A post concerning the problem with Language

After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?

Russell Hoban

Just what exactly is it you do for a living, Tom?

It’s a familiar question and I must admit it is one that instantly turns my blood cold. Sat at a friend’s house on Saturday I attempted to answer in some sort of reasonable way. I’ve struggled for close to a decade to explain to people what it is that I do, and I’m yet to be convinced that I’ve ever really succeeded.

My first instinct is always to go into far too much detail, using language that is dense and specialised. Far from actually helping someone understand, they usually end up more confused than when they started.

In the end, I just said I try and get people to watch telly. Whilst reductive, this was a sufficient answer and one that allowed us to both to move on to far more interesting topics of conversation.

Driving home I thought about this some more, and I was reminded of a story told to me by one of my A-Level teachers during a Philosophy of Religion lesson. He told the class about what affect Western explorers had on the indigenous population of South America –  “strangely” he said “when the native population came into contact with Christian Missionaries from the ‘civilised world’, shortly afterward there would be a sharp increase in the number of ‘miracles’ reported”. (Disclaimer – this is obviously paraphrased, and sadly I cannot Google accurately enough to find a similar story)

Visions, healings and epiphanies were reported in their droves where before there had been none

The point is, he said, was that this was an example of what Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called Language Game Theory. The teaching of Christian doctrine had not triggered these events; instead what it had done was arm those people with a vocabulary, and accordingly a way of describing and explaining something that they’d been previously unable to.

We understand how a game is played when we are familiar with the rules. Language, Wittgenstein suggests, is exactly the same. We need to know what the rules are before we know how to play. Context, usage, signifiers and signs are all equal parts of the system.

According to the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, a crude example of a Language game would be Wittgenstein’s ‘builders language’. The example is as follows:

The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language

Following this logic, the reason I have trouble explaining what I do is because my first instinct is to use a system or game that my friends do not understand the rules of. As well as helping me understand why I should change my approach to talking to my friends, Wittgenstein’s theory also highlights a wider problem that exists for the marketing and advertising community.

Taking a step back for a moment to distill the problem and the players involved – our industry hinges on the relationship between businesses and their agencies, and the public, or the ‘consumer’, on the other. The crucial link between these two parties is that most ethereal of things, the ‘brand’.  Surrounding the brand is a supporting cast of tools and levers; advertising and communications, products and services, retail, price, staff and customer service; all of which feed into the notion of an individual brand and the associated perceptions. A brand which when we get down to it is simply ‘a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer’ and no more.

The problem that exists is caused because both parties joined by the idea of the brand; use different systems of language to think about the brand in question. Agencies, Marketing departments and Advertisers (a group hereafter referred to Advertisers) think and talk about brands in a very different way to the end user, the public. They use different language games, games that have vastly different rules. This problem is further compounded because the system of language used by Agencies is not only descriptive – as in the case of the Wittgenstein’s ‘builders language’ example – but also prescriptive; it is a system of language that informs the attitudes and behaviour of the people who use it.

Advertisers talk about fans and super fans, engagement, audiences, participation, sharing, virality, bonding, love, relationships, disruption, interruption, influencers, dialogue and conversations. As Martin Weigel says in his brilliant document How to (not) Fail – “It’s the language of consumers giving a shit…. So if you want to fail, do this; assume that people care about brands, assume that people want to have a relationship with your brand”.  This is not the way ‘consumers’ (itself a word which perverts our image of the public) talk about their experience of brands, and the language we use helps us make these assumptions. This language system is a relatively new one, and one perpetuated by the arrival of ‘web 2.0’, the second generation of the internet which is predicated on social media, high bandwidths, and intuitive and frictionless publishing tools.

This language is governing the way Advertisers approach creativity, problem solving and how briefs are answered, and we’re doing it wrong.

In stark contrast to the modern view, traditionally brands were thought of as passive – as heuristics, or rules of thumb, which aid decision-making. This view is one supported by modern neuroscience and behavioural economics; Daniel Kahneman’s stunning Thinking, Fast and Slow paints a fascinating picture of just how dominant the instinctive and almost automatic ‘System one’ part of the brain is in decision making and behaviour. Successful brands therefore, could be the ones we think about least, not the ones who court conversation and want a fulfilling relationship with their purchasers.

This problem is compounded when it comes to measurement – how Advertisers assess the efficacy of their work.  When it comes to research, again, we ask people to describe their relationships with brands in a way they simply don’t normally think of them. Because most of the decisions around purchasing are made by Kahneman’s system 1 brain, rather than the ‘rational’ and conscious System 2 that we ask to answer our research questions, the answers we get are always going to be false. As David Ogilvy once suggested “people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say”.

Advertisers believe in the power of the language they use. To the point where perhaps the biggest truth about brands is overlooked, that it is not always what they say – usually via advertising and communications that makes the most difference – but what they do, how they act, the body language of the brand that can really have the most impact in people’s lives.

Pete Buckley’s President’s Prize winning IPA thesis provides a useful roadmap for moving away from telling – using a language the end user doesn’t understand or care about– to showing, through signs the buyer innately and instinctively (via the dominant System 1) comprehends and digests. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. Implicit communication through brand behaviour is a useful tool in reinforcing, strengthening and compounding the brand associations that make up ‘perceptions in the mind of the consumer’.

What can we do about this then? The answer, as well as the problem, lies with Wittgenstein. As Karl Johnson, playing the philosopher in Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein says “If a lion could speak we would not be able to understand what he said… it’s what we do and who we are that gives meaning to our words. I can’t understand a lion because I don’t know what his world is like. I don’t know the world a lion inhabits”.

Perhaps then the answer is simple. We must change the system of language we use, we must play a different language game, we must remember that we are people ourselves first and foremost, and marketers second. We must remember to use the language we speak every day. Abandoning the empty, prescriptive buzzwords of our professional environment. We must remember the language we use with our friends, with our families, the language we use to describe our hobbies, our fears, our loves, hopes and dreams. It is this language, not the hyperbolic and shallow words of our days jobs which will drive us to deliver better work, because it is the language of behaviour, of humanity – a true system for describing why people work the way they do.

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1 Response to A post concerning the problem with Language

  1. Pingback: A post concerning the problem with Language | ChristianBookBarn.com

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