Yard signs for a local politician captured the curiosity of Katherine Haenschen.
“I was driving through the region and noticed the same campaign was using a different font on signs in rural areas than on the signs in town,” said Haenschen, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication.
“I thought, why would this candidate be using multiple fonts?”
An expert in political messaging, Haenschen and Daniel Tamul, also an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, transformed the question into a captivating research project.
“What’s in a Font?: Ideological Perceptions of Typography” questions the potential impact on voters if fonts are found to have political attributes.
Haenschen and Tamul reached the following key conclusions through the study:
Individuals perceive fonts to have liberal or conservative leanings.
The more people view a font as aligned with their ideology, the more they favor it.
Fonts that fall under the serif category — ones festooned with a small line or stroke — are viewed as more conservative than fonts in the sans serif group, though differences exist within font families.
“This research is of interest to anyone who cares about political communications, and the results have clear implications for political campaign professionals,” said Haenschen. “When you’re choosing a candidate’s visual identity, you need to consider how people perceive that font.”
The findings came from two survey experiments. The first used typeface classification, such as serif or sans serif, and typeface styles (regular, bold, italic).
A total of 987 survey participants read the phrase “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” presented in each typeface style, and two typefaces representing the serif and sans serif categories: Times New Roman and Gill Sans.
The respondents then rated the typeface as liberal or conservative, and answered several demographic measures related to their political ideology, party affiliation, age, gender, and race.
During the second experiment, Haenschen and Tamul used a wider range of typefaces, including multiple typefaces within the same font family.
Participants read a phrase or a name written in one of two serifs (Jubilat or Times New Roman), one of two sans serifs (Gill Sans or Century Gothic), and one display font (Sunrise, Birds of Paradise, or Cloister Black Light).
The researchers said they chose the Jubilat font because it was used in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, and Century Gothic because of its close approximation to the Gotham font used by former President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.
Political signs in front yard. Image is credited to Kristi Blokhin.
Overall, results showed that typefaces, typeface classifications, and typeface styles are perceived to have different ideological leanings, and partisanship moderates ideological perception.
Haenschen emphasized that the exploratory story suggests many avenues for further research.
“This study shows that font plays a role in American political communication, conveying ideology through the anatomy of its letterforms,” said Haenschen. “Through this research, we lay the groundwork for future studies that may identify relationships between fonts and persuasive outcomes in political communication.”
As society and the economy continue to develop, internet slang has shifted from being a mode of communication to being an everyday language. People’s communicative behavior, language, and psychology have all been affected by the subtle influence of internet slang (Crystal, 2006). Corporations have also started employing internet slang in public communications.
McDonald’s, for example, used the internet slang “么么哒” (Mo Mo Da, a mimetic word for kissing) to promote its “Ice Cream Day,” because this word expresses ideas such as cuteness, proximity, and delightfulness. Some internet slang originates from the news, movies, TV programs, or online videos.
For example, a popular online video featuring a character from an American TV show saying the phrase “Cash me ousside, howbow dah” (“Catch me outside, how about that?”) went viral because of the strong accent and rebellious attitude of the character. On the internet, a catch phrase or an incident can be publicized overnight, such as the expression “prehistoric powers” introduced by the young Chinese swimming athlete Yuanhui Fu or the emerging blend “Brexit” referring to the UK public vote for departure from the European Union. Internet slang has attracted the attention of corporations and its widespread use continues to grow.
In this study, we posed the following question: Is internet slang suitable for every product? It is possible that overusing internet slang in advertisements may yield unfavorable results, although such slang might attract more attention compared with standard language (SL). Therefore, this study explored people’s attention and evaluations (such as product evaluation and brand awareness) when encountering internet slang in various types of advertisements for products. The study also addressed whether internet slang is always has a positive effect on such evaluations.
This research makes several notable contributions. First, it adds to the literature related to advertising effect of languages, our work demonstrated the complex effects of internet slang on advertisements. Second, this work examined the advertising effect of internet slang from the attention perspective according to code-switching theory by using embedded language and eye tracking. These findings enrich both language and advertising communication theories.
