Up To Or More Guaranteed

“That’s an up to $500 value, or more.”

The TV spokeswoman — apparently named Jennifer and a former serving member of the US Navy — is promoting a mortgage loan scheme that’s somehow linked to Veterans Affairs benefits. This is not my country and the details of its government programs escape me.

In addition to offering savings through lower monthly interest charges, this program includes a free home appraisal to determine the size of the allowable loan. Jennifer is pretty pumped about it.

“That’s an up to $500 value, or more.”

I frown at Jennifer. She seems pleasant enough, but what did she just say? I mean, is the value of a free home appraisal “up to $500″ or could it be more than $500? I’m pretty sure it can’t be both.

Television advertising isn’t cheap. To maximize marketing impact and to minimize liability, you’d think companies would scrutinize every word, every claim. And I suspect they do . . .

Writer, reading proposed script aloud: “And you get a free home appraisal. That’s a $500 value.”

Reviewer #1: “Well, it might not cost that much. We sure don’t want people to think that we’ll pay $500 no matter what the home appraisal actually costs.”

Writer: “OK, OK, good point. How about this? ‘That’s an up to $500 value.'”

Reviewer #1: “Sounds great.”

Reviewer #2: “You know, in some markets, a home appraisal for a large property can cost more than $500. We’re covering the home appraisal no matter how much it costs, right?”

Writer: “OK, OK, good point. How about this? ‘That’s an up to $500 value, or more.'”

Reviewers #1 and #2, in perfect unison: “Perfect.”

Or not.

But wait! There’s more!

“Lose up to 13 pounds in your first month, guaranteed.”

The pleasant woman in this ad is known to me, sort of. It’s Marie Osmond, promoting the program on which she lost 50 pounds. But what the heck did she just say?

“Lose up to 13 pounds in your first month, guaranteed.”

Marie. What, exactly, is guaranteed? A loss of “up to” 13 pounds in the first month? Whew! I’m relieved to know I won’t lose any more than 13 pounds.

Probably the communication started out a little more complicated.

“If you eat the food we send you, and nothing but the food we send you, then we guarantee you will lose weight. One customer lost 13 pounds in their first month, but your results will certainly be less than that.”

Yeah, I can see why that didn’t get through the review process.

Years ago an ad for a slimmed-down feminine hygiene product tried to compare it favourably to the earlier version by touting it as “Half as thin!” Half as thin: Isn’t that, you know, thicker?

There’s an understandable marketing impulse to include only positives (“Half!” “Thin!”), to use strong words (“Guaranteed!”), and to allow for possible upsides (“Or more!”) in a “No limits!” view of the world and their product. That alone can lead to problems. But combining that marketing impulse with the legal impulse to include qualifiers that limit liability (“up to”) can lead to incoherence.

Up to incoherence? Certainly not. What kind of unprofessional communicators do you think we are? Or more incoherence. Guaranteed.


This entry was posted in Language and Communication, Laughing Frequently, Thinking Broadly and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Up To Or More Guaranteed

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Two Latin phrases chime to mind:
    1. “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware.

    The other is touch cruder.
    2. “Merda taurorum animas conturbit.” A Google search will quickly supply the translation.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Indeed! Many things baffle – those we hear and those we read – if we, you know, think about what’s being said.

  2. JimTaylor says:

    On the first read through, I came to your final paragraph, and the word “incoherence.” My eye rendered it “incontinence.” Then my mind corrected itself, of course. But the word did seem almost appropriate, given that the subject is writers’ verbal diarrhoea.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – LOL. (And boy, does that seem wrong, adding punctuation. Of course, so does omitting it . . .) Yeah, a not unreasonable Freudian slip.

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – as I’ve said before, English can be a strange and confusing language.
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I think that blaming English is hardly fair. I’m pretty sure this is English abuse going on, and would/could/likely does happen in any language.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – you are most definitely correct that abuse can happen in any language. During the 3 years I was stationed in Germany most Canadians were amazed at the low crime rate in Germany, but that was only because most Canadians didn’t understand enough German to understand the German news reports. I only knew about the various crimes being committed in the City of Lahr (sometimes just around the corner from where I lived) because the MP translator was a personal friend. Proves your point and that, “Ignorance can be bliss.”
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Me, I’d like to know about the local crime rate, at least – all part of basic situational awareness!

  5. Barry Jewell says:

    and someone else that plays with the marketing/legal opposition of words is some Tommy Hilfinger stores that had postings in their windows:
    carpe diem . . . Mañana

  6. Ian Hepher says:

    I LOVE the English Language! There is a quote about spelling, variously ascribed to Mark Twain, Andrew Jackson, or some lesser known thespians, that goes something like: “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/25/spelling/). It seems, in this era of post-truths, that we should be paying more attention to meaning than to spelling.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Yes, “The Quote Verifier” (Ralph Keyes) cites this as an old gag, put in the mouth of the wit of the day. There’s a lot of talk these days about having moved into a post-truth or post-fact period. I get the issue but suggest that politicians have never been entirely truthful, and that our tools for outing them have never been better. In any event, yeah, spelling certainly takes a back seat to meaning.

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