Adjectives in Advertising - an Analysis

Seminar Paper, 2008

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Adjectives: characteristics, functions and occurrence in advertising

3. Adjectives in different fields of advertising

4. Adjectives in cosmetic and beauty treatment advertising

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix

1. Introduction

Together with the spreading commercialization, mass production and globalization especially in the 20th century, advertisement has become a significant and an omnipresent feature of our civilization and of our cultural life.

Wherever we are, we behold advertisings of different kind and various appearance.

Walking through the streets, we see panels and luminous advertisings; browsing through newspapers and magazines, we notice advertisements; watching TV, we are confronted with commercials.

In addition to written media, advertising has moreover occupied radio, television - consider those channels presenting products all day long - and finally the Internet.

Ads can be inconspicuously small, black-and-white and located in the utter corner of a magazine, but they may also be eye-catching, startling, remarkable through the involvement of celebrities, sex or the innovative, surprising use of metaphors, questions or neologisms.

Owing to this polymorphism and prevalence, but also due to the importance of advertisement to society, this subject has ever been extensively analyzed and discussed by scholars from different academic disciplines. In linguistics, scholars like Leech[1] and experts such as the advertiser Ogilvy[2] published important works about advertisement.

Many theories about many aspects have been developed, but generally, one can say the following: the chief purpose of advertising is - e.g. according to Lewis' A.I.D.A.-model - to successively attract the consumer, to create an interest for the product or service, to make the recipient desire the advertised product and - finally - to induce an action, i.e. the purchase of the product[3].

In a “commercial consumer advertising” (Leech 1966, 25) public sellers, non-profit-making bodies or private individuals attempt to convince the consumer to buy their product A rather than to choose the competitive products B, C or D (Leech 1966, 26).

At best, a process of persuasion is actuated and, in the end, successful.

This term-paper is - among other things - meant to present the role adjectives play in this whole process of advertising.

With a restriction to written advertisement, the following questions are to be answered:

Can adjectives accomplish to attract a consumer? Can they initiate interest, desire or the action of buying the product?

In addition to these basic aspects, it is examined, which adjectives are primarily employed in advertising in general as well as in advertisings of particular product groups.

In this context, both examinations by scholars as well as an own analysis of a corpus covering different editions of the magazines Glamour and Cosmopolitan from 2004 to 2007 will be juxtaposed.

Further questions will be answered with special reference to cosmetic and body care advertising.

In which position do the respective adjectives occur in a phrase or sentence and why? Is it possible to assign adjectives to particular sub-groups within the larger product group of cosmetics?

Which adjectives do occur in a compound construction?

Every result will be underlined by exemplary advertisings taken from secondary literature as well as from the magazines and the Internet.

Before starting with the outlined course, the adjective in general will be shortly presented with the help of works like “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language” by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik[4].

2. Adjectives: characteristics, functions and occurrence in advertising

The first and fundamental question to be answered before examining the use of adjectives in advertising in detail is: what actually are adjectives and what function do they fulfill?

In her text, MacFadyen[5] defines the function of adjectives as “describing, identifying, or quantifying words” (MacFadyen, 1).

Similar to this statement, the OED considers an adjective to be “a word standing for the name of an attribute, which being added to the name of a thing describes the thing more fully or definitely”.[6] Applying this characteristic to advertising, this would mean that adjectives are basically used to describe or evaluate the respective product or service.

This can either be done by underlining what the respective product is and can do or - as opposed to this - what the advertised product is not.

That is to say the product is presented either together with approbatory adjectives such as 'good' and 'fine' or together with disapprobatory adjectives like 'bad' or 'worse' (Leech 1966, 31 & 153).

In adding an approbatory adjective to the description of an advertised product or service a positive flavor is conveyed. Using disapprobatory adjectives would yield the contrary result.

In this context, Barthel[7] uses the adjective 'ordinary' as an example to explain the consequence of employing the respective positively or negatively connoted adjectives.

She reveals that “Ordinary is an adjective used by advertisers only to indicate what their product is not. What their product by contrast is, is variously luxurious, extravagant, sumptuous, rare (ibid., 91).

Leech says that disapprobatory adjectives only occur in a very low frequency (ibid., 153). This could be explained by considering that advertisers reluctantly want to link their product with a negative connotation, even if the disapprobatory adjective is used in a comparison with a competing product or just utilized to stress what the product is not.

Advertisers want to cast a positive light on their product and by breaking the positive description through the inclusion of disapprobatory adjectives, this light could be blurred.

In addition to the dichotomy mentioned above, adjectives can be further subdivided into five different groups, as Gieszinger states on page 132 of her work[8].

First, there is an ordinary, “base form” (Gieszinger 2001, 132). An example for this is set by the advertising of a foundation by Biotherm, which reads as follows:


Long Wear
Detox Foundation

Innovative skin caring formula stays on
and stays comfortable for up to 14 hours”.[9]

In this example, adjectives like 'new', 'long' and 'innovative' are base forms serving the purpose of arousing the consumer's interest by stressing that both the product and its effect are 'new' and 'innovative' and thus worth to be bought.