The emergence of internet slang is a result of language variation. Language variation is a core concept in sociolinguistics (Chambers, 2008) and a characteristic of language, which means there is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may use distinct pronunciation (accent), word choice (lexicon), or morphology and syntax. In this research, internet slang is regarded as a variant of SL because it is normally related to word choice or morphology and syntax. Internet slang as a variant of SL (e.g., English, Chinese, and German) (Collot and Belmore, 1996) is informal, irregular, and dynamic.
Internet slang often borrows foreign words, dialects, digital elements, and icons; it also frequently integrates the use of paraphrasing, homonyms, thumbnails, reduplication, and other word formation methods and unconventional syntax (Kundi et al., 2014). Internet slang has gained a “novelty” effect through its anticonventional nature, which is why non-normativity is its defining characteristic. Compared with SL, internet slang has innovative and novel characteristics (Collot and Belmore, 1996), and its use in advertising is highly creative. Attention to advertisements has increased following improvements in creative quality (Pieters et al., 2002). For example, in tobacco advertisements, creative warnings attract more audience attention than regular warnings do (Krugman et al., 1994). Exciting visuals can increase the perception of creativity, which attracts more attention to advertisements (Hagtvedt, 2011).
Internet slang is novel, humorous, and interesting, and it possesses qualities that attract attention, particularly that of humor (Eisend, 2011). By contrast, SL is more credible than non-SL. For example, the use of a standard accent in advertisements can largely offset any geographic, racial, or product differences (Alcántara-Pilar et al., 2013); thus, a considerable number of studies have recommended the use of SL to improve the influence of communication. In our previous study, we observed that compared with advertisements that used SL, those that used internet slang attracted more attention (Liu et al., 2017). Furthermore, electroencephalography studies have demonstrated that the cognitive processing of internet slang yields a significant N400 component and may involve creative thinking (Zhao et al., 2017).
Internet Slang, Embedded Language, and Code-Switching Theory
Internet slang is often used in combination with SL. For example, communication in SL is occasionally interspersed with some internet slang terms to increase the attractiveness. Accordingly, internet slang is used in everyday life in the form of an embedded language. The advertising tactic of “inserting a foreign word or expression into a sentence (e.g., into an ad slogan), resulting in a mixed-language message” is called code-switching (Luna and Peracchio, 2005a; Lin et al., 2017). We applied code-switching theory in this research because the use of internet slang in advertising results in a similar situation as that of using code-switching. First, internet slang differs from SL because of its salient features, such as creative use of punctuation (e.g., emoticons), use of initialisms, omission of non-essential letters, and substitution of homophones (Jones and Schieffelin, 2009).
This distinctive style enables audiences to distinguish internet slang from SL when embedded in advertisements. For example, a study (Zhao et al., 2017) reported that the processing of internet slang involves a novel N400 and late positive component, which reflects the recognition of the novel meanings of internet slang through event-related potentials (ERPs). Second, the language schema of internet slang is different from that of SL.
Internet slang is heavily used by young people in computer-mediated communications and is usually perceived as creative, interesting, and pop culture-related (Tagliamonte, 2016). However, for adults who mainly speak SL, internet slang is viewed as informal and extremely difficult to understand (Jones and Schieffelin, 2009). Thus, examining the use of internet slang in advertising from the perspective of code-switching is reasonable.
The Markedness Model (Myers-Scotton, 1993) has been used to explain the code-switching direction effect (Luna and Peracchio, 2005b). The linguistic term “markedness” is analogous to perceptual salience (Luna and Peracchio, 2005b). When an object or part of a message stands out from its immediate context, it becomes salient from the audience’s prior experience or expectation, or from foci of attention (Fiske and Taylor, 1984).
In regard to code-switching, the Markedness Model suggests that individuals will switch languages or insert other-language elements into their speech so as to communicate certain meanings or group memberships. Another language element becomes marked because of its contrast with the listener’s expectation. Luna and Peracchio (2005b) further explained that a marked element is recognized by the parties involved in the exchange as communicating a specific intended meaning. Scholars have argued that in a code-switching situation, the language schema of the words embedded in a message is activated because such words are more salient or marked compared with the matrix language.
