What is useful about presupposition in advertisements
and what does it reflect?
A sociolinguistic study of Hong Kong culture
Carrie Ka Yee Lam
The University of Hong Kong
This paper investigates the functions of presupposition in advertising and the ways in
which cultural aspects are reflected in advertising by examining how the Hong Kong
culture is reflected in food advertisements. The paper states that presupposition is
used in advertisements for three main purposes, namely i) implicit competition, ii)
causing readers to consider the existence of a product or service, iii) and making the
advertisement short and memorable. The paper argues that advertising reflects
cultural aspects and suggests that understanding of cultural differences is essential in
producing a successful advertisement.
LCOM Papers 2 (2009), 45 – 55
46 Carrie Ka Yee Lam
There are times when I have the feeling that advertisements are everywhere .Even if
you do not go outdoors, you still see them in magazines, hear them on television, they
are part of our lives, they influence our behavior and they reveal our cultural traditions
With the development of technology, diversity of mass media and the growing market,
advertisements have become increasingly common nowadays. The visual content of
an advertisement may have a great influence on the readers, yet, it is usually the text
that makes the readers identify a product or service, remember it and purchase and use
it (Bolter, 2003). Text or language as an important part of any advertisement provides
information about the product or service, and most importantly delivers messages.
Advertisement as a general form of communication delivers messages to the public
almost every single day.
An important aspect of any communication involves the presuppositions that are
present (Sells and Gonzalez, 2002). Presupposition is a necessary precondition for the
processing of any communication, and it is often found in advertisements to convey
ideas indirectly rather than asserting them directly. The readers of advertisements may
not be aware of presuppositions in advertisement, but, it is an important component of
messages, as meaning only exists within the context of what is in the person’s mind
that provides the meaning. For instance, an advertisement slogan taken from Geis
(1982) goes, “What’s great about Chuck Wagon dog food?” Although what exactly is
great about the product is left open, the statement still presupposes that there is
something great about this brand of dog food. This paper explores the discourse of
advertising from a linguistic as well as a socio-cultural perspective and investigates
Hong Kong advertisements, focusing mainly on the following features: (1) the
functions of presupposition in advertising; (2) the ways in which food advertisements
in Hong Kong reflect traditions and values of Hong Kong culture.
2. Literature review
As to the importance and specialties of advertising language, much research has been
carried out on the topic of presupposition and the employment of presupposition in
A sociolinguistic study of Hong Kong culture 47
2.1 Advertising, language and culture
Most definitions of advertisement focus on the function of advertisement as a public
announcement, such as Harris and Seldon (1962) who describe an advertisement as “a
public notice designed to spread information with a view to promoting the sales of
marketable services”. Geis’ (1982) study not only focuses on the advertising language
but also on how the public responds to a particular advertisement. He suggests that the
use of different linguistic features might be misleading and that proper manipulation
of these features is needed (Geis, 1982). Tanaka’s (1994) work discusses how the
language of advertising is used to persuade the readers and it implies that advertising
penetrates cultural insights. Sandage and Fryburger (1960: 149) suggest that “modern
society emphasizes the right of every person to be employed. To achieve this
high-level consumption is essential...This will require persuasion. This is the function
of advertising”. Vestergaard and Schroder (1985) also maintain that persuasion lies in
advertisement by the use of linguistic devices. They note that
“advertising doesn’t simply reflect the real world as we experience it: the world
portrayed in advertisement is more on a day-dream level, which implies a
dissatisfaction with the real world expressed through imaginary representations
of the future as it might be a Utopia”.
Advertising is also related to culture: Pollay (1986: 18) describes advertising as a
“distorted mirror” of cultural values, only reflecting certain lifestyles and values that
serve sellers’ interests. Cultural values are “governing ideas and guiding principles for
thought and action” (Srikandath, 1991: 166) that “permeate a culture” (Chan and
Cheng, 2002: 388).
