Volume 14, No. 3 
July 2010


Aiwei Shi


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Advertisement as a Writing Style

and Strategies for its Translation

by Shi Aiwei (石爱伟)
Xinzhou Teachers University, Shanxi, China


A writing style refers to the linguistic characteristics of a particular text. Advertisement, as a wring style, is characterized mainly by these aspects: concision, clarity, frequent use of comparative and superlative constructions, neologism, repetition, non-sophistication, promise function and application of rhetorical devices (traditionally, figures of speech). Since the main purpose of advertisement is to send out a message to the public or consumers to promote the sale of a product or service, to influence public opinion, to gain political support, to advance a particular cause, or to elicit some other response desired by the advertiser, it is imperative that they be clearly and flexibly rendered if it is intended for foreigners. In this essay some translation strategies are proposed so as to preserve or reproduce concision, clarity, non-sophistication which shall keep the forcefulness and attractiveness of the original. Purposeful use of comparative and superlative constructions, neologism, and repetition shall maintain and even strengthen the appealing effect of the original advertisement. It is also pointed out that acculturation should be noted when cultures conflict and that a skillful borrowing of English advertisement ideas or syntax for elimination of negative transfer in Chinese-to-English translation is advisable.

Key Words: style; advertisement; translation strategies

  1. Why study this topic?
  2. he modern world is becoming smaller as a global village and countries that used to be mutually seen as bizarre entities are becoming a close neighborhood community. The major reason for that is believed in general to be trade, to be more specific, foreign trade. In nearly three decades of time, China has emerged as a powerful economy, which could not have been possible without the open-door policy and economic reform. One of the reform measures is to boost foreign trade, or to 'walk out of the state-door' (with which a variety of media entitles their news or policy reports). In other words, Chinese companies and enterprises are encouraged to sell their products abroad so that development cannot be solely dependent on the domestic market. It may be said without any exaggeration that China's economic success has been established in a greater part on international trade. The latest media(e.g. China Dai)reports mention that China will soon become the largest trade partner of Japan, taking the place of the USA. Actually China, through many years of effort, has set up numerous economic relations with countries and regions on all continents and many islands near and far.

    Just as a poetic writing style is unique, so the style of advertisement writing has its own particular character..
    To do business and to sell well, you naturally needs to introduce your product to the foreign consumers and to do this you inevitably have to have recourse to advertisement. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that we now live in a world of advertisement and an era of advertisement. So translation of a product's information correspondingly becomes crucial in the foreign trade process. Another area of advertisement translation is tourism which now accounts for a big share of Chinese economy as more and more foreigners come and visit China. Yet translation of advertisements in these two areas and ones in other similar areas is not quite satisfactory. For instance, a simple public sign 'No Smoking' in tourist spots are translated 'Mind the Fires' or 'Keep from the Fire' or 'No Burning' or even 'Fireproof Area'. These translations may not warn the foreign tourists; instead they may mislead them or confuse them. On one poster there is this translation 'This is beauty built by heart. This is wonder from casualty'. Such an advertisement, translated into Chinglish (Chinese English), apparently, will not give foreigners a good impression nor send them a clear message, let alone 'getting their hands on their wallets.' 'You wish our command' very likely resulted from erroneous copying of the English idiom 'Your wish is our command' which connotes a manufacturer's voluntary improvement of quality or service. Often, advertisement of this kind (of course there are other reasons such as quality control, safety problems, credits, etc.) may result in a huge loss of profits or more seriously bankruptcy of an enterprise if it has invested heavily so as to launch its products in a foreign market. My students once handed in their homework of the translation of a Chinese advertisement selling apparel. It reads: 'We boast of the best material in the world and we guarantee the finest quality under heaven and our prices are most competitive among all the countries'. Such a translation is grammatically correct but inappropriate in this circumstance in that it does not conform to the typical American or British advertising style. It is redundant and verbose. It ought to be a big improvement if it is reworded as: 'Choice material & superior quality--a best buy.' Examples of poor or inadequate style fail to comply with the style of advertisement expected by the potential audience. Of course there are good examples. 'Restricted Height 3.3m'; 'Help Us Keep the Store Safe by Keeping Your Bags with You at All Times'; 'It cleans your breath while it cleans your teeth'. (Guo, 1992) If observed and studied closely it becomes clear that time-tested advertisements have a unique writing style, deviation from which makes the advertisement unsatisfactory and ineffective.

