How subtle and effective is the use of words in this new age of electronic media? Plenty. Several examples from life in 2017:
TV (and the pharmaceutical industry) are in effect turning serious diseases into only annoying little problems through the use of cutsie names for the ailments and the drugs to treat them. So hepatitis C is “Hep C.” Hep! A little obsolete, but during the 1940s and 50s to be “hep” was to be in, with it, cool we would say today. So Hep C suggests young people dancing to swing bands, stylish clothing like zoot suits, and altogether a positive and pleasant state of being.
Atrial fibrillation is a dangerous heart problem. Its victims must be rushed, sometimes by helicopter to medical treatment when it is at its most serious. So now in drug ads it is “A-Fib.” The euphemisms are designed to click into your subconscious or conscious mind to produce a picture. A- fib clicks like this: Mom to seven-year-old “Did you tell a fib? Yes, you did but don’t cry like that. Come here and I’ll hug you. You won’t tell a fib again I know.” Comforting.
And the very word “chemo.” It’s an abbreviation, an easy-to-say label for chemotherapy, a process that is anything but easy. Serious cancer patients lie for hours supine and receive potent drugs which quiet the immune system, some say attack it. A recent advertisement shows a woman smelling her flowers and patting her dog with a loved one by her side, experiencing the effects of a certain drug. The nice situation was “After chemo.”
Drugs being advertised to combat the serious conditions also have sanitized, perfumed names.
Examining the words shows how sounds can affect the denotation of words: sweet, flowing words dull the senses, suggesting your problem can’t be all that serious. You are lifted into a poetic trance which last a few seconds with words which trip off the tongue. Soft-sounding consonants and Greek diphthongs: to treat your psoriasis you will get “Stelaia.” Suggestions of positivity: Optivo gives optimism to patients with a certain kind of cancer. All those consequences they announce at the end of the advertisement, which can cause sickness and “even death” can’t happen with a product with such a pretty sounding name. In parentheses is the unpronounceable official name of the product. How do they come up with these jaw-busters?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be softening the harsh effects of confronting these dread diseases, even with words, or praising the drugs which ameliorate the dire effects of those ailments. Of course we should be happy for relief from pain and suffering. It’s the cuteness I object to, the brushing off of the seriousness of the situation with coined words which are detached from the reality of the problems. And are designed to sell the medications for “Big Pharma.” It isn’t the same, but in their most dark form pharmaceutical company pain-killing drugs are sweeping the country and causing our most serious opiate addiction ever. It’s hard to trust these people to present the truth.
The ads themselves could be the subject of another column. I can’t decide what I think about the new trend of investment companies showing the life histories of men and women who are planning for retirement. Often these vignettes are excellently done, better than the TV shows they break from, and touching. They show downsides of lives, splits and deaths too. I expect they are effective, sending those who can afford to build large retirement funds into Charles Schwab or Raymond James. It is an example of the power of advertising and of the graphics and dramatic talent units which can prepare such fascinating stories of “life well lived.”
Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing
Check out Nancy Baxter’s books by clicking back to the Website. Her new book available June 1 is Cabinet of Curiosities of the Civil War in Indiana: Important, Moving and Sometimes Odd Stories from the Human Side of the War.