The Discourse Structure of and Sociopolitical Strictures on TV Commercials

| September 30, 2003
The Discourse Structure of and Sociopolitical Strictures on TV Commercials

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Hasan Ansary
Shiraz University, Iran

Esmat Babaii
Shiraz University, Iran

The purpose of this study was to explore, from a sociolinguistic perspective, the textual and contextual characteristics of contemporary Iranian TV advertising style. More specifically, this study was an attempt to examine the macro-textual or discourse structure of TV commercials and the way they were sociopolitically constricted. To this end, commercials appearing on our screens over a period of 30 consecutive days (Feb. 2000) were tape-recorded and content analyzed. Analysis of the corpus revealed that commercials on the national Iranian TV mainly adopted the features of standard Western advertising style in two respects: (a) in their use of linguistic attention-seeking devices and (b) in their discourse structure. Due to cultural and sociopolitical differences, however, their content appeared to be incongruous with the tenets of present-day Western advertising practices.



The purpose of this study was to explore, from a sociolinguistic perspective, the textual and contextual characteristics of contemporary Iranian TV advertising style. More specifically, this study was an attempt to examine the macro-textual or discourse structure of TV commercials and the way they were sociopolitically constricted. To this end, commercials appearing on our screens over a period of 30 consecutive days (Feb. 2000) were tape-recorded and content analyzed. Analysis of the corpus revealed that commercials on the national Iranian TV mainly adopted the features of standard Western advertising style in two respects: (a) in their use of linguistic attention-seeking devices and (b) in their discourse structure. Due to cultural and sociopolitical differences, however, their content appeared to be incongruous with the tenets of present-day Western advertising practices.


We are living in an era of information explosion in which advertising seems to be an indispensable building block of the media. Radio, TV, and the press are, to a great extent, financially motivated to present ads. Although the media depend on ads financially, an ad in and of itself does not seem to contribute very much to the communicative goal(s) of the discourse with which it appears. In fact, ads seem to be superfluous and irrelevant to layman’s everyday life. People often tend to ignore them, or they think they do so. But, like it or not, they influence the choices people often make. Cook (1992:13) holds the view that ads have a “paradoxical” and “ambivalent” status, i.e., they are everywhere but nowhere . He puts it this way:

In many ways, at every level, ads are parasitic upon their situation and other discourses. Just as the substance of an ad is often stuck to some other significant substance, so its discourse both occurs within other discourse and also imitates it.(ibid, p.29, emphasis added)

A radical view is that ads are both an “easy distraction” and a “literal waste of time” (cf. Toolan 1988) and that the former of these characteristics is more alarming. Because, in promoting particular products, whatever they might be, ads lead people to the consumption of mostly non-essential goods, often failing to realize that there are other priorities in life. According to Toolan (1988:63), ads are

…easy opium of the masses, the narcotic that deflects energy and attention from difficult work on personal and social relationships, and possible changes of those relationships.
Aside from such attitudinal and critical approaches to the issue of advertising, from a linguistic point of view , ads seem, in effect, to constitute a genre with distinct features whose function is not only to inform but also to persuade and influence (see, e.g., Swales 1990). Koll-Stobbe (1994) maintains that by using the linguistic system as a tool kit in a creative manner, advertising discourse has become a type of public and coexistent communication, manifesting and mediating a mass folk culture.

If ads are designed to publicize a product or service in order to sell it, the desired outcome an advertiser looks for would be the response ‘I’ll buy that’. This function of persuasion in ads, it is believed here, is realized through a text possibly laden with certain linguistic, discoursal, and societal signals. In a word, ads often exploit both the aesthetic features of verbal communication and fashion of the day dominant in a particular culture in order to promote a product. This study seeks to understand, from a sociolinguistic point of view, how text producers attain such a communicative goal, what linguistic resources they use, and what social constraints there are on the choice of texture for their texts.