    Then what is style and what is advertisement? In the following two sections we shall elaborate on both topics.

  3. Style

    In its most general interpretation, the word style has a rather uncontroversial meaning. It refers to the way in which language is used in a given context, by a given person, for a given purpose. One source of disagreement has been the question "To what or whom do we attribute style?". In the broadest sense, style can be applied to both spoken and written, both literary and non-literary varieties of language; but by tradition, it is particularly associated with written literary texts. If a definition to style be given, it may suffice to say of it briefly as 'the linguistic characteristics of a particular text' (Leech & Short, 1981: 15). Text, therefore, is the most natural starting place for the study of style. When style is mentioned later in this paper, it is meant written text as opposed to oral and a somewhat literary text as opposed to ordinary language. The style of advertisement writing with literary features will be borne out in the present paper in the following sections where its aesthetic values shall be brought forth with examples. It is common knowledge that we live in a linguistic world where aesthetics are highly appreciated. Linguistic aesthetics in the present paper refer to rhetorical devices (or trope) that will be discussed in the section of Features of Advertisement Style.

    Upon further reflection on style, it should be noted that style can mean frequency of occurrence of certain linguistic elements which are meaningful. Frequent occurrence of abstract nouns and passive verbal forms in a text, for example, indicate formality and professionalism (Hatim & Mason, 1997), whereas frequent occurrence of alliteration, metaphor, rhythmical patterns, and rhyming suggest a poetic flavors (Lǔ, 2002). Nevertheless, counting the frequency of occurrence of any given linguistic element brings in the concept of quantification, which actually cannot be understood on a precise or absolute basis. Quantification provides support for argument but it cannot be used to mean everything by itself. That is, conclusions cannot be easily drawn only by counting certain linguistic elements. Numbers are nothing but numbers. In-depth research also finds that there is no absolute consistency within a given domain. In addition, style is a multi-level concept in that stylistic features may vary at different levels (for more see Leech & Short, 2001: 70,119).

    Before moving on to the style of advertisement, we shall first discuss advertisement at some length.

  5. Advertisement

    3.1 Definition: Advertising is a form of communication intended to promote the sale of a product or service, to influence public opinion, to gain political support, to advance a particular cause, or to elicit some other response desired by the advertiser (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1980: 103).

    Advertisement is distinguished from other forms of communication in that the advertiser pays the medium to deliver the message. For this payment the advertiser receives the opportunity to control the message. In the modern world advertisers are spending big money to promote their products. Different kinds of businesses use advertising to motivate different kinds of markets toward different kinds of responses. But all business firms, whether they be retailers, manufacturers, or service institutions such as banks, insurance companies, and airlines, advertise to build a respected, well known, and highly regarded corporate name. Advertising is also used to awaken, enlighten, and activate the public at large concerning matters that affect society generally. But that's not our major concern in the present paper. What concerns us mainly is advertisement in the commercial domain, where through advertisement firms wish to maximize their share of the market and gain maximum profit. And sometimes it seeks to serve one purpose only-to enhance the firm's image.

  6. 3.2 Media: Advertisement is delivered to its intended audience through the various media, including newspapers, magazines, television, radio, billboards, and direct mail. More recently, two more media have been added: e-mails and websites. Advertising media can be classified as follows: "newspapers, magazines (consumer magazines, business publications, farm publications, professional journals), television, radio, direct mail, outdoor media (signs, posters, painted bulletins, electric displays), transit media (car cards, outside displays, station posters), and miscellaneous (dealer displays, theatre-screen advertising, specialties, directories)" (ibid: 104). There is no single best medium for all advertising situations. Each has its own character, and each advertising situation presents a unique set of circumstances. Yet few could dispense with words. And words must be translated into target languages of the geographic area where the products are to be sold. In the present paper, we shall concentrate on advertisement in words or in text, although advertising might also be done with pictures, signs or simply colors.

