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Major Brands, Major Mistakes

Back to school is as good a time as any to point out that several major brands have invested in ad companies that can't edit their copy.

What do Mercedes-Benz, Colgate and L’Oreal all have in common? None of their copy editors know the difference between “less” and “fewer”. Recently, all three brands have been running commercials that have essentially sent them into the battlefield to slaughter the English language.

First, let’s define the difference between “less” and “fewer”. We use “fewer” with items that can be counted, and “less” with things which cannot be counted: less rain, fewer raindrops.

The misuse of grammar is damaging in several ways. First, it can confuse the message one is trying to get across. The improper use of a comma can throw a sentence into a complete tailspin. A famous example of this is the phrase “Let’s eat, Grandpa”. If you remove the comma you have “Let’s eat Grandpa.” As you can clearly see, one tiny comma means the difference between suggesting a wonderful meal with your beloved grandparent and encouraging others to descend into cannibalism and madness.

Second, when one misuses grammar, there is a danger of not being taken seriously or being perceived as unintelligent by potential employers or even friends and relatives. In short, it can make you look stupid.

No one wants to be perceived as less intelligent, become unemployable or miscommunicate their message. That’s why it’s important for major brands to uphold good standards.

Brands that advertise widely have a social responsibility to promote clear messages and the proper use of language. Otherwise, as we lose these standards, the message becomes muddled, the brand runs the risk of looking ridiculous, and the economy could end up suffering. Misuse of language also sets a terrible example for impressionable children who are subject to hearing these commercials. The mistake could become normalized, permanent and difficult to correct.

In major commercial spots running during prime time hours, L’Oreal claims its cream will give you “less dark spots”; Colgate says its toothpaste will give you “less germs” and Mercedes boasts that one of its cars has “less doors.”

All of these examples are incredibly cringe-inducing, but possibly none more so than the Mercedes spot. This brand claims it is dedicated to excellence, yet allowed this enormous error to slip through onto the airwaves. Worse yet, Mercedes defends it. A recent inquiry to the Mercedes-Benz Facebook page resulted in the following claim:

“The choice of words was actually intentional. The advertising team is a big fan of creative license. In this case, we're told that they chose the word "less" because it's the direct opposite of "more" (which is used several times in the commercial).”

It is true that “less” is the opposite of “more”, but so is “fewer” in the context of the commercial. That fact makes it very difficult to believe that the copy editors would have purposely incorporated such a big gaffe into the ad. Why make an intentional mistake when the correct term has the exact same meaning?

One blogger described the commercial as “nails on a chalkboard” while another said Mercedes is conducting a “war on grammar”. Is that the kind of reputation Mercedes wants to promote? Certainly the target demographic here is well-educated and rather wealthy, and it doesn’t make sense to alienate them, because they are most likely going to catch the mistake.

One commenter on Mercedes' Facebook page argued that language is always evolving, and that is true, but the commercial does not represent an evolution of language; it represents an error that really needs to be corrected.

Mercedes, L’Oreal and Colgate: I propose you rectify this situation by pulling these ads, which sully your brand and tarnish your reputation. Replace them with well-written and captivating content that not only grabs the public’s attention but strengthens your commitment to good standards. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

