Bad Grammar Are Bad for Branding

Why is marketing becoming increasingly illiterate?

Just in case you haven’t checked in a while, the English language continues a steady slide into the ditch—and it’s not just texting that’s to blame, it’s marketing. Whether online or on the packaging, brands seem to be forgetting the spelling and grammar we all supposedly learned in grade school.

Photo: SWNS

A few weeks ago, for example, U.K. teen Albert Gifford made social media headlines by correcting the syntax on a carton of Tesco orange juice that claimed to be the “most tastiest.” (The chain apologized and fixed the double superlative.)

Remember February’s Super Bowl spot for SodaStream? It was the one with Scarlett Johansson enthusing about “Less sugar, less bottles.” (Except that it’s fewer bottles, Scarlett.)

In 2011, Old Navy had to send back an entire shipment of sports team T-shirts when the “Lets Go!” lettering omitted the apostrophe before the “s.” Too bad Victoria’s Secret didn’t take a lesson. Last year the clothing brand dropped a needless apostrophe (“You’ve never seen body’s like this!”) into its Secret Body campaign.

How is it that mega brands with eight-figure marketing budgets have gotten so careless? Language police blame everything from the hyper informality brought about by social media to the fact that (yes, here it comes) those Gen Y kids entering corporate America simply don’t know how to write. In fact, pre-teens appear to be even worse. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a mere 32 percent of the nation’s eighth graders are proficient in language skills.

More to the point, there’s evidence that slovenly prose affects the bottom line, too.

“Being able to write without error, be it grammar or typos, is an important skill for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously in business,” says marketing consultant Debra Murphy. “People form their initial impressions based on what they see online.”

The data back her up. A study conducted late last year by U.K. firm Global Lingo found that 74 percent of consumers pay attention to the correctness of the prose on company Web sites, and 59 percent of respondents said they would avoid doing business with a company that’s made obvious errors. A more recent survey—this one published in March by Standing Dog Interactive—revealed that 58 percent of consumers were either “somewhat” or “very” annoyed by the presence of copy errors, with one respondent volunteering: “If … I see a typo, I’ll leave without buying a thing.” Yikes.

Fortunately, such militancy doesn’t appear to include beloved bits of branding that already bend the rules. Nobody’s suggesting that Apple’s “Think Different” should be corrected to read “Think Differently.” And while “Got Milk?” might be flat-out incorrect, “Do You Have Any Milk?” just lacks a certain kick.

But still, the long list of famous gaffes really ought to be enough to make companies pay closer attention to that ad copy. What brand wants to suffer the embarrassment that McDonald’s and Hardee’s did when both touted a new “Anus Burger”? Did that Days Inn location that advertised a “Free Wife” instead of free WiFi have to make good? For the record, even President Obama’s reelection campaign, fueled by a billion-dollar budget, apparently had no proofreaders for the banner ad that read: “We’ve come along way…” (Psst! It’s “a long,” Mr. President.)

Perhaps the wordsmiths at put it best: “Grammar—It’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.