    Researching the consumers gives the advertiser a better understanding of the people whom he wishes to influence. Motivations that underlie their buying behavior, their attitudes toward particular product categories and brands, their perceptions of competitive brands, their satisfactions and dissatisfactions with the products they use, their reactions to new product concepts: these are some of the kinds of information that help the advertiser to identify his best prospects and to select the strongest appeal, thereby increasing the effectiveness of his advertising.

    An effective strategy is therefore to use a different appeal for different market segments. Motivation research utilizes depth interviewing projective techniques such as word associations, sentence completions, and various other tests drawn from clinical psychiatry. Psychological factors largely determine the responses of the person to whom the advertisement is addressed. Consciously perceived information is capable of inducing moods and feelings that are in harmony with the intention of the advertisement or at a variance with it. The "static use of the designer's resources in a composition, for instance, may express rest, solidity, conservatism, security, and trust, whereas a dynamic use may evoke love of experiment, flexibility, a forward-looking attitude, aggressiveness, and youthfulness" (ibid: 108). It may be safely said that these are the characteristics of all forms of advertisement in the general sense. There should be special features as regards to advertisement in language, or more specifically, in a text.

  7. Features of the advertisement style

    It is universally believed that an advertisement should catch a person's attention and quickly create a memorable impression. It is absolutely true. In what follows, we shall discuss the possible ways to do it.

    4.1 Concision. The first principle may be put on the top of the list is the KISS principle--Keep it Short and Sweet (Guo, 1992). 'Short' can be replaced with words like 'concise' or 'brief' or 'terse' or 'succinct' or 'pithy,' while the word 'sweet' is somewhat ambiguous. Put in another way, it means "hit the nail on the head" with as fewer words as possible. Examples are many, all following this principle: Choose once and choose for good (durables); Give Timex to all, and to all a good time (wrist watch); Nokia--Connecting People (mobile phone); Fresh up with Seven-up (soft drink); Let's make things brighter (lighting appliances); Ask for More (More as a brand name of cigarette designed for female consumers).

    4.2 Clarity. Clarity means 'clear expressions' and 'avoiding ambiguity,' for which purposes it uses concrete words more than abstract ones, thus achieving a kind of directness and straightforwardness. 'No Smoking Except in Designated Areas'; 'Keep Clear of the Edges'; 'Recycle Your Rubbish; It's a Resource'; 'We have but only one Earth'. These are more commonly seen in public signs, which, if clearly stated and manifestly displayed, benefit all people though they have nothing to do with selling a product. Often these are called 'advertisement for public benefit' and are usually the government's responsibility. So if the government wishes to improve and promote public consciousness in collective welfare it better for keep its advertisement style clear and straightforward. 'When it comes to your safety, we don't overlook the smallest details' is the advertisement slogan of the automobile maker Toyota, lucidly manifesting their priority in making their cars, thus sending an unmistakable message to potential consumers. Another creative example of clarity reads: 'Death from car accidents: 370, Death from smoking-related causes: 6,027, Quit now before it kills you.' Here the numbers tell the whole story.

    4.3 Comparative and Superlative Constructions. It goes without saying that only by comparing and contrasting can consumers make the decision which product is of better quality and more satisfactory. They naturally would choose the best. Sometimes advertisers make tactful use of certain expressions to produce the desired effect. 'We are not the best; we are better' is a witty slogan to imply that the company is not satisfied and complacent with the 'now' but aims at the 'future,' i.e., persistent improvement and progress.

