Bathroom ambiguity

« previous post | next post »

Any self-respecting copywriter has a decent mastery of ambiguity. It’s a staple of advertising, but it takes some skill. It’s not that ambiguous language is difficult to find or construct—on the contrary, it would be no easy task to avoid using language that contains potential ambiguity. The trick is to use ambiguous language in such a way that a) the audience becomes aware of the ambiguity, perhaps at a specific, crucial moment in viewing the ad, and b) the two meanings rub against each other in a stimulating manner.

This is no small trick. Most of the ambiguity contained in normal language use is passed over without any awareness on the audience’s part of the potential for double meanings. If one of the two intended meanings in an ad happens to be too faint, the ad must do something to fortify it and nudge it over the threshold of awareness. For instance, an ad that ran some time ago for British Airways used the tagline “Showers expected upon arrival.” To make it clear to the reader that showers could also refer to the bathing facilities that were available in the airline's lounge at Heathrow Airport, the advertisers resorted to a fairly crude visual technique: a photo of a showerhead accompanied the tagline.

Much more sophisticated is the use of ambiguity in the following:

Are you up in the air about your future? Maybe that’s where you belong.

The ad was placed by the U.S. Air Force, whose logo appeared in the usual lower right hand corner of the print ad. I’m guessing that a typical reader response looks something like this: The idiomatic reading of “up in the air” is far more accessible in the first sentence than the literal one, and is perhaps the only meaning that the reader registers. The second sentence prompts a reanalysis, with the anaphoric where pointing to a definite spatial location, but it’s still not really clear how this second sentence fits in coherently with the first, on either the literal or idiomatic reading—until the reader’s eye lands on the logo, and voilà—the literal reading is further primed, and the identity of the sponsor now allows the reader to fit all the pieces together.

Such manipulation of context, to render meeker meanings more assertive, is part-and-parcel of the adept use of ambiguity. But at times, contexts that are outside of the control of the creators of the ad focus attention on meanings that were, alas, not at all what the advertisers had in mind, as in the following ad for Brinkhaus jewelers, spotted at the Calgary airport:


No doubt, all that the copywriters intended to do was to evoke the sense of a loved one’s face reddening with excitement upon opening a lavish gift (well, that and what happens next, perhaps). But the unfortunate placement of the ad right next to the airport bathrooms enhances the accessibility of the more bathroomy meanings of both cheeks and flush.


  1. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

    I don't read "showers" in the British Airways example as meaning anything other than a place to wash. Is the meaning that's supposed to be obvious related to showing your ticket to security/the gate agent before you board? And is there something in British airport culture that would make this the obvious meaning?

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:29 pm

    I initially read the Air Force slogan to mean "maybe you belong in the future."

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

    Mara K: Presumably the more typical meaning is meteorological: "Light rain is forecast for your destination."

    There's a rather leaden example of this kind of ambiguity from a company in my area: its parking facilities have signs with the slogan "Expect a lot!"

  4. Boson said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Having read the introduction about ambiguity, I also first thought of some cruciverbalist pun related to no-shows. Only when that didn't work did I think about following March winds.

  5. Jen said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    Mara K: I think it's just a weather report – only they turn out to be a good kind of showers. But I could be missing something – I hadn't thought of the pun on show.

  6. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    No, the weather meaning makes sense. I hadn't thought of that.

  7. Guy said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 4:13 pm

    Mara K, I believe the other intended interpretation of "showers" is light rain. The sentence is to be read as a weather condition forecast.

  8. Guy said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    And after posting I now see the other comments that weren't showing already addressed your question.

  9. Rory O’Kane said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

    @Mara K

    I think “showers” is supposed to refer to rain, as in “light showers”. Since I have heard pilots describe the weather over the intercom after touchdown, I guess some flyers (businesspeople?) really care about the weather at their destination, and read forecasts about it ahead of time.

  10. Thomas Rees said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    Mara K: Britain is notoriously rainy.

  11. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    Thomas: I have lived in Pittsburgh and Vancouver, both of which are also notoriously rainy, so there's got to be some irony in the fact that I missed the "rain" meaning.

  12. Margaret Dean said,

    July 10, 2015 @ 9:25 pm

    This reminds me of a sign I saw once at (IIRC) a car repair shop: "Quality is not an option!" I think I know what they actually meant — it's not optional, you get it without asking — but given the current colloquial meaning of "not an option," the result was unfortunate.

  13. Natalie Solent said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 6:48 am

    "the two meanings rub against each other in a stimulating manner."
    I feel I need to give you a little love for this.

  14. BlueLoom said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    A delightful ambiguity (and backhanded compliment) was used in ads about a decade or so ago designed to lure US residents to visit Canada: "Canada Borders on the Magnificent." It didn't last long as an ad, so perhaps the Canada tourism folks deemed it too subtle, but I always thought it was a well-crafted use of the double meaning.

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    @Margaret Dean:
    The sign you mention brings to mind one that was seen in a pharmacy some years ago: "We dispense with accuracy."

  16. paulie said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 4:36 pm

    Reminds me of a great Trojan condom ad from 2010 which said "You can’t wait to get it on." When I teach my language of advertising class, I spend a lot of time on ambiguity, as it cuts across all content areas (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics). In fact, ambiguity could provide enough fodder for the entire semester!

  17. Bea Blacklow said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    A number of years ago Virginia came up with the tourism slogan "Virginia is for Lovers". Maryland countered with the slogan "Maryland is for Crabs*".

    *Maryland is known for the good eating known as the blue crab (with Old Bay seasoning, of course).

  18. Julie Sedivy said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    Thanks for all the examples—a wonderful addition to my stash.

  19. PVanderwaart said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    A communications company here in the NE used the slogan "We go beyond the call" meaning the call of duty led them to products other than telephone service.

  20. Dougal Stanton said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 4:37 am

    The local train service are advertising themselves by intentionally playing on the "poor interpretation" of their advert:

    "When it comes to improving your journey, we’ll stop at nothing. Except stations."

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 7:55 am

    About 30 years ago I worked for a mail-order company. Part of the business naturally involved placing the correct combination of general and customer-specific documents and items into envelopes for mailing to customers: the technical industry term for this is "fulfillment." On a large scale this employed specialist machinery, but on smaller scales and in the case of particular complexity it was done by hand.

    In order to maximise the business efficiency of the Fulfillment Department, it was split off as a separate company so that it could seek contracts to carry out such functions for other companies.

    On the day this change was generally announced to the rest of the company, we were shown the new subsidiary's new stationery, which included in the Letterhead the slogan "Hand Fulfillment Our Speciality".

  22. Francois Lang said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

    There's a porta-potty rental firm in the NYC area called "Callahead".

    The nautically challenged among us may need to refer to

  23. John Finkbiner said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 9:05 pm

    I used to work in a place with a poster on the wall showing a lone runner on a road with the caption "The Race for Quality Has No Finish Line." You can see a copy here. Apparently I was the only one who thought it was telling us that continued effort is pointless.

  24. PaulB said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 4:38 am

    On my commute, I used to drive past an outdoor ad for a car insurance company that read: 'Always standing by'.

  25. Biscia said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    The store-brand condoms at my local supermarket in Italy are called "Fallo protetto!" ("Do it safely!"/"Protected phallus!"). And to remove any doubt about whether the double entendre was intentional, there's a cartoon of a cat eyeing a bird (uccello, which also means penis) that's safely singing away inside a condom-shaped cage. It's more risqué than your standard supermarket pun, but since it's an adult product anyway I've always found it charming.

RSS feed for comments on this post