It pays to mind your language

The French frown on it and the Germans are worried by it, but using foreign words in ads is a tried-and-tested way of standing out and getting your message across.

The use of imported languages in advertising is a practice with which the British are familiar and, for the most part, comfortable. Native English speakers are typically intrigued or amused by the appearance of foreign terms, especially given the “comfort factor” that derives from the dominant position the English language enjoys internationally.

For inhabitants of other countries, however, the subject can be a great deal more polemical.

English is spoken by approximately 750 million people. For the majority it is a second language, generally welcomed as an opportunity to expand personal and business horizons, but often perceived, too, as a threat, especially in the context of commercial communications.

France has historically been the country most defensive of its native tongue, culminating in the passing, in 1994, of the Loi Toubon, which places widespread restrictions on the use of foreign languages in commerce and communications.

Though less chauvinistic than the French – and certainly more used to encountering English in advertising – many Germans have nevertheless voiced concern at the extent to which the media landscape is increasingly infiltrated by the mixture of English and German they call “Germish”.

At times, the use of a foreign phrase or term is purely tactical. For example, ÃâBB, the Austrian national railway company, is currently running a campaign in which, speaking in Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev describes recent changes made to the network as amounting to “glasnost”.

At other times, the use of a foreign language goes to the core of a product’s positioning. In this context, Fiat (“Spirito di Punto”), Boursin (“Du pain, du vin, du Boursin”) and Audi (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) spring to mind as particularly good examples.

In all instances, the objective of using a foreign language has been to achieve standout in a cluttered media environment rather than to pursue linguistic imperialism.

This imposes some natural limits on the spread of English into non-English-language communications. Writing recently in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nina Janich and Albrecht Greule, professors of linguistics at Regensburg University, pointed out that, were the terms or phrases in the advertisements to be totally absorbed into everyday usage, the advertiser’s objective would have been lost.

Were “Germish” to become the norm, then the advertiser might be better served by reverting to German in order to stand out.

The idea of using a foreign language in advertising is to attract attention based on pertinent product or positioning features.

While underlining the care that must be taken in respecting local sensitivities and, indeed, regulations, artfully employed foreign language remains a powerful way of imbuing products and services with a wealth of culture-related associations and creating messages that are well understood, even if the words, at times, are not.

John Shannon is president of Grey International

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