    4.4 Neologism. It refers to a new word, term, or expression newly created or an old word with new meanings (in the latter case, for instance, 'mouse' before the computer age referred only to a little furry rodent). It is a not an uncommon phenomenon to find neologisms from time to time as language is developing with the development of the society. Its attractiveness lies in its novelty and multiplicity of meanings. 'Americanly,' for instance, may mean democracy in a political context, assimilation in a cultural context, and preponderance in a technical context. So it is advisable for advertisers to utilize such a device if they wish to attract the eyeballs of their customers.

    4.5 Repetition. It is usually used for reinforced meaning and effect, which can still be further divided into two cases: repetition of the same words and words of the same semantic field. 'Faster, higher, stronger' is a handy example in question. As the Olympiad slogan it advocates sportsmanship and competitive skills that all people aspire to in sports. The same technique in a commercial advertisement writing should be similarly helpful and useful.

    4.6 Non-sophistication. By non-sophistication it is meant that advertisement style more often than not avoids technical terms, so it can also be termed as non-technicality. The reason for this is simple because advertisement for the major part is intended for 'men in the street' rather than professionals. Technical terms are seldom used in advertisements, even if the product is sophisticated. 'The genius is in the details' and 'no color print film in the world gives you the detail as we do' are two slogans of Kodak films, using no difficult vocabulary, just plain words. Another example is 'I love what you do for me' (Toyota), though it could also describe the technical improvements on the former model. Yet it chooses to remain simple. Non-sophistication can also mean short and concise, but I put it into another category for the sake of clarity. When words such as short or concise are used, what they first bring to mind is the idea that there are fewer words in a sentence. Non-sophistication is also manifested in simple syntax, which refers to simple sentence structures. It is rather uncommon to find complex sentences in advertising, namely, coordinated, subordinated sentences and parataxis (juxtaposition), which are usually used for argument and logical presentation. Advertisement aims to persuade, not to argue. And persuasion seems to be done in this style in the simplest way possible. The examples presented above share one important feature--simple syntax.

    4.7 Promise function. The 'promises' feature belongs to a different category. It stresses a functional point of view as contrasted with the previously mentioned lexical or grammatical points of view. Commercial advertisements make promises, among other things, related to either their services or the quality of their products, as opposed to public advertisements, which seem to be marked with a purpose of promotion of public consciousness. 'We have but one earth' is a public advertisement calling attention to protect mother earth; 'Water is getting scarcer, and water is our life' is another case in point. Unlike this line of persuasion, commercial advertisements make promises. Again this category can be overlapping with the previous ones in that while making a promise it can simultaneously be short and clear. For example, 'enjoy it or return it' is a promise of quality of the product.

    4.8 Rhetorical devices. Advertisement style is full of rhetorical devices (or traditionally figures of speech), which as I mentioned earlier is why it can be classified as literary or aesthetic. Rhetorical devices never fail to create aesthetic pleasure in us while simultaneously they catch our attention and force themselves into our memory. Figures of speech, to provide an all-inclusive list, are as follows: simile, metaphor, analogy, personification, hyperbole, understatement, euphemism, metonymy, synecdoche, antonomasia, pun, syllepsis, zeugma, irony, innuendo, sarcasm, paradox, oxymoron, antithesis, epigram, climax, anti-climax, apostrophe, transferred epithet, alliteration, and onomatopoeia (Bai & Shi, 2002). Of course no advertisement uses all devices listed here. 'Gillette Sensor--the ONLY razor that senses and adjusts to the individual needs of your face'; this is a hyperbole in that it stresses ONLY. It, of course, is by no means the only razor that does so but it does not do too much harm to brag a little bit to attract attention. 'Drive with care if you care about life,' 'Don't drive your life away when you are driving,' and 'Limit your speed, or limit your life' (Liao, 2001); these are convincing examples of how puns are cleverly employed. They seem to be more interesting than the direct warning: 'Drive carefully--the life you save may be your own,' although the latter one is no less clear, short and forceful.