Language schemata include individuals’ perceptions of the social meanings of the language, the culture associated with the language, attitudes toward the language, the type of people who speak the language, the contexts in which the language can be used, the topics for which the language is appropriate, and beliefs about how others perceive the language (Luna and Peracchio, 2005a,b). For example, Luna and Peracchio (2005a) found that the language schema of Spanish, a minority language in the United States, can be activated when Spanish words are embedded in an ad slogan written in English (and vice versa).
We propose that internet slang and SL may have similar code-switching effects when they are mix-used in advertisements. Therefore, this research involved conducting two studies to investigate whether code-switching effects occur between internet slang and SL, although internet slang is a variant of SL instead of a foreign language.
We believe that when internet slang is embedded in SL, the novelty of advertisements can provide a refreshing change for the audience and thus more likely garner their attention. Using eye movement tracking, we aimed to study the advertising effects produced by the use of internet slang as an embedded language, determine whether the use of internet slang as an embedded language can attract more attention, and explore whether this can generate positive advertising effects in terms of product evaluation and brand awareness. We expected that internet slang leads to an increase in consumers’ attention toward products, but excessive internet slang in advertisement does not necessarily generate a positive effect:
H1: Embedded internet slang (EIL) (vs. SL) in advertisements results in an increased number of fixations and fixation time.
Luxury and Necessity Goods
Consumers may prefer different advertisements for various types of products, such as those that are functional or hedonic (Drolet et al., 2007). Luxury brands are typically associated with social status, prestige (Han et al., 2010), and superior product quality (Zhan and He, 2012). Consequently, the purchase of luxury goods requires advertisements that resonate with the identity of consumers and thus attract their attention.
Accordingly, SL can be reminiscent of a high value and trust level (Lin and Wang, 2016), however, internet slang is timeliness, brisk and civilian that more consistent with style of necessity goods, could make necessity goods vivid and brisk; these features may increase consumers’ evaluations for brand and product. On the other hand, advertisement using internet slang for luxury brands may not be very appropriate, internet slang’s brisk and civilian style do not match with nobility and credibility of luxury goods, thus may not be better than SL which is meet the expectation of high value and credibility (Lin and Wang, 2016).
Moreover, overusing internet slang may result in frivolous feeling that would compromise the high quality which luxury goods state. Therefore, whether the use of EIL in advertisements for luxury and necessity goods generates different advertising effects is a subject that merits investigation. Moreover, there is a relative lack of empirical research on advertisements and on the effects of EIL and SL in advertisements for necessity and luxury goods.
In this study, eye tracking was the primary means of measurement employed. We used eye tracking because its superior signal-to-noise ratio (relative to brain imaging) renders it more suitable for the study of attention when individuals evaluate various types of products and make a choice. We conducted two studies to empirically examine the effects of using internet slang as an embedded language in advertising copies, the audience’s attention when reading the copies, and the effect of different embedded language advertising formats on the audience’s product evaluation, brand awareness, and attitudes toward advertising. We also intended to test whether overusing internet slang in advertisements compromises the persuasive effect of the advertisements.
Therefore, we designed another type of advertisement that comprised several internet slang words with embedded standard language (ESL). The difference between EIL and ESL is that the main body of ESL advertisement was used internet slang, one sentence using SL was embedded (see Figure 1); in the contrast, the main body of EIL advertisement was used SL, one sentence using internet slang was embedded (see Figure 1).
ESL was designed to overuse internet slang. We hypothesized the following: (1) regarding advertising copies, advertisements of EIL would be more effective in attracting consumers’ attention compared with advertisements of SL or ESL and (2) the use of internet slang would attract different levels of attention and have distinct advertising effects depending on the type of product (necessity goods and luxury goods) for which it is employed. These hypotheses are outlined as follows:
H2: EIL in advertisements of luxury goods (vs. necessity goods) attracts more attention (an increased number of fixations and fixation time).
H3a: EIL (vs. SL) in advertisements of necessity goods results in increased product evaluation, brand awareness, and attitude toward advertisements.
H3b: EIL (vs. SL) in advertisements of luxury goods makes no significant difference in brand awareness, product evaluation, and attitude toward advertisements.
H4: ESL (vs. SL) in advertisements of luxury goods results in decreased product evaluation, brand awareness, and attitude toward advertisements.