Seen in a sociological perspective, advertising will only flourish in a community where individuals live above subsistence level and technological advancement makes mass-production possible (see Vestergaard & Schroder 1985). Over-production and under-demand often lead to a competitive market where advertising is justified. Very much in line with this, Fairclough (1989:199) discusses ‘consumerism’ as a by-product of the economic systems in which private ownership of wealth is cherished. He holds the view that

Consumerism is a property of modern capitalism which involves a shift in ideological focus from economic production to economic consumption, and an unprecedented level of impingement of economy on people’s lives…. Consumerism is a product of mature capitalism when productive capacity is such that an apparently endless variety of commodities can be produced in apparently unlimited quantities.

Seen in a linguistic perspective, the language of advertising (i.e., standard advertising English) is, according to Leech’s (1966:27) classic treatise, characterized by a number of preferred linguistic patterns and techniques:

(a) Unorthodoxies of spelling and syntax, and semantic oddities are common to attract attention.
(b) Simple, personal, and colloquial style and a familiar vocabulary are employed to sustain attention.
(c) Phonological devices of rhyme and alliteration and sheer repetition are utilized to enhance memorability and amusement. Repetition is usually of two types: intra-textual and inter-textual. In the former, the product’s name and certain highlighted features are repeated several times. In the latter, a single slogan is consistently used in different ads for a single product or manufacturer.
(d) An intimate, interactive addressing of the audience and a conversational mode is employed.
(e) Abundant use is made of superlatives and hyperbole in characterizing the product, with often indirect reference to rival products.

In the same vein, following Habermas (1984), Fairclough (1989:198) is of the opinion that advertising is an instance of strategic discourse- discourse oriented towards instrumental goals, to getting results, etc. Strategic discourse is then broadly contrasted with communicative discourse which is fundamentally oriented towards reaching a common understanding between interlocutors. All these boil down to a single fact: writers of ads exploit all these devices, strategies, etc. not to engage in communication, but to promote products only.
Toolan (1988: 55) believes that the discourse of ads in the press fundamentally carries the following macro-structural components:

ILLUS – Signature line -STRATION
Standing details

In the framework of the press ads, a headline acts as an introduction to discourse in news. In the TV ads, however, a picture, or a brief scenario or the first few utterances play this introductory role. To attract attention, some headlines are obscure and ambiguous, like crossword clues, to be disambiguated by the body- the actual presentation of the product and its attributes. Besides, in the TV ads, since time is a determining factor, the riddle should be solved in the twinkling of an eye. Slogans seem to be the same both in the press and TV ads. And in contrast to the structure of the press ads, signature line and standing details are often missing in the TV ads. Furthermore, unlike press advertising, writers of TV commercials do not depend on readerships. They deal with a mass and indeterminable audiences, potentially a nation. Therefore, they should be more careful not to offend any sizable or influential groups.

Citing Brierley (1995), Goddard (1998:80) shows that if advertisers attempt to promote a single product in different cultures, they cannot use the same strategy. That is to say, the dominant cultural values of a particular society greatly shape the way people in that society respond to an ad. For example, to improve the sales of Volvo automobiles, advertisers decided to make specific culture-friendly ads suitable for different people coming from different cultural backgrounds; focusing on the car’s safety in Switzerland and England, its status in France, its economy in Sweden, and its performance in Germany.

With this in mind, the present study set out (1) to offer a descriptive account of the sociolinguistic features of TV commercials (as a business type of ads) in Iran, and (2) to analyze their content as indices of cultural values. This can be considered as an attempt to uncover the hidden norms of Iranian society in the 90s.


One hundred and ten audio-tape-recordings were made of TV commercials which appeared on screens over a period of 30 consecutive days (February 2000). Notes were made about those points which could not be followed or detected through listening alone. Repeated broadcasting of the ads on many occasions made it possible to collect a rather comprehensive corpus of data. Tapes were then transcribed. Scripts were scrutinized to identify the prominent discoursal and sociolinguistic features.


