5 Billboard Taglines That Advertise Errors

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I strongly advise against employing billboards to teach you proper English grammar and spelling, but you can certainly use them to learn what not to do. Here are some pain-inducing billboard boo-boos:

1. “Are you in or out?”

This tagline from the remake of Ocean’s Eleven won’t strike many people as erroneous, but the omission of a comma ruins the effect for me. Read as is, this sentence calls for upward inflection: Are you one of these? But the inflection should fall, and whether your voice catches instantaneously before your pitch falls after in or you don’t actually pause, a comma signals the difference: Are you this, or are you that?

2. “All day, everyday.”

This error in an advertisement for a major chain supermarket went viral some years ago, and the English language hasn’t been able to shake the bug since. Make everyday two words, and call me in the morning.

3. “Name’s Mel-care to have a drink?”

This confused come-on appeared in an advertisement for Tanqueray gin featuring a comely woman inviting the billboard viewer to join her for a cocktail. With a disregard for the visual esthetics of language endemic to the marketing industry, the copywriter puzzled readers with what appeared to be a non sequitur reference in a liquor ad to a variant of Medicare known as Mel-care.

By separating Mel’s introduction from her invitation with a mere hyphen when a mighty em dash was called for (“Name’s Mel — care to have a drink?”), this multimillion-dollar ad campaign cried out for a pocket-change fix. The ubiquitous unwitting use of hyphens in place of dashes is wrong, but, almost worse, it’s ugly.

4. “You provide the truck. We’ll bring the barbeque.”

An ad for a pickup truck big enough to haul around an oil-barrel barbecue grill misspelled the last word. “But, Mark, we see it like that all the time!” Yes, you see it misspelled all the time. It’s an understandable error, extending from the slang abbreviation BBQ, and it may end up in the dictionary someday. But it’s not there yet. Honor the language.

5. “Don’t stare, you might miss your exit.”

Come on, a comma is too weak to convey the cadence of this sentence. (It didn’t work in that sentence, either, did it?) There’s a definite break in the two parts of this sentence, and the rhythm cries out for an em dash or even a period after stare.

Again, as in the first and third examples, the copywriter failed to use the nuances of punctuation to help upload the desire to buy a product or use a service to the consumer’s brain.

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24 thoughts on “5 Billboard Taglines That Advertise Errors”

  1. I have differing stances on grammar. It is certainly something that people should learn, but really only the critics and philosophers need to be so concerned with. As a fiction writer, I say throw it all out the window. I am less concerned with what is right, and more concerned with guiding the pace and attention of my reader.

    And, as far as “everyday” goes, how many other compound words started as two different ones? Language is a living, breathing beast. Generally in the hands (controlled and guided by) those who think the least about it.

  2. Excellent tips! I’m amazed how no one seems to proofread billboards. There’s nothing like driving down the highway at 80mph and reading a sign that has mistakes in it. You’d think someone would make sure the billboard is correct before it’s placed. Billboards are cheap advertising.

  3. Great post!
    However, an error (one of my pet peeves) stood out in several of your explanations: the use of a comma after the word ‘but’. Placing a comma after ‘but’ is almost never correct.

  4. I would love to see you address the prolific use of “for free” in the advertising speak. You can buy something free, or for no cost!
    Even a local college uses that phrase in their TV advertising campaign.
    What a shame.

  5. Sally:

    You are correct in pointing out that a comma rarely follows a conjunction, but the two instances in which I did so in this post are valid exceptions:

    “The ubiquitous unwitting use of hyphens in place of dashes is wrong, but, almost worse, it’s ugly.”

    The comma after but and the one after worse bookend the parenthetical phrase “almost worse.”

    “But, Mark, we see it like that all the time!”

    “Mark,” by the same token, is an interjection, and is correctly preceded and followed by commas.

    Language usage is tending toward open punctuation — the use of fewer commas — so both forms have many adherents. I tend, however, to be a close-punctuation conservative.

  6. Cassie:

    You’re right — barbeque is not a good example. I am wise enough not to stand in the way of language. (I might linger, but I always manage to move at the last minute before the steamroller reaches me.)

    Anybody have a substitute?

  7. Well, as you know, language evolves, and commonly used words find their way into popular usage (and the dictionary). Barbeque is now, in fact, in the dictionary.

