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The Power of Ambiguity

You've read the advice to writers: Strive for clarity! Make your meaning transparent! Your sentences should be lucid and understandable, your paragraphs logically constructed, your meaning readily accessible to your readers. Who could quarrel with that?

But I'm here to tell you about an exception to that clarity rule: taglines. That's because with taglines, ambiguity can be a virtue.

A tagline — also known as a slogan (or, in the UK, a strapline) — is a short message that accompanies the name of a company or product. There are all kinds of taglines, and some of them are solidly descriptive and perfectly clear, like Target's "Expect More. Pay Less" or Bose's "Better Sound through Research." No ambiguity there. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But some of my favorite taglines — including many well-known ones — add a little twist, a bit of shimmer, a dash of double entendre. It makes them a little stickier, a little more memorable. Think of it as the power of ambiguity.

Tagline ambiguity comes in a couple of flavors: semantic, which plays with meaning; and grammatical, which hinges on the interpretation of parts of speech. One of the longest-running and most famous examples of a semantically ambiguous slogan is "When It Rains It Pours," created in 1911 for Morton Salt and still used today. According to the company's website, the first attempt at a tagline was "Even in Rainy Weather It Flows Freely," which was vetoed because it was too long. The next efforts — "Flows Freely," "Runs Freely," and simply "Pours" — were short but pedestrian. The winning slogan came from putting a positive spin on the old proverb "It never rains but it pours." Instead of "never" and "but" we now have the repeated "it" with its double meaning: the first time, it refers to weather; the second time, it refers to the salt inside the box. Rhythm, repetition, and a sprinkling of ambiguity have given this slogan a century-long lifespan.

Back in 1927, Anheuser Yeast used a similar semantic twist in its tagline: "We Rise to Every Occasion." Another type of company could have used this tag, but only a yeast company could derive the benefits of that pleasantly ambiguous "rise."

Semantically ambiguous taglines are still popular and effective today. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has had a long-running ad campaign in which "cancer" in the hospital's name is struck out by a hand-drawn red line. The accompanying tagline reads: "Making cancer history."  We can interpret the tagline two ways: "Making history by successfully treating cancer" or, more colloquially, "Making cancer a relic of the past." MD Anderson hopes we'll infer both meanings.

I also admire "Always on. Slightly off," the tagline of the Independent Film Channel (IFC), which plays with the literal and idiomatic meanings of "on" and "off": the channel is always turned on; its programming is slightly off center. And I like the double meanings of "driven" in "More Driven," Goodyear's slogan in 2011, and "We Are Driven," used by Datsun in the mid-1980s, before the company was bought by Nissan. Cars and tires are literally driven (steered, conducted). And the companies that make them are driven (motivated, determined) to succeed.

Then there's the new tagline, announced in February, of Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank: "The curious bank." Fifth Third is certainly a curious (strange, peculiar, intriguing) name, and the bank prides itself on being curious in the other sense, too: inquisitive, interested, questioning.

Grammatically ambiguous taglines derive their positive ambiguity from the flexibility of English parts of speech. One of my favorite examples is the original Viagra tagline, introduced in 1998: "Love life again." You could read love as an imperative verb ("Go ahead! Love your life again!") or as an adjective modifying life: "Enjoy your love life again." Later slogans skipped the ambiguity: "Get back to mischief," "Viva Viagra," "It's what men do."

For the last year or so, Lexus has been using the tagline "Engineering amazing," which trembles on the border between ambiguous and confusing. We can see amazing as a noun, the object of engineering, so that the tagline means "Lexus is engineering amazing things"; or we can mentally insert a colon between the two words to make amazing modify engineering.

One of the most famous taglines of recent history, Apple's "Think different," was for grammar purists also the most infamous. "You can think differently, but you can't think different!" they complained. But Walter Isaacson, the biographer of company co-founder Steve Jobs, wrote that Jobs himself wanted different to be seen a noun, as in "think victory" or "think beauty." Isaacson continued:

Also, it echoed colloquial use, as in "think big." Jobs later explained. "We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It's grammatical, if you think about what we're trying to say. It's not think the same, it's think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently' wouldn't hit the meaning for me."

But in fact the genius of "Think different" lay in its grammatical ambiguity. You could interpret it the way Jobs intended — verb plus direct object — or you could interpret it more colloquially, as a nonstandard way of saying "Think differently." Either way, it works. And that tiny bit of grammatical uncertainty? It's like a grain of sand in an oyster. It irritates, but it produces a pearl.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 20th 2012, 1:30 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Great insights.
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 3:24 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
An interesting thing about the Morton Salt tagline is that a century later, I can't recall hearing or reading the old proverb "It never rains but it pours." In all of my memories--and I have been around a long time now--Morton't tagline has replaced the old proverb.
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 7:52 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
@Mary Lee M: In my family --and I also have been around a long time now (I grew up in the South with people that lived through Reconstruction, the depression of the 1890's, WWI, the flu epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression, WWII and the Korean War.), it was an adage for when a few troubles became a deluge of many troubles.
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent! People do love clarity in writing, but we also like the teasing of playful ambiguities--and they are memorable!
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 1:45 PM
Comment by: Mohammed S. (shorewood, WI)
A few words from a factoid freak: I named my tanning salon in Cedarburg Wisconsin----SKIN DEEP--Some immigrants from India named their small hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chicago, (Unbeknownst to them)"Tasty Eat". It became a huge success and I remember its name 40 years later. A shoe store in Milwaukee named itself "Ma Jolie Garcon". Those who know French would think it was totally wrong grammatically but it also became huge success. When I pointed out the "mistake" to the owner, he became upset and politely turned me away, later changing the name to "Ma Jolie Footwear" which is even more absurd. Nevertheless people still remember the former incorrect French name with nostalgic fervor.
Mohammed Rafiq Sethi, Vehari, Pakistan
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Nice article! Keep up the great writing!
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 8:34 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
I worked for Nortel for many years, and I loved our tagline in the '90s: Technology the world calls on.

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