Comparatives like 'better' or 'nicer' as well as superlatives as 'best' or 'newest' cover further sub­groups (Gieszinger 2001, 132). These forms are obviously meant both to attract the consumer and to convince the reader that the advertised product is better than other ones. An exemplary superlative can be found in an advertisement of a mascara by Chanel:



Intense Volume And Curl Mascara

A Special Preview Opportunity
Shop The Newest Chanel Mascara Before Anyone Else”.[10]

So, similar as in the advertisement by Biotherm, the products innovativeness is emphasized, although in this case this happens in an even stronger way by upgrading the mascara by dint of the superlative 'newest'

Adjectives of the fourth group, “intensifying adjectives” (Gieszinger 2001, 132), are preceded by intensifying adverbs like “very” or “much” (ibid., 132) as in an advertising of a lip-stick by Lancôme. The reader's desire for the product is triggered by the promise that the consumer's lips will be “absolutely voluptuous”[11] after she (or he) will have used the product.

The last group is made up of implicit superlatives. These superlatives ('perfect', 'unique') express a superior quality just by their denotation and not by a form, which is typical of superlatives (ibid., 132).

In Barthel's work, an advertising of a product by Oil of Olay contains such an adjective: “The ritual that helps you look younger. It starts with one extraordinary drop. A beauty fluid that penetrates quickly, greaselessly restoring what every day takes away” (Barthel 1988, 152).

In this case, the adjective 'extraordinary' sets of the product against other ones by implicitly establishing a comparison.

Besides presenting different types of adjectives, Gieszinger also informs us about their use in advertising.

She conveys that the elevation of a product or service through superlatives has decreased in the course of time (Gieszinger 2001, 133).

Yet, the “relative praise” (ibid., 133) of products by means of comparatives or within advertisements without a comparison at all has increased (ibid., S, 133).

This coincides with a statement by Joel Raphaelson, a partner of the famous advertiser David Ogilvy: in the past, just about every advertiser has assumed that in order to sell his goods he has to convince consumers that his product is superior to his competitor's ... It may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good. If the consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels uncertain about your competitor's, he will buy yours ... don't try to imply that your product is better. Just say what's good about your product. (Ogilvy 2001, 19)

So, the integration of superlatives may negatively influence the consumer's attitude towards the advertised product. Exaggeratedly praising a product or service can call forth distrust.

Psychologists working with commercial consumer advertisement accordingly assume that the use of superlatives reduces the credibility and the trustworthiness of a product (Gieszinger 2001, 135), which accords Raphaelson's advice.

By using weaker comparatives or even “the base form [which] has always been used most frequently” (ibid., 137), one can avoid this negative effect.

When one considers the enhanced competition in business between numerous companies and countless products, this favor of weaker forms seems nevertheless surprising.

In addition to this general distinction between various groups of adjectives, there are also different criteria an adjective can satisfy.

Having e.g. an attributive function, an adjective pre-modifies a noun. It appears between the determiner and the head of a NP as in “an ugly painting” (Quirk et al. 2000, 402).

Leech explains that pre-modifying adjectives denote a specific category of a product, to be exact, they have a categorizing function (Leech 1966, 128). Quirk et. al. in turn add that adjectives restricted to attributive positions do not characterize the referent of the noun directly (Quirk et al 2000, 428).

Adjectives can moreover function as a subject or an object complement, viz. they have a predicative function as in “the painting is ugly” (ibid., 403).

These adjectives tend to refer to a temporal situation rather than to a characteristic of the associated referent (ibid., 432).

Taking these aspects into consideration, this could mean that an exemplified advertising such as 'the new lotion is inexpensive' leads to the following assumptions:

1. by using the adjective 'new' in an attributive way, the product is classified into the group of products being innovative. The less eye-catching position of the adjective between the determiner and the noun could convey that this particular characteristic is well-known by the consumer and therefore not extraordinarily stressed.
2. by using the adjective 'inexpensive' in a predicative way at the end of the sentence, this characteristic of the product is syntactically emphasized.

Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik also explicate a semantic classification of adjectives.

In doing so, they mention stative / dynamic, gradable / nongradable and inherent / noninherent adjectives (ibid., 434).

According to these authors, adjectives are mostly stative, i.e. they cannot be used with the progressive aspect or with the imperative (ibid., 434).


[1] Leech, Geoffrey. English in Advertising - A Linguistic Study of Advertising in Great Britain. London: Longman, 1966; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Leech 1966.

[2] Ogilvy, David. Ogilvy on Advertising. London: Prion Books 2001; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Ogilvy 2001.

[3] Wells, William & Sandra Moriarty & John Barnett. Advertising: Principles & Practice. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education 2006, p. 102; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Wells & Moriarty & Barnett 2006.

[4] Quirk, Randolph & Sidney Greenbaum & Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman 2000; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Quirk et al. 2000.

[5] MacFadyen, Heather. What is an Adjective? In:

<> [accessed on 31.07.08].

[6] “Adjective”. In: < query_type=word&queryword=Adj ective&first= 1 &max_to_show= 10&sort_type=alpha&result_place= 1 &search_id =0HkR-hyEfNn-2006&hilite=50002720> [accessed on 31.07.08].

[7] Barthel, Diane. Putting on Appearance: Gender and Advertising. Philadelphia: Templeton University Press 1988; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Barthel 1988.

[8] Gieszinger, Sabine. The History of Advertising Language. Frankfurt a. M. : Lang 2001; quotes from this text will from now on be referred to as Gieszinger 2001.

[9] Long Wear Detox <>.

[10] Exceptionnel Mascara <>.

[11] L'Absolu Rouge <>.

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Adjectives in Advertising - an Analysis
RWTH Aachen University
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Patrick Schmitz (Author)Sebastian Meß (Author), 2008, Adjectives in Advertising - an Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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