A qualitative analysis of the data provided further evidence in support of the Leech’s 1966 classic characterization of standard advertising English. Specifically, analysis of the data revealed that the frequently-used linguistic features common in all commercials on TV could be cataloged as:

(a) Use of a simple, personal, and colloquial style and a familiar vocabulary (however, in the TU-VU system of the Persian language, only VU /shoma/ is used to politely address people as a nation , but not as individuals).
(b) Use of phonological devices such as rhymes and alliteration to enhance memorability and amusement, e.g., /xosh mi¦zzeh, xosh poxt, macaroniyeh Roshd/ (what tastes well, cooks well, is Roshd Pasta).
(c) Sheer repetition: (1) intra-textual, the citation of a brand name and/or an attribute of a product , and (2) inter-textual, repetition of the same slogan in different ads for a single product, e.g., /siv hi¦man sib i¦st/ (an apple is an apple) or the repetition of the same slogan for different products of a single make, e.g., /hi¦mishe ti¦miz, hi¦mishe saviz/ (always clean, always good-tempered).
(d) Abundant use of superlatives and hyperboles in characterizing a product, e.g., /… ti¦nha dari¦ndeyeh govahinameyeh beinolmeli¦li ISO 2001/ (… the Only holder of ISO 2001 certificate in the country).

A further analysis of the corpus demonstrated that the discourse structure of Persian TV commercials fundamentally consists of three parts: introduction, body, and slogan, each serving a separate function. Fig. 1 below shows the identified structure.

Figure 1
Discourse Structure of Persian TV Commercials

(used mainly to attract attention)

(characterization of the product and an indirect comparison with the rival products,
accompanied by an intra-textual repetition of the product brand name)

(inter-textual repetition of a single phrase or sentence in different commercials for a single product or manufacturer)

* This part is optional and is usually
manifested in the form of a scenario.

Table 1
Identified Features of TV Commercials in Iran




Note. 1= Rhythmic language (with or without music), 2 = Animation, 3 = Presence of children, 4 = Presence of women, 5 = Presence of men, 6 = Presence of no human, 7= Nature, 8 = Scenario, 9 = Public interests, 10 = Nationalism

¨ Rhythmic language (16%)
Rhythmic language (with or without music) is used to make the ads more interesting and memorable. It should be noted, however, that, in principle, on the national Iranian TV and radio, women’s voice can be heard when reading out a rhyme but not singing a song. A song is either sung by men or children.

¨ Animation (12%)
Use of cartoons and puppets, especially in ads aimed at children.

¨ Presence of children (9%)
In all the ads aimed at children and some addressing adults, children are present in one way or another.

¨ Presence of women (5%)
There appeared in the data a sharp contrast between the Iranian TV commercials and the typical Western ads in terms of this particular feature which will be discussed later (see Discussion section).

¨ Presence of men (12%)
Clearly, men’s appearance in ads on TV is relatively high.

¨ Presence of no human (24%)
This is the most frequently-used feature in which a product and/or its attribute is presented using no-human agent.

¨ Nature (6%)
The major trend has been a focus on the beauty of nature to indicate that products advertised are also beautiful.

¨ Scenario (5%)
Basically, scenarios act as an introduction of a product to the public. However, as time is gold in the TV ads, its frequency is relatively low.

¨ Public interests (10%)
This refers to an emphasis on any (un)justified socially-desirable concepts, e.g. holding an ISO 9002 certificate as a sign of quality or granting a discount on a product in a specified period of time.

¨ Nationalism (2%)
Reference to a nationally-cherished entity to promote a product, e.g., showing the scenes of Persepolis -a famous and interesting monument to Iranian historical events- in order to market a kind of stove called Pars.


Findings of this study fairly support the conviction that, at present in Iran, TV commercials mainly carry the features of standard Western advertising style and follow its tenets. This is, perhaps, an indication of the recent sociopolitical developments that are partly reflected in the language of commercials. In fact, as pointed out by Borbein & Le Borgne (1995), due to their dependence on current political and economic conditions, advertisements can be described as a “sounding board” which makes social movements more apparent.