Our results reveal that EIL advertisements had higher ratings on brand awareness, product evaluation, and attitudes toward advertisements than SL and ESL advertisements did. Compared with EIL advertisements, ESL advertisements had the lowest of all ratings, even lower than those of SL advertisements. This indicates that the excessive use of internet slang may have a negative effect on brand and product evaluation. For luxury goods, internet slang did not generate a positive effect on brand awareness compared with SL.
Changes in languages used in advertising can affect the market value of corporations. Advertising languages that are outstanding or have gained consumers’ recognition exert significant and positive effects on the development and market value of corporations (Mathur and Mathur, 1995). Advertisements that focus on consumer recognition and use modern internet slang may exert a positive effect on both a firm and its product(s). We argue that the effect of internet slang on advertisement is complex; it depends on the types of products and the embedding style. Our findings indicate that advertisements with internet slang are not always attractive, and the excessive use of internet slang may have a negative effect on brand and product evaluation.
Theoretical Contribution and Implications
According to Ahn et al. (2017), code-switching is a mixed-language approach and is often used to target consumers with knowledge of two languages. Code-switching refers to the insertion of linguistic elements of one language into another language (Grosjean, 1982). An example of code-switching is inserting an English word into a Korean sentence (Ahn et al., 2017). However, most studies examining the effect of code-switching on processing ads have been undertaken in the United States by focusing on the mixed use of Spanish and English languages (Luna and Peracchio, 2005a,b; Bishop and Peterson, 2010). Ahn et al. (2017) suggested that additional research is warranted in other regions where code-switching occurs between languages other than English and Spanish.
Our study was undertaken in the China market. Chinese language is a character-based writing system as well as a meaning-based writing system, whereas English is a sound-based writing system and an alphabetic writing system (Cook and Bassetti, 2005). Our results indicate that code-switching effects occur not only in a sound-based and alphabetic writing system but also in a character-based and meaning-based writing system. Therefore, these findings extend the external validation of code-switching theory.
Furthermore, in this study, we investigated SL (Mandarin) and its variant (internet slang), and the results demonstrate that code-switching theory is also effective to SL and its variant. Specifically, the validation of code-switching is further extended because previous research has mainly focused on the mixed use of two different languages (Bishop and Peterson, 2010; Ahn et al., 2017).
Finally, by empirically investigating the role of code-switching in advertising effectiveness, the findings of this study provide theoretical and practical implications regarding the code-switching approach for researchers and advertisers.
Novelty and Attention of Internet Slang
SL and internet slang have distinct characteristics. When advertisements use SL, a feeling of standardization and strictness is induced (Vignovic and Thompson, 2010); by contrast, when advertisements use internet slang, consumers identify the signals sent by the language, such as novelty or trendiness (Collot and Belmore, 1996; Crystal, 2006), with their own personalities, making them feel closer to the brand and generating a more favorable emotional experience. Therefore, compared with advertisements in SL, advertisements embedded with internet slang highlight the fun and fresh characteristics of such slang; consequently, people form more positive attitudes toward such advertisements.
Liu et al. (2013) reported that advertisements in Cantonese and Mandarin have different advertising effects, and Henderson et al. (2004) revealed that trademarks in standard and handwritten typefaces can leave different impressions.
Thus, different effects are exerted depending on how advertising language is presented. Exciting advertisements evoke positive emotions from consumers, and the consumers associate these with the product (Eunsun et al., 2005).
Internet slang is generally considered to be humorous, fun, and exciting (Collot and Belmore, 1996). The employment of internet slang in advertising copies exerts a “novelty” effect on the corresponding advertisement; therefore, attention increases as advertisements become more creative (Pieters et al., 2002).
A novel advertising language that is creative can attract more attention, which is in line with the findings of our previous study. The novelty, humor, and fun characteristics of internet slang are evident when EIL appears in advertisements (Pieters et al., 2002); thus, advertisements in SL that are embedded with internet slang can attract more attention compared with other advertisements.
Peng et al. (2017) reported that consumers believed the exposure time to internet slang was longer than that to SL, although internet slang and SL as stimuli lasted for the same period in their experiment. A possible explanation for these results is that consumers have to spend more resources on processing internet slang. The results of our eye-tracking experiments support this supposition, and we discovered that EIL (vs. SL) in advertisements results in an increased number of fixations and a longer fixation time.
