Accents in ads: from the sublime to the ridiculous

This morning on the London Underground, an ad caught my eye. Well, several did — but this one held my attention a bit longer because it mentioned accents, a particular interest of mine.

And this wasn’t the only recent advertising campaign to have put accents centre-stage… here’s a quick round-up of some memorable offerings.

Las Vegas: ‘foreign accents’ are sexy

LasVegas220115

Here’s the one I saw this morning. What a positive spin on having an accent! Clearly, the Las Vegas tourist board is happy to embrace ‘foreign accents’ if it means their owners bring their cash (and sex appeal) to the city.

The funny thing is that they don’t even need to specify what accent they’re talking about. I’m assuming they intended to imply a British accent, which Americans apparently die for (more evidence here).

Nespresso: sex appeal again

OK, so this one didn’t work on me. I couldn’t remember what the coffee was, only a titillating 2 minutes of George Clooney and Jean Dujardin. So I typed those names into Google, which duly obliged with a link to the video above.

Anyway, you have to watch till the last 5 seconds or so to really get the point about accents, but then it’s driven home hard. And funnily enough, Jean Dujardin is probably known best to non-French audiences for his silent role in The Artist.

Berlitz: accents can be dangerous

OK, so this one isn’t recent, but is certainly well-known. Let’s admit, though, it is a bit of a stretch, isn’t it, to suggest that in this context it wouldn’t be perfectly clear what the guy was talking about…

I guess they get around this by making the German coastguard character a rookie who evidently doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Yes, yes, I hear you. I do get the joke. Yes, I laughed. Of course I did. I’m not totally devoid of a sense of humour!

But maybe, just maybe, the longstanding obsession with pronunciation of ‘th’ sounds is getting just a little bit tired…? And some research suggests that substituting this with other sounds (e.g. /f/ or /v/) is unlikely to prevent people from understanding, especially in an ELF context, though it may have other effects on listeners (e.g. those who judge certain accents of English to carry negative societal/educational connotations). In fact, substituting ‘th’ sounds is surprisingly common in a wide range of accents of English, both native and non-native.

Dolmio: the accent is funny but hey, the food is good

I confess to very mixed feelings about this campaign. Evidently, a recognisably stereotypical Italian accent of English is being openly mocked in these ads, not to mention all sorts of other ‘renowned’ aspects of Italian culture.

Of course, it could be argued that this is really a sort of affectionate teasing… The makers of Dolmio surely wouldn’t take this approach in their advertising if they felt it would make consumers turn against the brand.

But then, if viewers of the ads enjoy this parody of Italian culture, is the message ultimately a positively multicultural one (“we love all things Italian, including their food and their accents”) or a more tongue-in-cheek (“their food is great but funny how they can’t sort out their pronunciation”)?

I suspect most ordinary people (read: non-linguists, non-language teachers) wouldn’t give this a second thought, but it’s an interesting quandary to find ourselves in, no?

Compare the Market: accents help make off-the-wall characters likeably weird

Oh dear. Where to begin with this one? If, like me, you were wondering why on earth they had ‘Russian’ accents (and I use that term very loosely, hence the scare quotes), apparently we’re not alone:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 12.14.15

I think what bothers me most about this one (and the Dolmio one, actually) is how outrageously fake the accents are anyway. At least, to anyone who’s ever taught a student from Russia.

Clearly the whole meerkat campaign is one huge joke, probably not intended to cause offense to anyone but simply delighting in being bizarre — not to mention the fact that “the wordplay of “meerkat” vs. “market” overcomes the high cost of the latter keyword in sponsored search engine listings” (as claimed here).

But as for Dolmio, if they truly wanted to spread appreciation of Italian food and culture, couldn’t they use real Italians to voice their ads, instead of cringeworthy impressions of Italian accents by clearly English actors? Certainly, there are plenty of terrific actors who speak English with an accent that reveals their Italian background. But then maybe all the respectable Italian actors refused to take part in the campaign… we can only wonder.

Well, that’s the end of our whistlestop tour through the weird and wonderful world of accents in ads. Whether we love or hate them, it appears they help sell products.

I’d love to see more examples, however odd — feel free to share!

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

7 comments

  1. nice collection Laura cheers

    i was wondering about your point regarding the pronunciation of ‘th’ sounds and whether the notion of cascading pronunciation issues has been considered by Jenkins and others?

    that is to say if any work has been done on how say a series of pronunciation issues may affect comprehensibilty since accuracy in production is very tied to understanding the production, this post here (starting from para 7) illustrates what i mean.

    ta
    mura

    • Hi Mura, glad you liked the collection of ads!

      As for ‘cascading’ (love the sound of that term), I’m afraid off the top of my head I’m not sure how it’s been treated by Jenkins et al in the literature. But I do remember that her (2000) book and the research it was based on was very comprehensive in its discussion of why certain misunderstandings arose–and she was clear that they were not always due to pron, or due to the same aspects of pron.

      I think it’s also worth remembering the role of the listener in comprehensibility, which this ‘Lingua Frankly’ blogger also acknowledges, if very briefly, when he/she mentions how language teachers are disproportionately skilled at understanding L2 users’ English due to their familiarity with their speech. One thing he/she overtly assumes, though (like so many others) is that the judge of intelligibility will be a native speaker. For some 80% of interactions in English nowadays, this probably won’t be the case.

      It’s an interesting point about cumulative issues rendering speech potentially less intelligible than if just one sound were substituted, and one I’d be keen to read more on if you come across any more links!

      Laura

  2. Hi Laura – thanks for that round-up of ads – though I was sad to see George Clooney taking the Nestle dollar.

    Have you seen the José Mota sketches about ‘invented languages’ – Chinese, German and Egyptian are ones he’s tackled so far. According to his character, they’re the languages people only speak outside their own homes, to impress visitors and tourists. Mr Mota’s a thoughtful man, and he’s expressing something about how only our own language or accent sounds truly ‘real’ to us. Just as foreign money always looks like play money. Here’s the German sketch – I don’t know if you speak Spanish, but you’ll get the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eoM8f9Ed4o

    All best wishes
    Elaine

  3. Louise

    I saw that Las Vegas tourism advert on the Glasgow subway too. Apparently Glaswegians and Londoners have equally attractive accents! I cringe every time a Dolmio advert comes on (but absolutely love the Compare the Meerkat adverts). Interesting post! 🙂

    (PS can’t think of many examples but there is one for a Lenor product featuring someone called Amy Sedaris. Apparently she does the adverts for the equivalent brand in the US but I’ve no idea why they used her for the UK adverts too, since she’s not very well known at all. Also she has an accent which I find incredibly irritating.)

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