2.2 What is presupposition?
Presupposition is “an assumption by a speaker or writer about what is true or already
known by the listener or reader” (Yule, 2007: 117). It deals with the necessary
preconditions for statements to be true, such as an example from Gazdar (1979: 106),
“John says that the king of France is bald”. The statement assumes as a necessity the
truth of There is someone called John and There is a king of France. However,
48 Carrie Ka Yee Lam
presupposition can have a much broader function than that, because presuppositions
allow us the freedom not to make everything explicit in our communications (Finch
2003). Presupposition is part of an utterance meaning which remains truthful when the
sentence is transformed into a negative form. The presence of presupposition in a
sentence can be identified by applying the “constancy under negation” test: “To check
for the presupposition underlying sentences by the test involves negating a sentence
with a particular presupposition and checking if the presupposition remains true”
(Yule, 2007: 117). For instance, an example from Apple Computer: “I used to think it
was my fault that Windows didn’t work properly” (Sells and Gonzalez, 2002). By
using the “constancy under negation” test, I used to think it was my fault that Windows
didn’t work properly and the negation version I used to think that it was not my fault
that Windows didn’t work properly, the underlying presupposition Windows does not
work properly remains constant.
Another example from (Nilsen, 1974: 418) is the sentence The King of Transylvania is
a schmuck, and the negation version The King of Transylvania isn’t a schmuck, the
underlying presupposition remains true. Both the sentence and its negation version
still assume that there is a place called Transylvania, and that this is a kingdom, and
that it has only one king, and that he is alive (Nilsen, 1974: 418). A further example is
taken from Ford Motor advertisement in the US. The advertising slogan of Ford
Motor is “Have you driven a Ford lately?” By using the “constancy under negation”
test, Have you driven a Ford today and the negation version Have you not driven a
Ford today, the statements still presuppose that you have to drive a Ford.
Presupposition is sometimes triggered by certain words, which are called
presupposition triggers. They are factive verbs, such as regret and realize, which
presuppose the truth of the complement clause. An example is taken from Levinson
(1983: 179 – 180), “John regrets that he stopped doing linguistics before he left
Cambridge”, this statement presupposes that there is someone called John, John
stopped doing linguistics before he left Cambridge, John was doing linguistics before
he left Cambridge, John left Cambridge and John has been at Cambridge.
Non-factive words do not carry implicit presupposition, such as think and wish.
Sentences like Andrew thinks that it is snowing and Andrew wishes that it is snowing,
do not presuppose it is snowing.
A sociolinguistic study of Hong Kong culture 49
3. Data and methods
In order to reveal the functions of presupposition and how certain cultural traditions
and values can be expressed in the advertisement with the use of presupposition, a
study of Hong Kong advertisements was conducted. Food advertisements from Hong
Kong were analyzed in a detailed manner within a discourse analytic and cultural
perspective as mentioned above. A total of eight TV advertisements from the
discourse of food advertising were examined. The selection was made after watching
all the Hong Kong TV food advertisements on youtube.com from 2004 to 2008, and
considering whether presuppositions exist and whether they are fair representatives of
the other advertisements available.
4. Discussion and analysis
4.1 Functions of presupposition
The main purpose of advertising is to “advance the sale of any particular product or
service or to promote interests of any organization, commercial concern or individual”
(Generic code). However, advertising is very common nowadays and competitors
advertise too. The key of advertising is to emphasize why one product stands out in
comparison with others. There are certain methods and ways to achieve this purpose,
for instance, advertisement can be competitive and state how different and better one
product is compared with other brands of the same products of the same type. Also,
advertisement can be persuasive and promote some kinds of ideology that can relate
to cultural values. Moreover, advertisements can state what is good about a product
and service thus arouses the interest of the public.
However, according to the advertising regulation, comparisons should be clear and
fair, meaning advertisers are not allowed to attack unfairly or discredit other
businesses or their products (Consumer Council). Also, advertising can be persuasive
“but not coercive” (A practical guide to advertising), meaning advertisement cannot
force the public to do what they do not want to. Moreover, a lengthy advertisement
illustrating the facts about one’s product and service may not attract the public.
Instead, a lengthy advertisement might bore them. Therefore, in order to make an
advertisement persuasive and comparative without breaking the regulations, as well as,
50 Carrie Ka Yee Lam
short but memorable, the language of advertising is important. The message of the
advertisement has to be delivered clearly but implicitly, hence presupposition is often
used for the ease of delivering messages. Presupposition is used for similar purposes
all over the world; this paper will use Hong Kong food advertisements as an example
to illustrate the purposes of presupposition.