The eye-catching ability of internet slang is attributable to its higher amount of information and greater association for consumers, which thus signifies that internet slang requires more time to process. A recent ERP study on internet slang indicated that the information processing fluency of internet slang is much lower than that of SL (Zhao et al., 2017).
This finding is also supported by our eye-tracking experiments; more attention is paid to internet slang. The reason for this outcome requires elucidation. This outcome can be explained by the novelty of internet slang, which originates from pop culture. Previous research suggested that internet slang is considered novel and innovative (Hagtvedt and Patrick, 2008).
This is because internet slang is generally created in a creative and innovative manner. Thus, since its creation, internet slang has been accepted and spread rapidly and extensively (Liu et al., 2017). Furthermore, Zhao et al. (2017) argued that internet slang is perceived through creative information processing; this perception process reflects the recognition of the novel meanings of internet words as well as the integration of novel semantic processing.
The innovativeness of language has a crucial advertising effect (Eisend, 2011). Internet slang is inherently creative, and the creativity of internet slang has a positive influence on consumers’ perception of advertisements (Karson and Fisher, 2005). Specifically, Eisend (2011) suggested that the innovativeness of internet slang can elicit consumers’ perception of an ad’s innovativeness. This thus explains our finding that internet slang used in advertisements had positive effects on product evaluation, brand awareness, and attitude toward advertisements.
Complex Effect of Internet Slang on Various Types of Products
Necessity goods are indispensable for the daily lives of consumers and are extremely practical (Chen and Wang, 2012); consumers purchase such goods to fulfill their daily needs. Necessity goods are relatively cheap, are only slightly affected by information, and do not require extra information processing on the part of the consumer. Consumers can easily develop brand loyalty toward necessity goods in a way that transforms into habitual purchasing behavior (Monle and Tuen-Ho, 2003).
In the ROIs of brand names of necessity goods in this study, EIL and ESL did not elicit distinct levels of attention (but both of them outperformed SL), indicating that internet slang helps increase consumers’ attention to brands of necessity goods. For luxury goods, the effects of EIL and ESL differed significantly; EIL outperformed SL, but ESL and SL did not differ in performance. These findings indicate that the excessive use of internet slang (advertising copy in ESL) does not increase audience attention to brands of luxury goods.
Luxury goods are subject to a high perceived risk; thus, information must be processed more carefully. In contrast to the level of information processing necessary for necessity goods, information on luxury goods requires in-depth processing.
When a product becomes a luxury good, the use of SL in advertisements prompts consumers to associate the advertised products with high quality because SL is associated with high value and credibility (Lin and Wang, 2016) and serves as the principal language with rigor and reliability (Yip and Matthews, 2006).
Therefore, appropriately embedding internet slang can increase attention to a brand. However, the use of inappropriate internet slang would not achieve positive advertising effects.
Our study indicates that because of its high levels of creativity and timeliness, internet slang may temporarily increase audience attention to advertising language, but it cannot produce the same effect on higher status products (such as luxury goods).
Furthermore, an excessive use of internet slang may cause the audience to feel frivolous, which damages the trust consumers have in a brand or product. For example, a highly trusted advertising language generates better results (Kronrod et al., 2012).
The second experiment also showed that in terms of brand awareness and product evaluation, advertising copies in ESL had the lowest scores; the conventional use of SL for advertising copies can thus yield superior performance compared with the extensive use of internet slang for advertising copies.
The rapid spread of internet platforms means that internet slang can become a social buzzword under certain circumstances (Sun et al., 2011). Once internet slang gains public recognition and spreads at an extremely rapid rate, numerous corporations will begin to integrate it into their advertising copies. In practice, the use of internet slang requires careful consideration by marketing practitioners.
Copies in internet slang can increase an audience’s attention, but they may also weaken their attention to other elements of the same advertisement. Although internet slang can significantly enhance product evaluation, it may undermine advertising reliability. Marketing practitioners should use internet slang based on their communication objectives to produce effective results.
In addition, rather than simply following the current internet slang trends, marketing personnel should employ differentiated advertising strategies depending on the type of product to help align the implemented advertising copy with that product.