    To sum up this section, it is by no means intended that all the features are to be exhaustively explored in a single paper like the present one. Different perspectives of study may bring about new features or a set of new characteristics of the advertisement style. I might just as well make an attempt to categorize them, although in a preliminary way: the above points (1) and (2) can be labeled as belonging to the category of text features; (4) and (5) can be put under the general category of lexical features; (3) and (6) under the category of grammatical features; (7) in the category of functional feature; and (8) traditionally in the category of rhetoric feature. However, the above-mentioned categories have no clear-cut demarcation lines between them and they often overlap. These categories are classified usng common sense. Fortunately they are convenient and sufficient for our present purpose.

  9. Strategies

    Talking about strategies, the traditional pair of terms naturally occurs to mind: literal translation and free translation. But the days are gone when translation strategies were classified in such simple terms. The functional approach has lately been much emphasized, with a view that translation is not merely a game of word exchange, but serves a variety of purposes for which further research must be carried out. Since advertisement is widely known to persuade, the translator seems to have the license to be free and creative as long as it serves a given purpose adequately. Newmark (1982: 178) states that the translator is 'at his most creative when he is handling the persuasive function.' Following this line, we have started to study the style of advertisement so our translation of advertisement into English can serve our purpose well, for instance, to sell products well in a foreign market. In accordance with the analysis of the previous section, we propose the following strategies.

    5.1 Concision is to be stressed. Examples are: 'On time, every time' (express mail service); 'We race, you win' (for an automobile); 'Every time a good time' (restaurant); 'It's all within your reach' and 'Quality service for your quality life' (service) (Li, 2004).

    5.2 Clarity is to be guaranteed. 'Handicapped only' and 'Keep clear of the edges' are for public signs. 'Trust us for life' and 'Your future is our future' are intended to bring customers for the insurance business and with these words it can be assumed that they have successfully sent out clear messages (ibid). 'Come. Feel the warmth of Hainan' is a simple and clear message sent out to invite tourists from the north to enjoy a summer weekend or holiday as China is so huge a country and Hainan is a desirable place for northerners to visit away from their cold home environment of severe winter.

    5.3 Comparative and superlative constructions are to be used to achieve certain effects. For instance, we translated the slogan of a washing powder in Chinese into 'Less effort, less money'. Another example is the translation of the slogan of a diamond store 'My gift is of genuine quality and my heart is of permanence'. Following the strategy, we changed it into 'My gift is true, my heart truer', which creates a better effect and at the same time maintains the above two strategies as well, i.e. concision and clarity.

    5.4 Neologism is a useful way to generate novelty. I once translated the slogan of a delivery firm simply as "We are at e-speed', with some creativeness and based on the context that e-mail, e-commerce, etc. were coined and used in the like manner. It should be better than the ordinary expressions 'fast speed' or 'rapid speed'. Similarly I replaced 'It helps to get rid of your odor, so people won't move away from you' with 'It's good at de-odoring, so people will stay around' for a deodorant product.

    5.5 Repetition of the same words or words of the same semantic field is to be used to convey forcefulness. One example is 'Saving money, saving your effort' which is my translation for a cleaning product.

    5.6 Non-sophistication is to be paid attention to. Products are after all aimed at the mass, not the technicians in most cases. I proposed to the owner of a cosmetic store that the slogan ought to be rendered in non-sophisticated words but as simple and clear as 'We make your face shine' rather than the former verbose introduction of the abstruse technical formula of the product.

    5.7 The promise function of the original advertisement is to be conveyed. 'We connect everything smoothly for you or we connect you with the world' is my translation of the slogan of a Chinese communications service corporation entitled 'Unicom,' and I reminded myself while translating it that the promise should be best delivered. The former literal translation 'let everything be freely connected' does not seem to make a strong enough promise.

