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.

You might imagine I'd be sympathetic to these attempts linguistic ambiguity in marketing. 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 much like the idea that the corporate world is out there reinventing language in an attempt to confuse and deceive.

29th July 2014

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