Euphemisms in marketing and advertising
The term euphemism is derived from the Greek word euphēmismos which means to use auspicious words. Euphemisms are neutral, innocuous or appealing words and expressions that we employ to avoid mentioning something unpleasant or offensive.
Unfortunately, in the world of marketing and advertising, euphemisms have become something else altogether. They are employed prolifically to lend a certain gloss to marketing messages, transforming them into anything from exaggerated claims to downright lies.
The use of euphemisms has become the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand. Many messages now lack clarity to the extent that they are at best nonsense and at worse dishonest. Euphemisms are often so subtle that they can slip past your little grey cells unnoticed. Once adopted, they can quickly become the norm and we all cease to question them.
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When fake becomes faux
Nobody advertises vinyl sofas anymore because furniture is now upholstered in luxurious faux leather. It isn’t, of course. It is upholstered in coloured, flexible polyvinyl chloride, AKA vinyl. The euphemism is understandable as few people would be enthused by a synthetic polymer sofa. The term faux leather utilises French and also references a luxurious material. It undermines our sense of quality and value. But it is essentially deceptive because vinyl has nothing whatsoever to do with leather and it is usually produced in China, not France.
It’s a clever trick, isn’t it? What we might have perceived to be a cheap and somewhat undesirable product is transformed into the epitome of elegance by just two words. Any reference to plastic has been neatly avoided and faux sounds so much better than fake.
This type of euphemism not only persuades us to purchase products that we might otherwise shun but can enable retailers to sell them at higher prices than they merit. In other words, euphemisms are devices for imbuing problematic issues with attractive veneers. And talking of veneers………
A thin veneer of truth
You may see furniture described using a liberal dose of hyperbole. While some of the descriptive terms chosen are justifiable, many words are employed euphemistically. Certain vocabulary is utilised to gloss over an inconvenient truth. The word veneer is the perfect example. Here are alternative descriptions for the same piece of furniture:
- “This stylish and substantial sideboard boasts stunning mahogany veneers. The rich hue of the wood complements the heritage design and would suit a variety of décor”
- “To reduce manufacturing costs, this substantial sideboard has been built from MDF. Thin pieces of mahogany have been applied to the carcass to give the appearance of solid wood. The look is incredibly convincing and would complement most décor.”
Which description would inspire you to buy a sideboard?
The word veneer isn’t inherently a euphemism, it is a noun with a prescribed meaning. But it is frequently used to turn a potential negative into a positive for marketing purposes. Facts can be expressed in such clever ways that they are simultaneously truthful and deceptive. Deep down, we know what the terms really mean but we are seduced by them anyway.
Estate agent speak
If you have ever purchased a property, you will know that estate agents have abandoned conventional language altogether and only use euphemisms to describe properties. They have become world champions at presenting significant problems as potential virtues.
Estate agents can get away with ludicrous listings because the property is so costly that most buyers simply can’t afford the home that they really want. In other words, they know that they will have to compromise and are primed for disappointment.
Here’s a few examples of euphemisms used by English estate agents and what they really mean:
- Deceptively spacious – you will be surprised that you can fit a sofa into the minuscule living room
- Compact and bijou – ridiculously tiny
- Vibrant area – overpopulated and noisy area with a high crime rate
- Excellent transport links – property is located next to a dual carriageway or a railway line
- Studio flat – single room with a microwave and sink plus a bathroom squeezed into a cupboard
- Flexible accommodation – weird layout
- Viewing advised – terrible property that will never sell unless the agent gets the chance to sweet talk a potential buyer.
- Amazing opportunity – a hideous dump that requires complete refurbishment
- Up and coming area – don’t go out at night unless you are armed
- Architect designed – hideous building that is out of keeping with the neighbourhood
- Stylishly retro – hasn’t been decorated since 1970
Lost in Machine translation
Marketing euphemisms are essentially deliberate attempts to change the reader’s perception of whatever is being described. These carefully chosen words and phrases often boast a tenuous connection to the truth and may be nothing less than deceptive. This is problematic for consumers and the stuff of nightmares for translation software.
No machine translation can cope adequately with euphemisms. The phrases are far too nuanced. The use of euphemisms in marketing is the art of saying one thing when you really mean something else entirely. Translation software tackles the actual meaning of words, not the implied or accepted meanings.
The resulting translations may be accurate when accuracy is the last thing that is required. That wonderfully appealing gloss that only euphemisms deliver will be lost in translation.
The translation of euphemisms demands not only a human touch but an in-depth understanding of the conventions of both the source and target languages.
Euphemisms are linguistic balancing acts that must wobble around somewhere between reality and the ideal. In marketing material, no euphemism should be a lie but it absolutely can’t be the truth either!
Only humans have the ability to walk that linguistic tightrope without falling off.