Language Lounge

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Dubiously Distinguished

Lately I'm noticing what is surely a very common trope in consumer marketing: the enhancement of an adjectival descriptor for a product by introducing it with an adverbial. So that what you get is an adverbial + adjective phrase that is intended to distinguish a product in a way that the adjective alone would not do.

You can't blame marketers for the attempt. If the adjective is a common one, it's certainly not going to do the work alone. We are now far beyond the day when a product might be distinguished from its competitors with quality descriptors such as mild, strong, or rich. Such high frequency adjectives are somewhat bleached, but can be made colorful again with the addition of a modifier. Or at least, that's the hope. Take, for example, a flavor of Doritos that I saw recently in the supermarket:

These Doritos are not just hot — the consumer might interpret that as either boring, or as a warning, rather than a unique selling point. These Doritos are flamin' hot. Not flaming hot, and certainly not flamingly hot.

Why opt for the colloquial flamin'? I expect it's meant to be somewhat reassuring to the cautious consumer. Even with the graphic showing flames leaping from the corn chip (a sure sign that you should not pick it up and eat it), the informal language assures the potential consumer that it's all in fun, that the Doritos are not dangerously hot and that you won't have to call 911 after you put one of these incendiaries in your mouth.

I buy rice in large quantity from an Asian supermarket and on a recent visit, I was fortunate enough to bag a bag that was "specially selected":

Now how would that actually work? Is it done on a grain-by-grain basis? Mere selection would be reassuring, but specially selected rice sounds like quite an undertaking. I'm reasonably sure that I would have bought the bag without this odd claim, and for me it doesn't particularly enhance the product. Perhaps its main function is just to relieve the monotony of the photographed rice that forms the background of the bag.

Astute readers will have noted that there's another adverb + adjective claim on the rice bag: Extra Fancy. This phrase is not a mere marketing ploy; it's a technical term. Rice for human consumption in the US is subject to a uniform grading system in which Extra Fancy is the highest grade (Hmm. Rather like the more literal "No. 1"). From there, the categories descend to Fancy, Choice, and Sample. This system for grading rice was developed in the 1920s, suggesting that modern-day marketers might doff their hats to technocrats of old for coming up with a prototypical  adverb + adjective epithet. (You can read about the fascinating history of rice grading here.) Extra, as a value-added adverb, still enjoys regular employment in the marketing world in such phrases as extra lean (ground beef), extra soft (full brief panty), and extra tasty (crispy chicken).

You have to go further back than the 1920s, however, to track down one of the hoary ancestors of the adverbial + adjective marketing phrase. You have to go back to the 1880s, with the emergence of "99 44/100% Pure", a phrase that has been used to market Ivory Soap for nearly a century and a half:

It's an odd way to express a fraction (isn't it really 11/25?) but the phrase has stuck, perhaps pointing to the enduring value of a marketing phrase that depends on a unique and unlikely pairing of words. Perhaps it was the inspiration for another quantitative phrase that recently caught my eye, on a package of napkins: "2X stronger":

I predict that this phrase will not live long in consumer memory, and will certainly not be associated with this brand of napkins. It's an odd claim, to start with. How often do napkins (specifically, wet napkins) actually fail? Is this a complaint that napkin manufacturers have to deal with regularly? I expect the phrase and accompanying graphic appear because the manufacturer simply wanted something to relieve the monotony of the white napkins in their see-through package. What better way to do this than with a picture of a cute kid (albeit a very sloppy eater) and a claim of dubious value?

It's pretty well known today that the adjective natural has no technical or specific meaning in US food labeling, but it's still quite popular: all natural ingredients abound in everything from gourmet pet treats to shampoo. It's not surprising then that naturally is also a value-added adverbial for forming descriptive phrases that might be dull without it. Here's an example:

"Smoked Atlantic Salmon" is an adequate description of this product, but perhaps because there are many competing products, a distinguisher is required, and this one has two: naturally (what would the alternative be?), and in Maine, a place we think of as being rugged, wholesome and unspoiled (because most of us don't live there). So overall, this descriptor gives a much more pleasing effect than might be produced by "smoked in a fish processing plant". The manufacturer missed an opportunity by not noting that this product was "naturally gluten-free," a very popular claim these days. They might also have impressed us that the fish was "naturally sourced" (i.e., from the sea).

