Corporate Doublethink

Since when did the definition of the word ‘unlimited’ change?

Endless roadUnlimited = limitless, infinite, boundless, indefinite, unrestricted…. so says just about any dictionary you care to reference.

Why then, do the Validation Certificates for my latest shiny new Ford Fiesta say “Unlimited mileage is to a maximum of 100,000 miles”?

Of course the missing word in this grammatically dubious sentence is… you guessed it, ‘limited’:  Unlimited mileage is… ahem… limited to a maximum of 100,000 miles.

I’m all for language evolving – new words being brought to life, outmoded grammar being laid to rest, but why the doublethink?  Either it’s unlimited, or it’s limited – n’est-ce pas?

In the bowels of corporate headquarters everywhere, there are people working on this repurposing of perfectly adequate language. Data contracts have adopted the same flexible interpretation of the word unlimited, coupling it with what they charmingly call a fair usage policy. That’s to say, ‘We’ll all pretend we’ve given you a totally unlimited download capacity, but you have to go careful now, don’t get too greedy, because you’ll try our patience and then we’ll cut you down just when you need us most’.

Another favourite of mine is that deceptive pairing of the words ‘up to’… as in, “Up to 80% off” (any and every high street furniture sale the length and breadth of the country), or “Up to 80Mbps” (my Broadband contract, which actually delivers about half this speed).  Cleverly deploying a size zero font, the corporate boffs imagine their customers are so stupid they won’t notice those microscopic letters.

When I’m not trying to be a novelist, I work freelance in marketing and copywriting.  So you might  imagine I’d be sympathetic to these attempts linguistic ambiguity.  But I’m not and that’s because I’m a consumer first and a Grumpy Old Woman second – and only then am I a marketer. And I don’t like the idea that the corporate world is out there reinventing language in an attempt to confuse and deceive.

If you have a favourite snippet of corporate doublethink, share it with us.

17 thoughts on “Corporate Doublethink

  1. The first blog of yours to arrive in my email box – how fantastic! Loved this article. The psychological manipulation of words and grammar has always fascinated me. You really pointed out some contradictions that appear often and if we don’t pay attention we can easily sign up for something that really felt like we were signing up for something else (speaking from experience I might add!)

    1. We have to have our guard up and our eyes open these days, Cynthia. Mind you, averaging around 5,000 miles a year, I’m unlikely to be troubled by the not-so unlimited mileage restriction on my warranty! Welcome to the blog, my friend 🙂

    1. You’re right. Or… Buy One, Get One Free, because we’ve bought too much of this and it’s beginning to go off, so if we make you think it’s a bargain we might be able to offload it before it starts to really stink.

  2. I have recently gone into marketing and copywriting and have been having these same thoughts. But you explained it wonderfully. Great post. I’ll be looking out for these now!

    1. Thank you! I’m all for ‘honest’ marketing – I like to believe that people are sharp enough to see through the flim-flam; but not everyone agrees.

  3. Here’s a few Jools:
    “We really do want to know what you think.” (Not because we care a toss what you think, but because we can sell the information on for a profit.)
    “As part of our Zippobag community you get advance news of exciting new opportunities.” (=” you get more email ads.”)
    “Don’t miss this unique offer.” (Which we are also sending to another 237,566 people who also like to think they are buying something unique.)
    “You must not miss this- the Rolling Stones Final Tour.”
    “ This marvellous 6×3 photograph is available in a strictly limited signed Collector’s Edition of 250.” (Which is also true of the 8×4, 10×5 and 12×6 versions of the identical photograph.)

    1. Oh yes, all the above! And how about; “Your call is very important to us…” or “From time to time [at least twice a week] we’d like to send you offers we believe will interest you [bug-mail] from our carefully selected partners [they pay us]…” Ha!

  4. Buy three (overpriced, unnecessary items) and get one free–with mail-in refundable coupon. (We know you are going to lose your receipt on the way to your car, you dorks.)

    1. Yes, I like it! Or rather, I hate it too… How about “50% extra free”… But it’s all about to expire so even what you’re paying a fair price for will be ruined to sludge before you have a chance to eat it…

      1. My father prides himself on purchasing out-of-date products for nickels on the dollar. He writes me letters about it–copious retellings of consumer victories.

        1. That’s great if you can make it work for you – and often that’s possible. I’m all for consumer victories. 🙂

    1. Good one! And when you start to think about it, there are so many of these strange new reinventions of language. 🙂

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