Owing to the beautiful weather we have been experiencing in the UK in recent weeks, last Friday was the night we decided to give the barbecue its inaugural outing of the year. As I sifted my way through the groaning “seasonal aisle” of lighting substances in our local supermarket – lump charcoal or briquettes? Smoked wood chips or firelighters? – a particular brand of charcoal leapt off the shelf in my direction. “Mum’s Night Off!”, the bag proclaimed, complete with a smiley face to cement the joy “Mum” must feel at such a treat. Firstly, let me begin by stating that I am not a mother and, judging by my fellow shoppers (a student-esque young main coveting a budget-range disposable barbecue and an elderly gent perusing spatulas and tongs), “Mum” was not the first consumer drawn to this particular aisle. Indeed, this banner, which seemed, at first glance, to be speaking out to harassed maternal figures desperate for a night away from the kitchen, was not, in fact, directed at the “Mums” of this world. Perhaps, then, this exclamatory claim was instead an appeal to the excitable Dad trying to justify his insistence that tonight was yet another night upon which he would char some burgers to a crisp while Mum “rested” in the kitchen, slaving over everything else to go with the burgers apart from the meat itself.
And yet, this canny piece of marketing, ostensibly aimed at Dad and suggesting somewhat erroneously that Britain’s mothers and wives can rest easy on barbecue night (although I am not a mother, I am a wife – and it is notable that every grilled meat fest that occurs in our household involves me preparing and marinating the meat, making endless dishes of various accompaniments and generally holding the fort in the kitchen while my husband attends the serious business of standing over a fire), is not the main issue I wish to raise here. In creating the image discussed above, I am playing right into the hands of this advertising campaign in envisaging a banal, standard scene, which hardly represents the diversity of Britain in 2014. Who is to say that the Mums of this nation live with someone that can bestow on them this apparently coveted “night off”? Moreover, should it be assumed that Mum is still, by default, the main family food provider in the second decade of the 21st century, requiring this surprising break from the normal routine? The point, then, is that marketing creates and plays upon a range of assumptions about consumer lifestyles that can cause diverse emotions in consumers at the point of sale; this seemingly simple, three-word term (with or without the smiley face) had already led me to consider the evolving familial structures of modern life – and I hadn’t even picked my charcoal off the shelf and made it to the till yet.
The impact of such short phrases demonstrates the importance of knowing your audience and the semantic field of your subject area when writing marketing copy. This phrase might work (and the jury is still out with me on whether this somewhat lazy phrasing is acceptable in 2014) in the context of the imaginary, stereotyped family garden party, to which we, as consumers, are subjected daily by lifestyle magazines and TV advertisements. The same suggestion might not be viewed so favourably on a bottle of washing detergent, for example, because laundry is associated with the concept of the chore, and we are conditioned generally in the modern day not to assume that Mum is the sole agent of domestic upkeep. Whether or not it’s acceptable to appeal directly to fathers of hypothetical (and largely outdated) nuclear families in the marketing of charcoal, the lesson this casual phrase teaches us about the English language is invaluable: conciseness does not necessarily create clear meaning; three words can be just as laden with associated connotations as a whole paragraph. When writing in any context, we must consider our audience, the intended meaning and the potential results accordingly, or else the purveyors of the “Mum’s Night Off!” message might just find that their charcoal is still left on the shelves on Monday morning.