Over the counter euphemisms

August 18, 2008

How I adore the infinitely tenuous relationship between over-the-counter medications and the gross physical maladies they purport to cure! The drugstore is already the storehouse of curatives for only the petty, inglorious, and mortifying illnesses of humankind — the fungal infections, the clogged pores, the corns and bunions of life — but the effort required to wrassle the disgusting messes of the body into socially acceptable prose can constitute a delicious sideline to a logophile.

Imagine, if you will, the young brand manager or copywriter who first described an expectorant as helping to “thin bronchial secretions to make coughs more productive”. I didn’t understand what this meant until I was like over 30 years old. It amounts to, “you’ll hack up gobs of rubbery yellow stuff, bit by painful bit, but it’s the only way to get over the chest infection that’s making you stupid and miserable”. And you know, sometimes that’s the message you need to hear — if only you could understand what they’re saying.

Or take the latest craze, “probiotics”. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with some good folks at an ad agency which handles one of the big accounts in this space, and of blurting out the indelible phrase “Oh is that the yogurt that makes you poop?” And you know, in person they actually agree with that description… but I guess it doesn’t make for very good ad copy, because the official promotional material for these products is so tangled up with terms like “digestive regulation” and “functional foods” that most people have no idea what the point of the stuff actually does.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if advertisers were required to state in 10 words or less what their product actually does. But then I always end up concluding that the indirection and lack of clarity are more snicker-worthy when all is said and done.

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