4.11 Implicit competition
Presupposition is often employed in the discourse of advertising, and one important
function of it is to make an advertisement comparative and most importantly, avoid
breaking the law. An example of such use of presupposition is evident in this text
from Maxims’ moon cake television commercial: “Give the best to the best”. The
statement presupposes that Maxims’ moon cake is the best when compared to the
other brands of the same product type. As required by the law, the advertisements
cannot directly assert that their product is better than other brands of the same product
types, so they presuppose the message. Regarding the Maxims text above, the
advertisement cannot directly assert, “Maxims is better than Kee Wah”, otherwise
Maxims would probably get into legal disputes. Therefore, the advertisement
presupposing Maxims is better than other brands by simply stating it is the best
without explicitly comparing it with others. Presupposition is used in this particular
advertisement to indirectly compare Maxims with its competitors and to state that
Maxims is the best, thus to persuade potential consumers to buy its products rather
than those of its competitors.
4.12 Causing readers to consider the existence of the products or service
Presupposition is also used in advertisements in another function: it may cause “the
reader to consider the existence of objects, propositions, and culturally defined
behavioral properties” (Sells and Gonzalez, 2002). Such use of presupposition is
found in the Yakult TV advertisement in Hong Kong. The famous quote in the Yakult
advertisement is “Have you drunk today?” The statement presupposes that you drink
or need Yakult every day, thereby bringing about the idea that the behavior of drinking
Yakult is part of our culture. To bring out this idea, the advertisement cannot directly
assert, “You have to drink Yakult everyday”, as there are restrictions by law. Therefore
the advertisement presupposes instead of directly asserts that the behavior of drinking
Yakult is part of our culture by stating: “Have you drunk today?” This particular
Yakult advertisement illustrates that one important function of presupposition is to
create and perpetuate a kind of ideology that the behavior of daily drinking Yakult is
A sociolinguistic study of Hong Kong culture 51
part of everybody’s normal everyday practice and perhaps even of our culture. Thus
the public should be persuaded to consume the product, and to increase its sale.
Apart from promoting the ideology that the behavior of using a particular product or
service is part of our culture, presupposition may also cause readers to “consider the
existence of objects” (Sells and Gonzalez, 2002). An example of such use of
presupposition is evident in an advertisement from 7-11 convenience stores in Hong
Kong. The advertisement slogan is “Where is your 7-11?” This statement presupposes
that you have a 7-11 somewhere in your neighborhood and that everyone has his or
her own 7-11 shop. The aim of this advertisement is to make the readers consider and
realize the presence due to many 7-11 shops in Hong Kong. There are so many
branches that everybody has one of their own. This presupposition helps building up a
connection and relationship between the brand and the public, emphasizing the
commonness of 7-11 stores in Hong Kong. Thus, it portrays the shop as being so close
to the public that it is “yours”, so that people would visit it every day. Hence, the
advertisement persuades the readers to go to their 7-11 shops.
4.13 Making the advertisement short and memorable
A further function of applying presupposition in advertisements is to make sure an
advertisement delivers the message in a short and memorable way. By using
presupposition, information can be shared between the reader and advertiser without
explanation or a need for convincing (Nilsen, 1974). One example of such use of
presupposition in advertisement is taken from the CALCI-PLUS Soya Collagen
television commercial in Hong Kong, “More than just calcium”. Instead of making a
long statement listing what exactly is in the soya drink, like “CALCI-PLUS is a
calcium enriched healthy soya drink with 0% cholesterol, lactose-free, low fat low
sugar and…” The statement presupposes that the soya drink contains different quality
health elements, though what exactly is left open for the audience to think about and
to find out by buying the product. Presupposition also helps to shorten the message
that CALCI-PLUS is nutritional. However, listing all the nutrients would be lengthy
and dull, therefore, in order to deliver the message presupposition is used.
