One of things I don’t like about the Daily Mail – apart from the misogyny, the homophobia, the jingoism and racial intolerance, the bile, spite and malevolence, the rejection of anything new or different, the small-mindedness, the crass populism and the utter, utter hypocrisy – is the underlinings.
They turn up in headlines like this:
‘So, who has got the fattest legs in showbiz?’
‘It’s official: immigrants do come from overseas’
‘How faceless Brussels Eurocrats plan to steal our children’s faces’
The sub-editors use these underlinings literally to underline the DM’s agenda. Each one says “You know those prejudices you’ve got? Well they’re well-founded. You’re not racist or irrational. Those dark thoughts and fears you harbour are in fact completely normal. Everything’s alright with your head. You’re amongst friends here. We’re like peas in a pod, you and I. And there’s nothing wrong with good old British peas, unlike swarthy, swan-eating foreign peas.”
Underlinings are ubiquitous in advertising copy, too, though their presence is driven by commercial rather than ideological reasons. “Can you just emphasise the price?” asks the client. “The price is a big selling point. And the phone number, can you put that in bold, along with the web address, and make sure they’re mentioned up front. And somehow draw attention to the ‘offer closes’ date. Oh, and underline the free set of steak knives. In fact, could you emphasise everything and makes sure it all gets mentioned first?”
Copywriters generally end up accommodating at least some of the clients’ wishes because, well, we like to eat. The result, though, is all too often deeply unattractive ads and, worse, a patronising shoutiness that doesn’t trust people to read the ad ‘properly’.
I challenge you to check out the current top 10 titles on the Amazon best-selling fiction list and find any examples of underlining, emboldening or italicising used as a means of emphasis. OK, the literature vs advert comparison is slightly disingenuous. Books want you to get involved; ads want you to get online, get on the phone or get down the shops.
Occasionally, I suppose, the way to get people to do that is to yell and hector them. After all, the market stallholder doesn’t outsell his rivals by adopting a Sergeant Wilson-style sales patter: “I say, would you mind awfully looking at the rather generous price of my splendid tomatoes? In your own time.”
But not all ads need to shout and nor do they have to tell you how to read the copy. If it’s expressed well, the voice in your head can detect the importance of a message or the uniqueness of a proposition. It knows when to invest copy with whimsy, breathlessness, charm or urgency. It can also tell when a word needs emphasis.
I was reminded of this the other day after reading that the Metropolitan Police were introducing a new ‘101’ number for non-emergency calls. Presumably this will replace the distinctly unmemorable number they launched a few years back with the same purpose in mind. But I kept the little door-drop because I liked the way it allowed people to provide their own emphasis:
Admit it: your inner voice put an inflection on ‘has’, didn’t it? Then you read it again and emphasised both ‘is and ‘has’. See? I rest my case.