The "call to action" is one of the sacrosanct elements of ads and direct mail: Lose weight! Save money! Act now! How unorthodox, then, to discover calls to inaction — invitations to simply think — in a spate of recent ad campaigns.

Here's what I'm thinking about:

  • The Qatar Foundation, a research and education organization founded by the Emir of Qatar, took out a full-age ad in the U.S. edition of Time whose headline was a single word: Think. "Few things possess more Power than a Thought," the copy begins. (It continues in the same nebulous, randomly capitalized vein.)
  • Retailer Saks Fifth Avenue wants us to "Think About..." pursuits that are more material in nature. "Think About... carrying a different bag every day," suggests one ad. "Think About... stocking up on spring jewels." "Think About... adopting a pet — who needs a boyfriend anyway?" The ads are said to have been inspired by the Depression-era fashion advice of Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, whose "Why Don't You..." column included zany tips such as "Why don't you turn your old ermine coat into a bathrobe?"
  • Hyundai also wants us to "Think About It," as the Korean automaker's slogan mildly suggests. "What really matters in cars?" asks the website. "Let's think about it." Other elements of the campaign ask us to "Think about safety," "Think about design," "Think about quality." And after we think about it? We're on our own.

When thinking falls short, how about rethinking?

  • "Rethink Fame," "Rethink Free Love," and "Rethink What a Revolution Looks Like" are a few of the slogans in cosmetics company Bare Escentuals' "Rethink What Matters" campaign.
  • AT&T rethinks the rules of English grammar in a new slogan — whoops, "brand promise" — titled "Rethink Possible." One of the lines in the promotional video: "Outsmart Can't."

The last time "think" made this much advertising news was in 1997, when Apple introduced its "Think Different" ads, created by the Los Angeles agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. Instead of product shots, the ads featured striking black-and-white photos of famous people — Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Martha Graham, Muhammad Ali, and others. But it was what some people saw as the ungrammaticality of the slogan that touched a nerve. The reasoning: "Different" is an adjective; ergo, it can't modify the verb "to think."

Not true, as it turns out. Looking back on the campaign from the vantage of 2006, linguist Eric Bakovic wrote in Language Log that "it's not so clear that different is supposed to be an adverb in this case." He went on:

[D]istinctions between many adjective/adverb pairs have been slowly but surely eroding in English. Different/differently is among these pairs; the OED lists different as an adjective or an adverb, in the latter case meaning the same thing as differently and with the caveat "Now only in uneducated use." I think the erosion has gone so far that the "educated/uneducated" distinction made in this OED usage point comes close to simply separating pedants from most other folks; thus, the ad campaign benefitted from the slight double meaning: Apple thinks different(ly), and (therefore) Apple is different.

What often got lost in the debate over parts of speech was Apple's bold strategy, based on image and ideation rather than product features and a sales pitch. It succeeded: 1997 marked the beginning of Apple's climb back to profitability. (It was also, not coincidentally, the year of Steve Jobs's return to the company he had co-founded.) The slogan was retired in 2002, but a hypercorrect spoof — "Think Differently" — appeared in a 2008 episode of "The Simpsons."

Back in 1960, Volkswagen of America also flouted conventional grammar — not to mention U.S. car-buying habits — with its "Think Small" ads. Created by New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach and now regarded as one of the greatest ads of the 20th century, "Think Small" turned several conventions upside down. The photo of the VW Beetle was tiny, almost lost against a white background. The copy was full of negatives — "Our little car isn't so much of a novelty any more" was the opening sentence — and ended with "Think it over" rather than an imperative to buy. And then there was the adjective "small" modifying the verb "think" — irritating to language purists and practically un-American in an era of tailfinned behemoths that shouted "Think big! And bigger!"

The Apple and VW slogans were sly references to the most venerable "Think" of all: the one-word motto coined by Thomas J. Watson, Sr., a self-made industrialist who delivered on the promise of International Business Machines — IBM — to be a truly international business. Watson came up with "Think" in 1911, when he was managing the sales an advertising departments at the National Cash Register Company. He is reported to have said at a sales meeting, "The trouble with everyone of us is that we don't think enough. Thought has been the father of every advance since time began. 'I didn't think' has cost the world millions of dollars." He then wrote "T-H-I-N-K" in blue crayon on the easel behind him. According to the IBM website:

Almost immediately, the one-word slogan had been placed on signs in every department at NCR. And Watson brought that concept with him when he later joined C-T-R, the forerunner of today's IBM, as general manager in 1914. "THINK" appeared in C-T-R in the form of a large block-letter sign, famed and placed in offices and plants, and was printed in company publications. In the early 1930s, the THINK motto began to take precedence over other slogans in IBM, and later became the name of IBM's employee publication.

