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Does that bikini still fit?

Q: Is there a term for the overly familiar and presumptuous use of “that” and “those” in advertising? For example, “Organize that messy closet” or “Get rid of those unsightly stains in your sink.” It’s as if the ad writers have peered into our homes.

A: You’ve raised an interesting question, one that highlights something most of us are all too aware of: Advertisers use language in ways that ordinary people don’t.

“That” and “those” are good examples.

In your examples, “that” and its plural, “those,” are demonstrative adjectives (some prefer the term “demonstrative determiners”). They modify a  noun, in effect pointing at it, demonstrating which one (or ones) the speaker is referring to.

In ordinary sentences like “Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet,” the demonstrative adjectives point to the nouns, as if to demonstrate which dog Sam misses, which sneakers belong to Janet.

But in the ad slogans you mention, “that” and “those” aren’t used as in ordinary English.

Normally, “that” and “those” (like “this” and “these”) refer to nouns that actually exist—“that dog,” “those sneakers.” Their existence is a fact, something the speaker and the audience take for granted.

But an anonymous, impersonal voice telling you to “organize that messy closet” or “get rid of those unsightly stains” isn’t pointing to an actual condition in your house.

Instead, the speaker is presupposing its existence and treating it as a fact. So the slogans are examples of what a linguist would call “presupposition.”

As The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says, “The information contained in a presupposition is backgrounded, taken for granted, presented as something that is not currently at issue.”

In these ad slogans, the presupposed information is that you have a messy closet and a sink with unsightly stains.

In a study entitled “Presupposition, Persuasion and Mag Food Advertising” (2012), Tamara Bouso uses the example “Do you expect to fit into that beach bikini in the New Year?”

This sales pitch presupposes not only that the consumer has such a bikini but that she’s probably too fat to wear it.

Another author, Judy Delin, says presupposition “plays an important role in the construction of advertising messages in general” (The Language of Everyday Life, 2000). The use of demonstrative adjectives, she says, is one form of presupposition.

You ask whether there’s a name for demonstrative adjectives used in this presumptuous way. As a matter of fact, a couple of names have been proposed.

In a 2006 paper, “That’s That: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Demonstrative Noun Phrases,” the linguist Lynsey Kay Wolter calls such terms “emotive demonstratives.”

Why “emotive?” Because, Wolter writes, such terms convey a sense that both speaker and listener “share some relevant knowledge or emotion about the referent of the demonstrative”—that is, the noun it points to.

And writing on the Language Log in 2008, the linguist Mark Liberman calls these words “affective demonstratives.” Like “emotive,” the term “affective” implies an emotional element—in this case familiarity or shared experience.

“Affective demonstratives,” Liberman says, “invite the audience onto a common ground of shared knowledge (or perhaps I should say, ‘that common ground of shared knowledge’).”

In response, one Language Log contributor writes, “I’ve noticed this type of device in advertising a lot,” and provides this example:

“By earning more income through our work-at-home program, you’ll be able to afford that new car, to finally take that vacation you’ve been dreaming of!”

It’s no mystery why advertisers are so fond of demonstrative adjectives. Like the definite article “the,” these words presuppose that the accompanying nouns actually exist.

So they hint that the speaker knows you: “that messy closet” points at your closet. In this way, demonstrative adjectives can create a false sense of familiarity, of intimacy with the consumer.

It’s interesting to note that in the neutral examples we mentioned earlier (“Sam misses that dog” and “Those sneakers belong to Janet”), you could say the same thing less demonstratively by substituting “the” for “that” or “those”:

“Sam misses the dog” and “The sneakers belong to Janet.”

But “the” works only when the audience knows which dog or sneakers are referred to. “The” wouldn’t work in the advertising examples, unless the nouns had been mentioned before.

The ad writers would have to use an indefinite article (“organize a messy closet”) or nothing at all (“get rid of unsightly stains”). But then, of course, they’d lose the familiar tone they’re trying to cultivate.

This forced intimacy can strike listeners as intrusive or annoying, especially those with tidy closets and spotless sinks. A presupposition that’s wrong can backfire.

As Lynsey Wolter says in her paper, “Consider a situation in which the speaker assumes that an emotion is shared, but the addressee resists this assumption. In these circumstances an emotive demonstrative … feels intrusive or patronizing.”

As we said above, demonstrative adjectives point to things. And this isn’t always appropriate. After all, weren’t we taught that it’s not polite to point?

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