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The evolution of marketing language: Part 1

Words matter.


This universal truth applies to the world of marketing perhaps more so than in any other modern sphere. It’s what we here at Phrasee have dedicated the last 2 years of our collective lives to.

Throughout the history of marketing, the language used to sell goods and services to the masses has evolved in many strange and wonderful ways. 

From its humble beginnings, explaining in gory detail the various features and benefits of a product to its current role primarily as a powerful vehicle for branding and attention-grabbing, marketing language has always been used to tell a special kind of story.

And, as that story has shifted gradually away from the selling of products to the building of brands, so too has the language which marketers have used to tell it.

Let’s see how…

Print marketing language

Advertisements and marketing have been around since human kind first started wanting to sell things and make money, which is pretty much forever. However, we weren’t always as good at it as we have been these last couple of centuries.

Things really got going for marketing as a concept in the 18th and 19th centuries after the Industrial Revolution made the mass production of items possible. The birth of department stores – and greater spending power – allowed everyday consumers to spend money on more than just have-to-have items. By the late 1800s there was an increased availability of product options in the market, but people were still waking up to the idea of buying things commonly considered “luxuries”. They needed to be convinced.


Take the above example for instance. Do we need it? Nope. Do we want it? Possibly…

Convincing people that such items would make their lives better is one of the key reasons why early print advertisements generally contained such a massive amount of text.

The evolution of marketing language

Advertisements in the late 1800s were mainly published in newspapers (and a handful of magazines) with an emphasis of proving the authenticity of a product or service and educating the consumer on why they needed it. Long, drawn out descriptions explained what a product looked like, what it was made out of, what it did, why it did it, and what high ranking member of society, like a professor, doctor or scientist, recommended it.

This, combined with the fact that there was less competition for people’s time and attention lead to a lot of rambling advertisements that would be truly unthinkable, much less effective, today.

Advertisements weren’t always crazy long…

The evolution of marketing language

But they still had to work to explicitly explain what a product did and why someone would ever want it. (Although we can’t imagine this gold-plated charm caught the attention of too many self-respecting fishermen.)

Over the next century language used in print ads got pared down, focusing on striking images and limited text as people started to identify more with brands and logos versus individual products. The change started becoming more obvious toward the end of the 20th and into the 21st century.

1937 Coke Ad with copy:    


2012 Coke Ad – no copy!

the evoloution of marketing language                  

With this change also came the trend of more brands using more “open” language in their ads and marketing materials. In a paper from Gisbergen, M. S., Ketelaar, P. E., & Beentjes, H. “openness” (referring to the amount of guidance toward a certain message) was studied in 325 advertisements from 1980 and 212 advertisements from 2000. Their findings were that print advertisements have increasingly used fewer words and become more visual and more open over time.

Instead of telling consumers directly about a product or what the companies want them to think, more open language allows customers to interpret meanings for themselves. While it needs to be executed delicately, open messaging has been shown to more naturally change attitudes about a brand, affect how people remember the brand and process its information. Since they actually have to think instead of just taking what’s told to them at face value.

While this study was focused particularly on advertisements in print magazines, we can see this trend of fewer words and more open language across all the media channels of the day.  


Radio marketing language 

In 1922 New York radio station WEAF aired the first-ever radio commercial. Hawthorne Court Apartments bought 10 minutes of airtime for $50, and on August 28th a member of the company delivered is his sales pitch live. There’s no existing recording of this masterpiece (we’re sure it was riveting) however one can assume it was probably a bit wordy if it filled up an entire 10 minutes.

Today, most radio ads are between 30 – 60 seconds and usually a maximum 80 words for a 30-second spot. Without even ever listening to a radio commercial (which surely we all have), it would still be obvious that the language and content in the ads have changed drastically in the last 100 years.

Coca cola radio ads, 1960’s/70’s

Coca Cola radio ad, 2016

TV marketing language


While print ads always had a visual aspect to them, television really brought the visuals to the forefront through using images and video to tell a story instead of just words. Early TV ads still loved using the gift of gab however, concocting elaborate story lines and descriptions for products, as illustrated below.

Today, advertising and marketing language vary widely – some can be straight to the point, while others strive to tell a story. Many brands simply use visuals and let the viewer’s imagination connect the dots. Broadly speaking, marketing language today tends to be more “open” and highlight the lifestyle that a brand fits into, or which a consumer aspires to.

Of course, we still see use all these marketing channels today and while the language we use may be a more modern and less formal than past decades, the messaging styles and tactics are often quite similar – heck, Burger King’s slogan today, “Have it your way”, is the same the company used back in 1975. Nike’s iconic “Just do it.” slogan has been used for over 20 years while Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop” has been around for a century and still sounds like a phrase a marketing company would come up with today.

That said, the great shift in modern marketing, and the languages it uses, came with the invention of the internet and all that followed.

The digital age was about to begin…


Read the evolution of marketing language: part 2: The digital age

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