Ad and marketing creatives
The Case of the Lay Flat Collar
In theory, advertising copy doesn't need to be elegant or even eloquent: its job is to make us pay attention and take action. But should it adhere to generally accepted rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax?
I've been pondering that question ever since I came across an ad campaign for "Lay Flat Collar Tees" from century-old apparel company Hanes. The product name incorporates two prominent usage errors: Lay instead of lie and no hyphen between lay and flat.
And how has the public responded? With a collective shrug, accompanied by a near-unanimous meh.
Well, as the film mogul Samuel Goldwyn used to say, include me out. Although I can relish an apt colloquialism in naming or copywriting, I remain enough of a prescriptivist—with a particular peeve about lay/lie errors—that the Hanes product name makes my head throb. The collars lie flat, I protest through gritted teeth. Back when parts of speech were taught in public schools, we all learned that lay is a transitive verb, the kind that takes an object (today the workers will lay carpet); and lie is intransitive (I'm going to lie on the carpet until this peevishness passes). (Lay is also the past tense of lie, which confuses a lot of people unless they commit it to memory. Today my collar lies flat; yesterday it lay at the bottom of the laundry basket.) We also learned that compound adjectives require hyphenation: a well-dressed man, the wine-dark sea.
And then I notice a third error, one of logic rather than usage: T-shirts don't have collars at all—by definition, they're collarless! So what's lying flat here? (Other than me, prostrate in grammar grief?)
Alas, Hanes has no sympathy for the likes of me. No, the company scorns me as a pitiable grammar geek. Check out this TV commercial in which a mild-mannered grammarian corrects the snarky, wrongheaded Hanes man:
Mr. Lay Flat has a snappy answer for Mr. Correct Grammar (who's wearing a T-shirt with a rumpled, non-Hanes "bacon neck"): "Michael Jordan didn't do lie-ups his whole career. He did layups." Gotcha!
Except . . . not. If Hanes had spared an additional five seconds, Mr. Correct Grammar could have had the last word: Yes, the basketball term is layup (or lay-up), but that's because lay is in fact transitive here. Something is being laid up, and that something is a ball. From the Dictionary of American Sports (1961): "On this type shot, the ball usually is banked off the backboard, but on occasion the player, on a straight run toward the basket, will 'lay' the ball up to the basket without using the backboard." Ha! Who's got the gotcha now?
The near-universal acceptance of the Lay Flat name seems to me an indication of how lax we've become about what used to be considered language errors. (You may replace tolerant or uninformed for lax, if you wish.) When I asked a sophisticated and well-educated friend for her response to Lay Flat, she said only that it seemed "descriptive." Another literate acquaintance got downright testy in a Twitter reply: "Call me a barbarian if you must, but I think it's time for lie/lay distinction to die. WHY can't both words mean both senses?"
Why indeed? Why bother with usage rules at all, as long as most of the people, most of the time, catch your drift? If no one's staging a boycott on grammatical grounds, is your gaffe a goof or a triumph?
Forbearance toward commercial language infractions is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the late 1990s, the Apple slogan "Think Different" provoked objections among people—average folks, not just language professionals—who insisted that the modifier should be an adverb, differently. (In fact, their indignation was misplaced: different here functions as a noun, parallel in function to "Think Pink," the facetious slogan in the 1957 Audrey Hepburn movie Funny Face, or "Think California," the name of an exhibit currently on view at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.)
For examples of real outrage over grammar-defying slogans, though, we need to go back to the Mad Men era. In 1954, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced the Winston brand with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," setting off a cultural skirmish, if not an actual war. Like, not as? Horrors! The poet Ogden Nash published a verse in The New Yorker that included the line "Like goes Madison Avenue, like goes the nation." Walter Cronkite, then the anchor of The Morning Show on CBS, took a principled stand, refusing to read such illiteracy on the air. An announcer filled in for him. (This was in the days when broadcast journalists routinely read ads as well as news, so Cronkite's principles were not exactly unsullied.)
Naturally, the uproar only increased public awareness of the new brand. Within months, according to Malcolm Gladwell's account in The Tipping Point, Winston vaulted to second place in the American market; by 1966—still using the "like a cigarette should" slogan—it had become the country's bestselling brand. Before retiring the slogan in 1972, Winston ran ads whose copy defiantly asked, "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, had come in 1961, when Merriam-Webster accepted "like" as a conjunction in its Third International Dictionary—and used the Winston slogan as an example. (For this and other sins, the New York Times called the dictionary "bolshevik.")
Not to be outdone, a rival brand, American Tobacco Company's Tareyton, in 1963 introduced its own ungrammatical slogan: "Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!" Us as a subject was an intentional faux pas, meant to suggest the patois of an unschooled barroom brawler. Protests were milder this time around, although my brother reminds me that our father—a strict prescriptivist himself—procured a lapel button that depicted the slogan with the "us" crossed out and replaced with "we."
Another milestone in the ad-vs.-grammar wars occurred in 1966, when Raid insecticide launched an ad campaign with the slogan "Raid Kills Bugs Dead." (The slogan is often attributed to the Beat poet Lew Welch, who was employed as a Foote, Cone & Belding copywriter at the time, but the claim has never been verified.) Many critics pointed out, redundantly, that the slogan was redundant, but no less an authority than former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass has called the slogan a modern classic. Yes, it's probably redundant, he allowed, but "after all, the subject is overkill." Today, the Raid website's URL is www.killsbugsdead.com.
(Visual Thesaurus contributor Stan Carey, who lives in Ireland, informs me that beginning in the early 1950s the Domestos brand of cleanser in the U.K. used a similar slogan, "Kills all known germs dead." "Killed X dead," says Stan, is fairly common in Irish and Irish English; it's a close translation of the Irish idiom marbh gan anam—literally, "dead without a soul.")
When "bad" grammar contributes to marketing success, does that make it "good"? After all, the rule-flouting does grab our attention. But that's only if we recognize the infraction for what it is: intentional slumming on the wrong side of the tracks. Lately, I've wondered whether copywriters and brand managers are aware of the rules they're breaking. The erroneous substitution of lay for lie is so common in conversation that it's no surprise to see it creeping into the written language—even into multimillion-dollar ad campaigns.
Of course, that's what editors are for. It's becoming tough to find one, but I found a glimmer of evidence that Hanes may have at least one editor on its payroll.
While I was paging through the Hanes Lay Flat Collar website I discovered that the T-shirt came with a guarantee. Here's how it's worded:
A collar that lies flat. A neckline free of scratchy tags. Guaranteed, or your money back.
A collar that lies flat. Ahhh. Someone at Hanes cares about us fussbudgets after all! Thank you, Hanes, for acknowledging that a few of us want good grammar and good-quality underwear. And yes, we'd rather fight than switch.