An English Lesson for the TV Generation

I watched waaaay too much TV as a kid. As such, I’ve not only soaked up mental gigabytes of useless pop culture trivia, but also the every-5-minutes advertising that is pervasive in American television broadcasting.

My first recollection of a TV commercial that really impacted me was for Murphy’s Oil Soap, from 1979 or 1980 (age 2-3). It wasn’t so much the commercial as it was the jingle and the copy shot, “The work is finished and the finish is fine.” Since then, I’ve filed away massive amounts of similar lines. Anyone else remember:

  • You deserve a break today!
  • Just do it
  • Where’s the beef?
  • The choice of a new generation
  • Food, folks, and fun
  • Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is
  • I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!
  • Calgon, take me away
  • What would you do for a Klondike bar?
  • He-Man, He-Man, He-Man (jeez, who got paid to come up with that one?)

The Consumerist brought these all flooding back to my conscious mind Monday when they linked to an article by Nick Padmore at A List Apart in which he analyzes the 115 best advertising slogans and catchphrases of the last century (courtesy of The Advertising Hall of Fame).

Anyone interested in the use of language should read Padmore’s article in full, but Consumerist gives us the Cliff’s Notes version with a few interesting take-away notes:

Some of his findings:

  • only 50% of the top copy shots mention a brand
  • 17% of copy shots are “lexically deviant”—as Padmore puts it, “it’s a weird spelling almost 2wice in every ten whirds”
  • 84% of the copy shots contain some sort of rhetorical device, although Padmore thinks this is more than likely simply a reflection of how we naturally speak and write

He also comes up with a theory of how to produce a great copy shot, writing that “nobody else (as far as I know), has attempted to come up with a linguistically determined Greatest Copy Shot, so this is at least a start.”

Nick’s theory is as follows:

All great copy shots should:

1. Be five words in length.
2. Not mention the brand name.
3. Be declarative.
4. Be grammatically complete.
5. Be otherwise standard.
6. Contain alliteration, metaphor, or rhyme.

Read his complete article to see how he narrows the field from 115 to 19 with the first criterion, and then proceeds through the list to arrive at the greatest copy shot ever written.

Lots of potential classroom applications here – perhaps a multidisciplinary lesson in math and English that examines the success rate of slogans with certain grammatic properties or rhetorical devices? What percentage of the top 50 use onomatopoeia? Create a pie chart showing prevalence of alliteration, metaphor, simile, etc.? More advanced classes might just be given the top 10 (20, 25, 50, etc.) and be asked to conduct their own analysis and come to their own conclusions about the impact of linguistic choices on success.

From a media literacy standpoint, a discussion of why I still vividly remember a 28-year-old commercial jingle could lead into a larger discussion on the pervasiveness of advertising and its effects.

Maybe watching all that TV was good for something after all (“Five more minutes, mom! It’s professional development, I swear!”).


  • It’s probably telling that 7/10 of those examples I gave are for food or food-related products.

    Which copy shots have stuck with you through the years?

  • Nobody Beats the Wiz
    Buy Black
    Milk Does a Body Good (but this was attached to Tyra, so enough said)

    This also teaches us about how we need to advertise our lessons to our students. If we can make this as catchy as those copy shots, we’d be in the money.

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