    From Merriam-Webster:

    barbecue noun
    1 a : a large animal (as a steer) roasted whole or split over an open fire or a fire in a pit
    b : barbecued food

    2 : a social gathering especially in the open air at which barbecued food is eaten

    3: an often portable fireplace over which meat and fish are roasted
    See barbecue defined for English-language learners »

    Variants of BARBECUE
    barbecue also bar·be·que

  8. Barbeque is one of my “blackboard” words.

    Slightly related: In League City, Texas, there is a shopping center with a large sign that reads South Shore Harbour Centre’. What was intended (I think) to be an accent mark over the last e, is instead, a curly apostrophe. So if Harbour and Centre don’t give you the shakes, the apostrophe will.

  9. @Deborah H —
    South Shore Harbour Centre’ !! How awful! I can almost forgive Harbour and Centre. But why in the world would someone insert an acute accent over that final e? There is no reason — or excuse — for that.

    In fact, I’m so annoyed by this sign that I’m tempted to write to the management of that shopping centre’. 🙂

  10. Deborah H:

    Thanks for sharing the cringe-worthy pileup of pretension and ignorance. An upcoming post will explore marketers’ foolish fascination with British and French spellings.

  11. Cassie:

    PS: My inclusion of barbeque stems from the convention in the publishing industry, for consistency, of always employing the primary spelling of a word at the expense of variants. (So predominantly predominates over predominately.) Barbeque is by no means wrong, but thanks to my professional training, I consider it a country cousin to barbecue.

  12. About twelve years ago I wrote to the Conoco marketing department to complain about this ad slogan: “Your gonna love us.” I nearly gasped when I pulled into a service station and saw this slogan printed on giant outdoor banners. I’m sorry. I wasn’t loving it at all.

  13. Out of curiosity, I looked up “barbeque” in my dictionary (the New Oxford American Dictionary) and it is listed, but in a separate entry with the definition “a common misspelling of barbecue”, which makes me feel better.

    Just a note, at the top of this page I see three generated advertisements for grills, one of which uses the the word “barbecue”, one of which says “barbeque”, and the third of which says neither.

  14. “Deborah H on February 1, 2011 12:55 am
    Barbeque is one of my “blackboard” words.

    Slightly related: In League City, Texas, there is a shopping center with a large sign that reads South Shore Harbour Centre’. What was intended (I think) to be an accent mark over the last e, is instead, a curly apostrophe. So if Harbour and Centre don’t give you the shakes, the apostrophe will.”

    I fail to see what the problem is with ‘harbour’ and ‘centre’. Although I’m guessing that in America, ‘harbour’ is ‘harbor’ and ‘centre’ is ‘center’, there is no reason to get the ‘shakes’ about it.

    Most common mistake I pick in advertising: ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’. It really does make you wonder how educated those insurance companies really are.

  15. GS:

    In the United States, there has long been a plague of pretension in which property developers attempt to endow shopping centers and housing developments with Old World class by using British English, or French, spelling: There are myriad centres and harbours and pointes, and it’s all very ridiculous.

    The combination of harbour and centre in one name, however, is egregious, and the use of an apostrophe in place of an acute accent over the e in centre — never mind that there is no accent in that word — demonstrates a laughable twofold ignorance: It’s like wearing a fashionable new style of hat not only backward but upside down. As the kids would say, “Double fail.”

  16. It’s not just “old world” it’s faux old-fashioned, with Olde Worlde Towne Shoppes, and Ye before every thing.

    And it’s not just advertising. Somewhere, a commercial, “professional” sign factory, and undoubtedly for hefty prices, has produced a RESTARAUNT, a warning that trucks are TURNNING and a warning to expect DALAYS, all just for display in my town. This in a radius of about 5 miles.

  17. I know that And or But at the start of a sentence should not be followed by a comma, but I always see the word However followed by a comma when it starts a sentence. Assuming that is correct, what’s the difference? Or is it not correct, just widely misused? (I’m learning, I’m learning)

  18. Advertising copy is written to entertain. Copywriters use the voice to entertain. Sometimes that means to dismiss the rules because another way looks better.

  19. Being a born and bred Canadian, I have been spelling harbor-as well as neighbour, labour etc.- with the inclusive “u” all my life. This is in addition to litre (the auto-correct on my iPad changed litre to liter! Made in the USA you say?), centre and other words which normally end in ER in the USA. I even managed to get a couple of university degrees in English! We have never insulted your usage of spellings that we consider to be less than correct, so please leave our OUR and RE alone! Come on people, let us have our little national idiosyncrasies in peace. Things could be worse!

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