Over the succeeding years, IBM's "Think" — which morphed into "I Think, Therefore IBM" — became so famous that it was spoofed in New Yorker cartoons; it even spawned a counter-motto, "Thimk," that poked fun at groupthink. (Thimk was also the title of a satire magazine, similar to Mad and Cracked, that lasted for a few issues in the late 1950s.) "Think" was eventually retired as IBM's motto, but it survives in the name of the ThinkPad notebook computer, introduced by IBM in 1992. (Since 2005 the ThinkPad has been manufactured by the Chinese company Lenovo.)

If all this thinking and rethinking seems like too much work, help may be on the way. In April 2009, fast-food giant KFC launched its "outside-the-bucket" grilled menu — "Taste the UnFried Side of KFC" — with the slogan "Unthink." The advertising-industry blog AdFreak was not amused:

KFC wants its customers to be stoopid. Thick as bricks. The dimmer the better. Of course, that's not really the message of Draftfcb's "Unthink" campaign for the fast feeder, but it might as well be. The real message is that it's time to unthink preconceptions about KFC by using a word that isn't actually part of the English language.

Sorry, AdFreak, but you'll have to unthink that accusation. Unthink — "to remove from thought; to annul or reverse by mental effort" — has been in the English lexicon since about 1600, according to the OED. "I do beseech You (gracious Madam) to vnthinke your speaking, And to say so no more," Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII.

And "Unthink" lives on at KFC, where — now spelled in all capital letters — it has become the slogan for the Double Down "sandwich," which consists of bacon, melted cheese, and "Colonel's Sauce" between two pieces of fried chicken; it weighs in at 540 calories and 1380 milligrams of sodium. Think that sounds a tad unhealthful? Just unthink about it.

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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:

Wednesday May 12th 2010, 3:07 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
I dislike the indefinite wishy washy use of the word 'think' by policy makers and particularly economists ie
"I think the nation will benefit from this policy".
Instead of the positive.
"The nation will benefit from this policy".
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Jerie C. (New York, NY)
This article helped me find another focus for a copywriting assignment I have been struggling with. I have not been able to find an approach that was comfortable or felt right for me. This is a class assignment. I have never thought about using the "Think" approach before. The hyped up hard sell is not me and using the "Think" approach makes the reader feel more in charge of their decision and less manipulated. I like that. Thanks.
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 8:34 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
I think (pun intended) that Lenovo was making IBM's laptops for a number of years before 2005. That year IBM decided to get out of the laptop business all together and Lenovo started promoting its own brand.
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Very thoughtful article.

In "O God Book II" (which I liked much more than most of the critics), God gives a little girl the assignment to promote His presence in the world. She and her friends come up with the advertising slogan THINK GOD. I appreciated the pun, which is driven home by the irregular grammatical construction.
Wednesday May 12th 2010, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Chris S.
Also consider that KFC is part of the same food company that owns Taco Bell, of the fairly long-lived "Think outside the bun" slogan. Sorry if this was already covered somewhere in this dicussion.
Thursday May 13th 2010, 7:59 PM
Comment by: Captain Pat (campbelltown Australia)
As an advertising copywriter I too am human. I shop like everyone else. And also get caught up in the excitement of a product on the shelf. But I have learned to stop in my tracks. Relax. Then remember. The inviting features of the product came from the imagination of a copywriter who was just answering a brief. I place the product back on the shelf and move on. Nothing to see here. Is that "thinking" or "unthinking"?
Thursday May 27th 2010, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
@ chris P.: Well, at least they think (or at least think they think); nice thing to know about our politicians and economists. And it could be even wishy-washier: what about "I believe..."? Apart from the obvious necessity to cover their backs, they don't really know. Politics is not exactly science, neither is economy. The best they can do is believe and hope, really.

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KFC's "Unthink" campaign is part of a larger trend in "un-" verbs.
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