In the post-revolutionary era, shortly after the violent overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, striking sociopolitical changes in and principal modifications of the ruling ideology brought with it a strong rising tide of the anti-Western way of life in which typical Western (British and American) ads were not welcome at all by both the new administration and the masses. In fact, in the early 80’s very few ads appeared in the Iranian mass media and this discourse type was about to disappear for good. Simply because, the Western-style ads were considered to be a relic of the ex-pro-Western political adminstration, associated with a capitalist system of values reminiscent of a Westomaniac monarchy, economically dependent on a competitive market that can encourage a community of consumers and not producers. However, it now appears that in the year 2000 that tide has fallen, reflecting linguistically a pro-Western sociopolitical affinity about which the majority of people seem not to be so fussy. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the characteristics of this text/discourse type (commercials) can serve as an index of surface sociolinguistic changes reflecting deeper sociopolitical developments in a society.

With respect to the content of TV commercials, analysis of the data demonstrated that although they generally mimic the discourse structure of standard Western ads and utilize Western advertising devices, there seem to be some basic differences between them.

First, in the West, it appears that “sex sells”. That is to say, as mentioned by Goddard (1998), in the West, women have always been used as sexual commodities for years to promote sales of products as disparate as cars and chocolate bars. In Iran, however, there is a law against the (mis)use of women on TV or in the press for business purposes. Therefore, advertisers always ask children and men to play the game instead. Of course, this does not mean that women never show up on both the big and the small screen. They are present but to qualify and strengthen the traditional patriarchal morality in which women are expected to just cook, wash the dishes, and do the housework. Perhaps, this can be taken as a covert practice of sexism which assigns unfair sex roles to the members of a community.

Secondly, as distinctive characteristics of Persian TV commercials, mention can be made of (a) frequent use of non-human elements (24%) in presenting products for sale, (b) very low profile of women (5%), (c) low exploitation of scenarios (5%), high profile of men and kids (21%), and frequent use of cartoons and puppets (12%) instead of human agents to promote a product.

It is also interesting to note that in the ads on TV in Iran, the good name of famous people- actors, sportsmen, etc.-is not used to promote goods. And, unlike Arab countries where journalism is receptive to foreign neologisms and loanwords, particularly words originating from English (e.g., the case of Jordan as reported in 1993 by Hussein & Zughoul) and unlike Switzerland where abundant occurrence of English in advertisements is at the service of appropriation of English as a Swiss national identity symbol (cf. Cheshire & Moser 1994), in Iran, in line with language maintenance policies and revitalization plans sponsored by the Iranian Academy of sciences, using foreign words as brand names or in the body of ads is discouraged and forbidden. Although producers are not allowed to use foreign brand names, some local manufacturers attempt to evade this regulation by using brand names which have almost similar pronunciation to foreign words in order to keep the good name of suppliers or to (mis)use their good names to promote sales. For example, a local clutch and disc producer in Iran has used the name /Fi¦ravari vi¦ Saxt/ (F+S) to connote the good name and good quality of Fischel & Sachs (F+S) which is a German brand name. Or, since the producer of Nichola heaters had to change the brand name into a Persian word, they use /Nik kala/ (meaning good product) which is phonologically similar to original brand name, Nichola.

In a nutshell, it can be suggested here that sheer legality of presenting a product for sale in commercials on TV or in the press seems to be a reflection of the sociopolitical realities of a society and that the sociolinguistic features of such commercials can serve as an index of ruling values. Therefore, any further sociolinguistic research on this area can indeed throw more illuminating light on the sociopolitical profile of the communities. However, only a cross-comparison of various genres in a single discourse community and its implications may consolidate the findings of present study.


For helpful comments on the early drafts of this article, we are grateful to Dr. L. Yarmohammadi, Professor of (Critical) Discourse Analysis in the Department of Linguistics and Foreign Languages, Shiraz University, Iran. He was very critical and demanding and yet very caring and supportive along the way.


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