy writing and advertisements.
What is Presupposition?
Simply put, presupposition is an implicit assumption contained within a statement. Let’s look at a basic example:
“John kissed Kate, too.”
Inside this sentence we find the implication or presupposition that someone other than Kate was kissed by John.
Now let’s look at an example of marketing-driven copy from an advertisement for an air conditioning company:
“Don’t suffer again this Summer.”
This sentence contains several tacit understandings between the writer and intended reader. Namely, it presupposes that the addressee has suffered in the past during hot Summer seasons and may suffer again if they don’t take action. In the case of this particular advert, the inference is that installing an air conditioner is the best course of action available to the reader.
People have been studying presuppositions for a long time, they are of interest not only to linguists but to philosophers and logicians too. As an aspect of language, presuppositions are seemingly innocuous, yet they’ve been proven to directly influence the way we conceptualise events and actions.
If you’re interested in delving a little deeper into the mechanics of presupposition and pragmatic theory, this entry from Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent place to start.
What Can Presuppositions do For Your Copy?
At its core, the language of advertising and marketing is persuasive. All possible linguistic means are utilised by writers to serve the purpose of the advert to convert the reader into a client, customer, or consumer. Presupposition is a heavily employed tactic.
Used judiciously and subtly, presuppositions can give rise to a host of associations and concepts in the mind of the reader. Note that the above headline contains the assumption that you, the reader, need copy!
Used poorly and they can come across as hackneyed and cliched. Consider the following:
“Don’t delay, buy today!”
We’ve all been exposed to this statement for so long that the assumption that we will buy has largely lost all its potency.
Let’s compare that with this statement:
“who isn’t in search of that elusive prize for a job well done, the empty inbox?”
In this blog post the company, which sells slippers, creates an affinity with the readers by presupposing that they too are over-worked. They then suggest that slippers are an essential part of relaxation and down-time. The blog contains writing of value and of interest to the reader. And the presuppositions contained within aim to align the reader to the company’s values.
Analyse This! Presuppositions in Advertisements.
In combination with non-linguistic cues like photos or graphs in advertisements, presuppositions can act as an anchor to steady the meaning, or they can be used to direct a reader’s attention to a certain aspect of the advertisement.
One of my favourite examples of presupposition in longer-form advertising copy hails from the 40s.
Here, we can see that “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” presupposes that doctors do smoke and that when they do, Camel is their go-to brand.
The image of the self-satisfied doctor with his Camel to hand provides non-linguistic assurance which backs up the statement. Note too, the red colouring on the M in ‘more’ and the D in ‘doctor’, red is a prestige colour, one that supports the “professionalism” of the good doctor in the image.
This not-so-subtle style of presupposition would not have anywhere near as much impact in today’s world. We are continuously exposed to an avalanche of media from all possible angles and ‘ad fatigue’ is a very real concern for marketeers!
The Art of Textual Persuasion
The growth of content marketing in our current and bustling net society is testament to the fact that words are the currency of the internet.
When we see an ad or marketing copy online our eyes are immediately drawn to the wording, spelling, and even the capitalisation of the letters. Small and minor errors often give way to the assumption that the company isn’t up to par with our expectations. In a world where many seem to want to find something to nit-pick online, having perfectly-worded and grammatically-correct copy is essential.
Textual persuasion is an art. One that is achieved and polished through communication strategies like framing, rhetorical devices, and of course, presupposition. Embed these tactics within compelling, interesting, and readable copy and you have a veritable recipe for success – literally!
Now, presupposing that you’d like some more information, please get in touch with us or drop us a comment below.