john r August 28, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Haven't really paid much attention to commercials, but I will now to point out to my kids how they are disregarding grammar.
Larry Johnston August 28, 2012 at 04:09 PM
This is a really good article. I had thought I was going crazy and was the only person to notice this. I see poor grammar everywhere and incorrect spellings printed in articles, menus, advertisements and so on. It is a slippery slope, I know I sound a thousand years old but I think it just bothers me because I'm a craftsman by trade and feel like detail is important and is lost in this day and age.
SharonKnox August 28, 2012 at 04:39 PM
Good for you for supporting correct use of the English language!!!! And I totally agree that Mercedes Benz Corp of all companies should not "dumb down" the ads, because lets face it, a major majority of the population will never be able to afford their cars any way. The least they can do is set the standard for excellence, even if it's just to use correct grammar. And I almost can't believe all the college educated wealthy people out there didn't take offense. And…what college educated English/Lit/writing major would have failed for using incorrect grammar on a paper?? Let alone on purpose??
Shachi August 28, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Wonderful article Rebecca! I find it very annoying even when ads tweek the spellings to sound cute like cool would be kool. I am not an expert but still would not like to see my grammar intelligence get dumber when I see top brand make mistakes as such! Thank you for retaining the value and throwing light on the importance of correct grammar in life.
Kristine August 28, 2012 at 05:42 PM
THANK YOU!!!! As a middle school English teacher, I am CONSTANTLY being argued with when my lessons contradict the media. Will there be more articles in this series? The misuse of apostrophes in written copy for example?
Mary Kay August 28, 2012 at 06:03 PM
There is a sign at a farm stand in the area reading "New Jersey Tomatos." I want to throw up every time I see it. I can't be the ONLY person who sees the glaring spelling error!
Matt Skoufalos (Editor) August 28, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Becky, to come full circle on this: John Hamm of Mad Men fame performs the voiceover in the Mercedes spot. Worlds collide!
Rebecca Savastio August 28, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Oh my goodness, Matt, I didn't even realize that! I wish he would have said something to them regarding the mistake; Oh well, at least he has his looks...
Bonita Applebum August 28, 2012 at 07:04 PM
Must try harder advertisers! Especially premium brands - geez, do they really want to be associated with improper uses of the language?
Porterincollingswood August 28, 2012 at 07:07 PM
It comes down to how people react to words. "Less" is read by the consumer as "the problem is going away". Even though that is not the actual promise implied. "Fewer" is read as "the problem will remain, but in a reduced manner". And who wants that? People who buy a Mercedes buy it because of what the brand says about them - they have money. The tone of the commercial matters, the visuals matter, the brand matters...sadly, the exact grammar doesn't.
Vain Glory August 28, 2012 at 07:09 PM
The Colgate commercial is the reason why I switched brands. There are people like me who are HUGE snobs when it comes to things like this. I will NOT support illiteracy; I spend my career trying to FIX these things!
Karen B. August 29, 2012 at 03:05 AM
Brava, Rebecca! I agree with your observations and applaud you for writing this article. I'm bemused by the response that the Mercedes Benz corporation offered to you in defense of their right to poetic license. While I'm generally an avid proponent of artists using colloquialisms (which is markedly different from erroneous grammar choices) in dialogue and written word as a means to convey a mood or feeling - in the context of vehicle advertisement it is a major fail. I expect Mercedes Benz to breed confidence in consumers by illuminating the genius of their safety, efficacy, and engineering standards. Using poor grammar doesn't help to bolster my faith in the brand. My favorite ad campaign was for Volvo in 1988: a photo of a Volvo with a clean backdrop and the simple caption, "Flaunt Your Intelligence." Very effective!
Joseph Russell August 29, 2012 at 03:45 AM
Definitely agree with this. That very same "less doors" ad really bugged me too. It's one thing for a random store sign to improperly use quotes for emphasis or for someone to use an apostrophe when they just want to pluralize a word, but for a big-budget ad campaign to say "less" instead of "fewer" doors is mind-blowing.
Christi L August 29, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Amen sister! Ah, do I love misplaced commas. I like them almost as much as I like literally reading sentences that don't use the oxford comma.
Future Old Angry Italian Guy August 29, 2012 at 10:19 AM
Thank you for noticing the errors.
John Daly August 29, 2012 at 01:53 PM
My biggest pet peeve in life: INSTITUTIONAL MISSPELLINGS! The Mazda Millenia? Sounds like a blood disease: "I have millenia". After years of telling my kids the word is pronounced 'ARC-TIC', Molson comes out with 'Artic' Ice. It bothers me to no end!
Rebecca Savastio August 29, 2012 at 05:34 PM
"I have Millenia" LOL!!!!
Shirley August 29, 2012 at 08:37 PM
I’ve been mourning the disappearance of the contraction for ‘there are’. It must have been banned by the television newsreaders’ guild. Thank you for a lovely article.
Porterincollingswood August 29, 2012 at 08:51 PM
I bet you LOVE the Krispy Kreme!!!
Ric September 03, 2012 at 07:52 PM
So what you are saying is that advertisers have to decide between proper English or more sales. Wonder which one they will choose?

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