Are ads lying? Well, that’s the topic that can be discussed, but John Austin would consider this pointless. In his opinion, we should examine individual statements not in terms of what they mean, but rather how they affect people.
Every flagship smartphone comes along with strange, new ritual: an online brawl between fans of different brands about which phone is the best. If John Austin was still alive, he wouldn’t like to be part of such a dispute. It is impossible to discuss “which phone is the best” because the term “best” is extremely vague here. Many features of smartphones can be described as both a disadvantage and an advantage.
According to Austin, the philosophical discussion is similar. Various people, who are heavily entrenched in their positions, are fighting verbal battles, although they cannot necessarily explain what they are arguing about. According to the English philosopher, the key to understanding the world, therefore, is not to create new imaginary disputes, but to analyse the language people really speak.
First of all, the English philosopher separated statements into two types: those in which we do something and those in which we only describe something. For example, saying “I am firing you” or “I promise you this” doesn’t describe any facts.
Austin called such statements “performatives”. All kinds of promises, commitments, acknowledgments or other verbal actions can’t be true according to the philosopher. They can be “happy” or “unhappy”. For example, if a salesman says “I offer you a 5% discount”, then depending on whether his competence allows it, whether the situation was played out “seriously”, etc., we can state that he made a promise in a “happy” way or not.
The problem arises when we look at purely descriptive sentences, e.g. “this phone has a screen size of 5.5 inches” – seemingly, by saying this, you do not perform any action. Or do you? When you say something like that, you declare a certain position, you state a fact, you refer to some situation – to put it simple, even a fact – an informative statement can be treated as a kind of action.
Austin concluded that the most important thing is to study the practical effects of using a sentence, not its meaning or truthfulness.
Each statement can have different functions. If someone speaks out loud at a party “it’s already midnight”, they usually don’t want to share their knowledge about the current time, but they rather want to suggest to someone else that the time is getting late and they have to go home. Or that it’s time to serve champagne.
This approach to the subject is particularly important in the creation of advertising. If any product is described by just facts, it may turn out that the reader will experience the impression of a “wall of text”, or even consider the product to be repulsive. Meanwhile, selective selection of seemingly irrelevant information may have a positive effect. For example, theoretically emotionless information about the country of origin of a product is perceived by consumers as a quality criterion. This is why so frequent inscriptions of the type “German quality”, “designed in California”, which are to distract the customer’s attention from the Asian place of production.
In John Austin’s philosophy, we also see the blurring of the difference between the sphere of “action” and “speaking”. After all, every statement is an act of action and in this context, it is best to examine it. And… use it.