I have saved for last the most puzzling and specious marketing phrase, which I find on a small bag of palm sugar in my cupboard:

Mindfully delicious™? Are you kidding me? This is just not right in so many ways. First of all, mindfully can rightly modify only adjectives and verbs that characterize human (or divine) behavior because the unavoidable implication is that a mind is involved. Whose mind is it supposed to be here: the coconuts'? Or are you supposed to be mindful while eating this stuff and reflecting on how delicious it is? Perhaps the manufacturers would have you include it in your Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution, though I would note that the book of that title does not seem to contain the word "sugar".

I expect that the ill-conceived phrase is meant to associate this product in a conveniently blurry way with the nebulous, new-agey mindfulness craze that seems to be everywhere present today. One who is properly mindful (of doing good, avoiding harm, saving the dolphins, empowering growth, etc.) probably makes a point of avoiding processed white sugar but now has the opportunity to indulge their sweet tooth by gorging on this substance, while reflecting on swaying coconut palms in a tropical breeze, being tended and harvested by well-treated, joyous peasants who receive a fair price for their dignified labor.

I hope that the next time you're strolling down the grocery or superstore aisle you'll take note of some of these phrases and share them here.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 1st, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Sandra B. (Tarzana, CA)
thank you for detecting Captain Obvious' handiwork ...
I am keeping in mind that (as a former copywriter) people do get paid for
their creativity...
Enjoyed the article - good to start the new year off with a laugh...
Wednesday January 1st, 8:48 PM
Comment by: Sandra S.
Brilliantly amusing!
Thursday January 2nd, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Indescribably delicious column, Orin!
Thursday January 2nd, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
Entertaining, as always! Traveling on Christmas Day through rural Michigan, the lunch spots open were few. One, to be precise, a Steak and Shake. They didn't bother with the adverb; the adjectives alone were sufficiently puzzling. Note that the formerly superfluous "real" in real beef has acquired new relevance, with the rise of the Impossible Burger. We thought "Genuine Chili" was a stumper, as were "Tru-Flavor Shakes." More in line with your writing was their "deliciously decadent" milkshakes. It would be a shame to plunge into decadence that wasn't delicious, no?
Saturday January 4th, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
The "2X stronger" type of descriptor has been around as long as I've been alive. My reaction has always been, "…Stronger than WHAT?" A previous version of the product? A competitive product? A gorilla?
Sunday January 5th, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Andy S. (Australia)
I delight in your writing style. Thank you for this.

My pet peeve is the overuse of "natural" and apparently people still fall for it.
My favourite is the descriptor "hospital strength" on bleach. Bleach is bleach.
Monday January 6th, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Andy S, how interesting! I haven't seen "hospital strength" bleach in the US and my guess is that it wouldn't sell here. Hospitals are where people pick up nasty, antibiotic-resistant infections. Also where they go bankrupt. So it's overall a negative connotation word.
Friday January 17th, 8:53 PM
Comment by: John M. (Coventry, RI)
I also found all of this amusing. How about "Organic", goes along with Natural.
Saturday January 18th, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
John M: unlike "Natural", the use of "Organic" on US food products is regulated and so consumers (if they trust the labelers) have greater confidence in it as an indication of something genuine about the product.
Sunday January 19th, 8:04 AM
Comment by: John M. (Coventry, RI)
Orlin, being a chemist sometime I put on my "nerd" cap and narrow my vision. I looked up the usage of "Organic" and indeed you are correct.
Thursday February 20th, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Cedric H. (Cleveland, OH)
Reading to savior. I will give this topic more thought as I journey on my shopping trek. Question: Are these tropes meant to be more appealing to a specific gender?
Friday February 21st, 9:17 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interesting question, Cedric, and I expect that the answer is yes because many food manufacturers do extensive market study before putting a product before the public and that would probably include profiling potential shoppers.

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