The Persuasive Power of Words — Media Psychology

by Dr. Donna Roberts

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The Story

Newly landed in Italy, we gorged ourselves on everything Italian. The sights, sounds and food were all to die for. Pizza, pasta and peperonata became our daily fare. Even the local cats and dogs could be seen enjoying huge bowls of spaghetti. The country, the weather and the food were all delicious. Not to speak of the wonderful wine … but I digress.

Soon after arriving, we decided to explore the sites and do a little shopping. We were in one of the world’s fashion capitals after all — what could possibly go wrong? My spouse needed some lighter, brighter shirts to replace the heavy, checkered lumberjack style he’d favored in Canada. The latest fashionable color at the time in Italy was melone, a lobster shade we both adored.

So, one evening, after yet another delectable meal, we strolled into a village clothing store to admire the venerable selection. Each shirt was displayed in its own beautiful box, cushioned in a cloud of designer tissue paper. Too pretty to touch, really. The salesperson lovingly unwrapped each shirt and artfully displayed the array on the counter in front of us. One by one, she laid out a series of progressively beautiful (and increasingly expensive) melon colored shirts. Finally, sensing that we were hooked, she told us that a most exquisite shirt had just come in, but in a different color — salmone.

Out came the ultimate shirt and it did not leave us wanting. The fabric, the stitching, the cut — it was all intoxicating, as only Italian fashion can be. But the salmon color of the shirt? Well, it was identical to the melon colored shirts. Precisely the same! The price, however, was considerably higher.

No one spoke of this out loud. Yet each of us knew that, to justify the exorbitant price, the salesperson had changed the name to a more chic sounding version of the hue.

Naturally, we were tickled pink to leave with the chic salmon shirt in our designer shopping bag. Was there ever any doubt?

Psych Pstuff’s Summary

Learning to speak and use language is one of the major milestones of childhood. From that time on we are honing the skill — learning how to use words effectively to get our needs met and make our thoughts and feelings known. Written or spoken it is the instrument we use for human connection.

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare challenged us with the question:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
 by any other name would smell as sweet.

But was Shakespeare right? Is a name just a name? Or is it more?

Turns out it is a whole lot more.

Words have both denotative and connotative meanings. The denotative meaning is the straightforward definition, what you would consider the dictionary definition. It’s clear, logical, factual and therefore doesn’t have much impact beyond basic understanding of information.

Connotative meanings are more open to individual interpretation. They encompass all the associations and emotions that are conjured up by a word. They can be complex and even paradoxical. While the denotative meaning of a word is generally the same for all, the connotative meanings can vary widely based on experience, personality and context.

The word home is a good example of how these categorizations can differ in impact. Denotatively, home is simply a place of residence, a structure for shelter. It is the connotative meaning that embraces all the things that home means to us — whether good or bad.

Some words, by nature tend to be fairly innocuous — jelly, wood, cup — although even these, if tied to a strong enough memory, can be impactful for some. Others — war, mother, dog — inherently seem to carry a weight far beyond their syntax.

Through denotative meanings we can share information. Through connotative meanings we can share the full realm of human experience.

Through denotative meanings we can share information. Through connotative meanings we can share the full realm of human experience.

Advertisers, for example, count on this distinction and use it to attempt to persuade consumers to behave in certain ways — namely to buy a particular product usually on merits beyond its denotative purpose. They either use existing universal connotations to attach to a product or brand or they create scenarios which establish new connections and ingrain new connotations.

Just think of these two words — Fiat and Mercedes. On the surface both are just brands of automobiles, which are themselves just means of transportation. However, one generally has significantly different feelings about them. If I asked you which one you would rather have parked in your driveway, you would probably have a clear preference.

Authors too use the connotative power of words to connect people, to broaden our minds to the experiences of others — real or imagined — who are both like us and unlike us, to both relate to our common experience and to share a glimpse of that which may be a wholly different experience.

So, the question remains, is there a difference between a melone shirt and a salmone one? The choice is yours — the meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

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Originally published at www.easystreetmag.com.

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