Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BUPA: when advertising slogans go wrong

There are worse ways of starting the day than by using the London Underground, though it took me a while to think of one – till I remembered poor old Ivan Denisovich. One never gets used to the monotonously percussive hiss of personal stereos and the dense over-crowding of the Northern Line, but at least the summer body-odour season is over and the winter halitosis season is a few weeks away.

The experience was made that little bit worse this morning by having to spend four minutes staring at a BUPA advert declaring its new slogan "Helping you find healthy". 

There are many things wrong with this. Obviously it's wrong in the most literal sense, and that's bound to annoy any lover of language. But advertisers need to catch our attention and keep their message in our heads long after the message itself is no longer visible, so they're entitled to break a few rules here and there. 

But it's ugly. The advertising agency, Starcom MediaVest, might argue that it caught my attention and didn't let go, so it's a successful slogan, ugly or not. True, but if someone vomits on my shoes they'll get my attention in a way that I won't forget. It's not necessarily a good thing.*

I think it fails in other important areas. Firstly, it's not very original. Apple, with it's "Think different" and MacDonald's with its "I'm loving it" have cornered the market in quirky grammar failures (see Grammar Girl's discussion of the latter here). By taking several years to follow their lead, BUPA looks like an old, slow-moving beast coming late to the carcase after the quicker creatures have devoured the fresh meat.

Secondly, "Helping you find healthy" is appallingly mealy-mouthed. BUPA says on its website, "Healthy means different things to different people," but does it? There might be degrees of 'healthiness', but it still only means one thing to most people: the best state of health achievable in one's personal circumstances. But that's not the main issue. 

Will BUPA make you healthier or, heaven forbid, cure you if you're ill? No. It will "help" "you" to "find", not health, but "healthy" – a concept that has no meaning because BUPA has just made it up. That slogan says nothing, promises nothing and even manages to cloak its non-message by using a word that makes no sense in the context. So:
  1. BUPA won't do anything, it will only "help"
  2. So, who will do it? "You" will, on your own
  3. What you're looking for isn't even health, but the meaningless "healthy"
  4. And you won't necessarily achieve anything. You'll just find it. 
In only four words, it has found four ways of being vague, non-committal and equivocal. That's quite an impressive display of insincerity.

Lastly, there's something about medicine that needs to be precise. We instinctively mistrust scientific types if they play fast and loose with the definitions, as if there's no difference between magnesium and manganese, or between the epiglottis and the epidermis. I might accept MacDonald's and Apple trying to be hip and fun, but that's not the attitude I want from a 'healthcare provider'. If BUPA can't tell the difference between a noun and an adjective, it creates the subconscious impression of an organisation that doesn't know its arse from its elbow.

Moral: When BUPA sends you a bill, don't send them a cheque. Send them a note promising to "help them find wealthy"

*This advert achieved something, because it reminded me that the 'free' BUPA healthcare that comes with my job costs me a huge amount in extra tax. I've been meaning to cancel it for a while. I'll do it when I get home.


  1. Patrick... I don't usually turn picky about other folks' writing (there's probably enough fault in my own), but in a piece about slack use of language, ought you to be writing 'firstly', 'secondly' and - in particular - 'lastly'?

    Other than that, I agree with your deconstruction of this piece of advertising drivel.

  2. Duncan,
    I've noticed myself slipping into this habit ("lastly" is particularly egregious) and even meant to go back and edit them out – but then forgot. It's too late now.

    Thanks for pointing it out. I need people to nudge me back onto the path when I stray.

  3. "I need people to nudge me back onto the path..."
    We all do. I find myself slipping into the use of 'yeah-no' occasionally, which really irks me. I did complain online about this little verbal habit once, to be informed that linguists refer to it as a discourse particle (http://www.redbubble.com/people/duncanw/journal/6033845-yeah-no, if you're interested). Well, little particles in your shoe cause great irritation, and these ones are no different, whatever the linguists say.

  4. I've seen a lot of confusion over when people should use adverbs and when they should use adjectives. But more than that, the use of the word "find" really irritates me. BUPA could have a simpler but less annoying slogan if they just wrote "Helping you stay healthy". After all, it's not like "healthy" is somewhere you can go. Even if you treat it like a noun, it's an extremely abstract one. As you point out, a lack of precision is the last thing you want when it comes to medicine.