We’ve all seen them – those banners and signs that scream “50% OFF!” something in a particular store.

“What a great deal,” we think to ourselves. But as we get closer to the sign, there they are, those two tiny weasel words: “up to.” And we suddenly become a lot more cynical. “Up to 50% off” something is not anywhere close to an actual screaming deal of half off something. And the stuff that really is half price is most likely the leftover stuff that nobody wanted in the first place.

As you’ve no doubt already figured out, this time we’ll examine how some advertisers attempt to separate us from our money by using words that don’t always mean what they say.

Besides the “up to” tactic mentioned above, former marketing manager Gordon Pritchard gives us examples of other advertising weasel words in a piece at The-print-guide.blogspot.com.

Something as simple as the word “sale” can be misleading, says Pritchard, who explains that “unless the original price is also displayed, ‘sale’ simply means that this is the normal price that the product sells for.”

Maybe. I recall a years-ago TV commercial in which the manager of a southern Maine car dealership repeatedly told viewers “there’s always a sale” at his place. If there was always a sale there, was it really a sale?


How about those products that “help” us in different ways? You know, the toothpastes that help fight cavities or those creams and lotions that help prevent wrinkles. By using the word “help,” they’re absolving themselves of any responsibility for actual success. They will only help you fight the battle. “The word ‘help,’” notes Pritchard, “simply means ‘assist’ and nothing more.”

And then there are those ads for car insurance that tell us we could save as much as $500 a year if we simply switch our coverage to their company. All Pritchard has to say about the weasel term “as much as” is “see ‘up to.’” (Does that mean that if I switch my car insurance four times I’ll save $2,000 every year?)

Closely related to “up to” according to marketing guru Daniel Silver (Danielsilver.com) is the phrase “as low as.”  Silver says, “‘As low as’ is a deliciously ambiguous term that simply means that somebody, somewhere might actually get this price, rate, or deal, though it probably won’t be the actual human who just read the ad.”

Among the other advertising weasel words Silver takes issue with are “limited edition” (“because everything will no longer be made at some point”) and “season” (“retailers have anywhere from 12 to 24 ’seasons’ throughout the year. A season is basically anything that motivates them to change store decorations.”) What good is the lowest price of the season if there’s going to be a new season in a couple weeks?

And how good a job does that dishwasher detergent that leaves your dishes “virtually spotless” really do? Do you want your dishes virtually spotless or actually spotless? “To turn (ad) copy into normal-speak,” instructs Silver, “just replace the word ‘virtually’ with ‘NOT’ (yes, in capital letters), and you’ve cracked the code!”

That’s it for this time, and if you weren’t completely satisfied with this week’s column your next one may be up to 50% off.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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