Shadow Reading: Text & Subtext in Effective Communication (1)

[August 28, 2011] 

As great comedians seem to know innately, we communicate through a variety of means, including word, gesture, facial expression, tone, volume and accent. They’re also acutely aware of the interaction of text and subtext. In its crudest form, we’re conscious of subtext whenever we hear a clever play on words

Whether we laugh or flinch, a pun’s hidden subtext jumps out at us, jack-in-the-box style. While it’s easy to see the relationship between text and subtext in humor, many people are less conscious of that relationship in everyday communication. The way language works, however, everything we can say, write or act out as text is shadowed by its subtext. 

How we read that subtext depends most significantly on the cultural context we inhabit. A sample song lyric from the 1930s bristles with innuendo that might well have been lost on its original audience. For all that its intent is lighthearted “suggestiveness,” I doubt we hear the lyric in exactly the same way in 2011: 

You’re an old smoothie, 
I’m an old softie, 
I’m just like putty 
In the hands of a girl like you. 

You’re an old meanie, 
I’m a big boobie, 
I just go nutty, 
In the hands of a girl like you. 

Poor me, you played me for a sap; 
Poor you, you thought you’d laid a trap! 
Well dear, I think it’s time you knew, 
You’ve done just what I wanted you to. 

Silly old smoothie, 
Crafty old softie, 
I’ll stick like putty 
To the hand of a girl like you. 

(Lyrics by B.G. DeSylva—from the 1932 musical Take a Chance) 

Clearly, the subtext has changed over time, in ways subtle and overt, depending on your reading. Yet, again, without the heightened diction of poetry or the visual cues they receive from comedians, many Americans find subtext difficult to perceive in everyday language. 

This is due to the word-by-word way they are taught to read and write. As a result, a mastery of word order, vocabulary and a few of the finicky rules we teach children to help them develop a rudimentary grasp of grammar, is all most people absorb about how language communicates. 

Trouble is, our industry demands more than a vague sensitivity to language. Knowing the difference between “dog bites man” and “man bites dog” is not enough. As communication managers, an ability to perceive, shape and control the subtext of the message we send to consumers is essential. The truth of this easiest to see when things go wrong. Consider the headline on view as of 8-26-11 on Volvo.com: 

There’s no place like a Volvo. 

A play on an adage made famous 72 years ago in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, the subtext of this headline is simply too vague to have impact. Are we saying a Volvo is a home where consumers can seed cherished memories? Or is it “special” for no particular reason, neither fun, cool, exhilarating nor enlightening. 

Besides, the idea of a car as a place is badly misplaced. If the underlying thought is, “There’s no experience like the experience of driving a Volvo,” Volvo undoubtedly assumes consumers will arrive at the site with a complete set of mining equipment—so they can tunnel down to this level of meaning. 

By grafting the brand name mechanically onto a phrase no longer on the tip of people’s tongues, Volvo fails to define the attributes consumers can retain, recall and, ultimately advocate for. Suburu, on the other hand, with the line: 

Experience Love that Lasts. 

…manages to balance text and subtext more successfully. While its message is still quite generic, this line offers a clear approach to its meaning: “Subaru delivers long-term satisfaction.” Also based on familiar phrases, this line succeeds by not falling prey to a venerable cliché: that every headline just gotta have a pun, homonym, phrase inversion or goofy rhyme, Preferably. Separated. By. Periods. 

As layered as this discussion is when we stick to headlines, creating and maintaining a functioning subtext within body copy is still more complex. This is partly a matter of sheer volume—the more words, the more they’re open to interpretation—but it also involves the dogged persistence of outdated promotional idioms, those undead relics of the ’60s that rise from their coffins at the start of every project to strangle innovation and stoke the fires of Marketing Anxiety. 

In my next post, I’ll have more to say about text/subtext relationships as applied to body copy. Though more often cobbled than creatively conceived, body copy is where the relationship between a text and its shadow has the most impact on the success of the entire project. 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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