4.2 Hong Kong cultural traditions and values reflected in food advertisements
Apart from being an aid to marketing and selling goods, advertising is also a carrier of
cultural values, a form of social and cultural communication (Pollay, 1986). Cultural
52 Carrie Ka Yee Lam
traditions can be revealed in an advertisement through the use of presupposition,
examples of such TV advertisements are taken from the Danish cookie brand
Kjeldsens and the Hong Kong local brand Saint Honore’s. Both advertisements are
launched during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2008. In the Kjeldsens TV advertisement,
the slogan is “Want to make people happy? Send Kjeldsens as a gift!” The statement
presupposes that sending Kjeldsens as a gift will make people happy. In the Saint
Honore’s moon cake Television Commercial, the Saint Honore’s moon cake is a form
of happiness. Both advertisements relate their products to happiness in order to
persuade people to purchase them.
Apart from presupposing that these products can make people happy, there is also a
common implicit presupposition underlying the two advertisements. This
presupposition is indicated by the word “send”, both television commercials
presuppose the action of “sending”. The implicit presupposition reveals that there is a
cultural practice of sending a gift to relatives and friends during Chinese festivals in
Hong Kong. Advertisers make use of this cultural tradition of gift-giving to promote
their products and boost selling of their goods. Moreover, this particular type of
advertisement is not shown all year round on the television. It is only launched in time
to capture the gift-giving market during the Chinese festivals, such as the Chinese
New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Indeed, gift giving is important in the Hong
Kong culture, because of the significance of interpersonal relationships in the culture
(James, 1995). For the Mid-Autumn Festival in particular, this is the day for reunion,
people would sit down with family and friends to celebrate and watch the full moon
together. Thus, giving moon cakes or food to each other is a tradition to enhance
interpersonal relationships during the festival. The above advertisements illustrate that
presupposition not only functions to promote sales, but may also reveal cultural
traditions and practices.
Cultural values are “governing ideas and guiding principles for thought and action”
(Srikandath, 1991: 166) that “permeate a culture” (Chan and Cheng, 2002: 388). As
cultural values are the governing ideas and guiding principles for action, some
commercials advertise based on the cultural values. For instance, it is part of our
cultural values that having a slender figure is the ideal that people should strive for.
Cultural values may thus lead us to further action, and people would consider
purchasing products that claimed to bring about slimming effects. Advertising as a
“distorted mirror of cultural values, only reflecting certain lifestyles and values that
serve sellers’ interests” (Pollay, 1986: 18). Therefore, advertisers often make use of
cultural values and embed them in the advertisement to guide people to purchase their
A sociolinguistic study of Hong Kong culture 53
goods. Thus, cultural values could also be revealed in commercials. Examples of such
advertisements are taken from Quaker and Carnation’s television commercials in
Hong Kong. Quaker in Hong Kong has the slogan is “Quaker everyday to keep soul
and body fit”. The slogan presupposes that Quaker makes people fit and healthy.
Another advertisement is taken from Carnation in Hong Kong which states that “Keep
fit and Carnation side by side”. This statement presupposes consuming Carnation
brings about fitness and health. Both slogans presuppose that the products make
people healthy. There is also another common implicit presupposition underlying the
two commercials which assumes that people in Hong Kong are concerned about their
health. Therefore, health and fitness are used as a major selling point of the products.
This reflects that health is important to Hong Kong people and it is part of the cultural
values of Hong Kong nowadays.
Advertising is primarily persuasive in nature. It aims at getting the public to response
and to buy the advertised product. At times, advertising seeks to achieve an impact by
appealing to the public’s interest. The messages delivered by various advertisements
might be different but they often use presupposition. Presupposition is a crucial part
of the discourse of advertising for different strategic reasons: some use it to attack
other brands of the same product types, some persuade the public to consume their
products by shaping attitudes and lifestyles, and others shorten their messages and
grab the audience’s attention. Apart from delivering messages to us every day,
advertisements also reveal cultural traditions and values. Very often, advertisers make
use of the cultural traditions and values and embed them in commercials to promote
sales. Cultural traditions and values are seldom brought up explicitly but presupposed
in the advertisements. However, not everyone can respond to such advertising
message that are congruent with their cultures, as readers grow up in different cultures
and become accustomed to different culture’s value systems. In order to produce
successful advertising, advertisers have to understand cultural differences and tailor
them to reflect their values (Zhang and Gelb, 1996). Presupposition is
multi-functional in commercials and is perhaps one of the most important functions as
it ensures effective communication between the public and the advertisers.
54 Carrie Ka Yee Lam
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