Sunday 21 September 2014

Are you commercially aware?

Most people pay TV commercials as little attention as possible and use these as an excuse to make a nice cup of tea or quickly rearrange their sock draw. We tend to see TV ads as bothersome interruptions that have the audacity to order us around. Barry Pennock-Speck and Miguel Fuster-Márquez from the University of València wanted to check whether this ‘bossy’ perception of commercials was accurate.

There are various ways to ask people to do something, including using interrogative structures (Would you mind opening the book?), employing modal verbs such as must in statements (Dogs must be kept on a lead), or using certain adjectives (It is crucial/essential to...). However, the researchers found that all these forms were negligible in TV advertising compared to the use of imperatives (open the book!).

Because the addressee in TV commercials has no obligation to comply with a request, the researchers hypothesized that imperatives are carefully worded to express advice or recommendations in a way that would seem to benefit the viewer. To test this, they collected recordings of TV commercials from ITV and Channel 4 between 2009 and 2011. After removing duplicate ads and those without voiceovers, 785 ads were analysed.

The researchers identified the imperatives in the adverts and found a total of 804 examples in 424 of the ads. In the voiceovers which contained imperatives, just over half contained a single imperative, about a quarter contained two imperatives, 13% had three imperatives and just over 10% had four or more imperatives.

As adverts are short texts with an average of 37 words each, the researchers looked further into ads with more than one imperative. They discovered that in these ads the imperatives occurred mainly in demonstrations on how to use a product (Just cut the jumbo block to size and simply add water - JMLDoktorPower), and in offers to viewers of different ways of contacting the advertisers (Call 08009166100 or visit cruisethomascook. com - Thomas Cook).

The analysis showed that while frequent verbs such as CALL, VISIT, GET, SAVE, GO and TRY played a central part in the voiceovers, the ads included a wide variety of 224 distinct types of imperative. The researchers classified these into five groups according to their function:  

Function group
Items per group
% of all imperatives
Distinct types
% of all the distinct types
Attention focusers






The group of ‘Attention focusers’ includes the largest number of imperatives, making up a third of all instances. In addition to obvious examples such as LOOK and WATCH, this study showed many that more imperatives are used figuratively to attract viewers’ attention; for example, Spend more time with our little ones (KFC).

The second largest category, the ‘Contact’ group, was less diverse with three verbs, CALL, VISIT and GO (ONLINE) making up just under 70% of all contact verbs. These request viewers to contact the retailers or visit their websites.

The third category, the ‘Acquisition of Product or Service’ group, includes verbs like BAG and GET. The latter is particularly favoured by advertisers as it highlights the advantages of acquiring a product without referring to a financial transaction; there were only 7 instances of the imperative BUY with its unfortunate connotations of parting with money.

The ‘Experiencers’ category is similar in size to the ‘Acquisition’ group, but is much more diverse. This may be due to the many ways in which a product or service can be used.  Verbs in this group include, for example, ENJOY and TRY. ‘Experiencers’ may function as instructions on how to use a product (Just shake 3 times, foam it, work it all over from root to tip - Nice ’n Easy).

The ‘Others’ group represents less than 10% of all imperatives and features verbs such as PLEDGE and GIVE. Most of these were found in the small selection of 26 noncommercial ads for charities and public services and were more akin to pleas.

To summarise, one would expect that when the addresser lacks the power to impose their will, they would phrase requests politely, using hedges and words such as please. However this study shows that the opposite occurs. As TV viewers are under no compulsion to comply with imperatives, these requests are presented as disinterested advice or useful instructions.

Pennock-Speck, Barry & Miguel Fuster-Márquez (2014) Imperatives in voice-overs in British TV commercials: 'Get this, buy that taste the other'. Discourse & Communication. published online 20 July 2014.
doi. 10.1177/1750481314537578

This summary was written by Danniella Samos

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