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.