    5.8 Rhetorical devices are to be plentifully applied. 'A life as long as Heaven and Earth' (diamond ring) and 'The light is so strong that it burns' (car headlights) are two examples using hyperbole; 'Life is a journey. Travel it well' (airline) is a metaphor; 'When you come, you are a guest of ours; when you leave, we are friends of yours' (hotel) is a good example of parallelism; 'We take no pride in prejudice' (service) and 'Better looking than ever' (my translation of a kind of cosmetics) are two interesting instances of witty parody; 'Unrivaled quality, unbeatable prices, and unreserved service' (department store) is a forceful climax; 'Guaranteed repair, replacement or refund' (retail store) is an artful alliteration; 'If you leave Managing Money (name of a firm) alone, money will manage to leave you alone' is a masterfully-created pun (Ding, 2004). Although I try to categorize the examples in a single separate category, some of them, obviously, utilize two or more figures of speech at the same time.

    5.9 Cultural accommodation is to be observed. 'We think the way we think because we talk the way we talk'. (Nida, 2001: 78) This explains the intimate relationship between thinking and language. In the same way, the culture we grow up in is unique just as is the language we speak. In other words, no two cultures are so similar that translators do not have to take pains to negotiate and mediate between them. The theoretic significance of cultural accommodation goes without saying, because what one appreciates in his/her own culture may turn out to be unsuitable in another culture, if not diametrically despised or hated. So translators must bear in mind acculturation in their practice (for more details see Shi, 2004, 2007). A well-known example is the successful translation of Coca Cola into Chinese in which it has a connotation of 'tasty and pleasurable' while the original pronunciation is somehow also transferred. Pepsi Cola is translated as 'Everything pleasurable' and also enjoys popularity among the Chinese. Here translation is almost not a translation in its everyday sense any more but a deliberate creation according to the Chinese culture as the Chinese put so much weight on auspicious words or phraseology. If a brand sounds auspicious it naturally follows that it will sell well. On the contrary, ignorance of cultural differences results in unsold products and loss of profits in a foreign market.

    5.10 Cautious borrowing of English advertisement ideas or syntax is to be adopted because direct or literal translation is always haunted by mother tongue interference and often produces poor effect. If translators can shake off the shackles of interference, the target language will sound more idiomatic. To break away from such shackles, one must first remind him/herself of negative and positive transfer. Negative or positive transfer is a technical term in the learning process, referring to the fact that information or skills related to one topic can sometimes either help or hinder the acquisition of information or skills related to another topic. When learning from one situation assists learning in another, this is referred to as positive transfer. When learning from one situation interferes with learning in another situation, this is referred to as negative transfer. This negative transfer is most likely to occur when the learner incorrectly believes that there are common features, improperly links the information while encoding it, or incorrectly sees some value in using information from one setting in another. For example, 'knowledge of the Revolutionary War may actually confuse the student about events in the Civil War' (in the context of American history) (Friedman et al, 1986). Knowledge of Chinese may confuse the student with regard to English. This is not only a common phenomenon in language learning but also in translation, a trap easy to fall in. Therefore, mistakes and errors in this respect should be avoided. One recommended solution is to borrow similar English expressions rather than doing what I call 'a stiff translation". Of course we are not supporting the idea of plagiarism which is legally and morally wrong, and academically frowned at; borrowing, or imitation, should be kept within certain limits as advertisement writing sometimes can be viewed as a creative work of art and any over-borrowing or over-imitation must be prohibited.

  10. Summary

    Just as a poetic writing style is unique, so the style of advertisement writing has its own particular character. What has been mainly discussed here is Chinese-to-English translation, but we firmly believe that the above-mentioned principles of clarity and pithiness and strategies of acculturation and accommodation are equally valuable in English-to-Chinese translations. Foreign companies and firms, if they wish to sell well in the Chinese markets, should be similarly studying advertisement in Chinese, since the Chinese style of advertisement is in some ways rather different from its counterpart in English, although they do share a number of features. It is also hoped that the style of advertisement writing shall be studied and researched further, so that more features can be found and accordingly more translation strategies can be proposed.


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