Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Call me paranoid, but the biggest source of worry for me involving language and thought (Linguistic Relativity) research is that the research and the ideas it creates will fall into the wrong hands. Given, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the atomic bomb or gunpowder, but it still has some potential for abuse, on a number of fronts.

Perhaps the most likely form of abuse would come from the corporate world. Marketing and advertising are a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone, and with a highly competitive market for many common goods, every company would like an “edge” that would bring the hearts and minds of the people over to their brand.

With enough money, any company can flood the airwaves, streets and billboards with their name and message. If Megacorp A wants you to buy from them, they can advertise as loudly, cleverly, or frequently as they like, but there’s still nothing keeping Megacorp B’s Ads from being just as loud, clever or frequent. New marketing techniques (such as Viral Marketing and new advertising media (internet ads, product placement, adware) can briefly give one company the edge, but the public will quickly move on and the technique may fade away. Right now, ads are only as effective as their exposure and presentation.

There have been efforts to gain the upper hand through other, less obvious (and more devious) means. One such effort is that of Subliminal Advertising. Designed to pass a message by our normal, everyday perception and straight into the mind, Subliminal messages are frequently used in Propaganda, but can occasionally be found in advertising. Take this example:

During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, a television ad campaigning for Republican candidate George W. Bush showed words (and parts thereof) scaling from the foreground to the background on a television screen. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on the screen, one frame showed only the last part, RATS. Democrats promptly asked the FCC to look into the matter, but no penalties were ever assessed in the case. The effect this had on the overall presidential race was unclear.

(From the Wikipedia site on Subliminal Messages)

Subliminal messages are discouraged in advertising, and the FCC and National Association of Broadcasting have both banned the use of Subliminal messages in programming or advertising (More information…), even without conclusive evidence of their effectiveness. Subliminal messages are relatively easy to find and demonstrate, and they are rare enough that having one found and exposed can be a public relations disaster for advertisers.

So what does language and thought have to do with it?

If language used does in fact affect our thoughts (both consciously and unconsciously), then a whole new avenue of research is open to exploitation by those few whose greed may outweigh their ethical standards.

Already, there have been innocuous forays into subtly structuring language to slip a message, feeling or idea by the listener. There are firms who exist solely to advise marketers about potential product names based on their “sound symbolism”. According to these people, certain language sounds denote slowness, daring, or pleasant feelings. Thus, through some strange combination of aesthetics and subliminal suggestion, they claim to be able to design a product name which helps to place your product above the competition’s in the mind of the customer.

As research into the interaction of language and thought continues, more and more techniques will arise to help get Megacorp A’s message into your head more quickly, efficiently, and powerfully than Megacorp B’s. Now more than ever, linguists and psychologists are being snatched up into the corporate world with the goal of learning how to better influence people. Ph.D’s are pitted against preteens in a battle for their purchasing power, and with the advancement of research, there are more and more tantalizing techniques for them to try each day.

Just like fire, gunpowder or dynamite, psychological and linguistic research in this field can be used both for and against the good of the everyday person. I do believe that the increased understanding that can be found through this research will be of benefit to psychology, linguistics, and our understanding of the human mind. However, we must always be on the lookout for the few bad eggs who might want to use these ideas for less-than-ethical purposes.

If all words hypnotize, then it’s vital to not only recognize who your hypnotists are, but also how they do what they do.


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