1Oladejo, Tolulope Odunayo (PhD)
Mountain Top University, Ibafo, Ogun State, Nigeria.
THE PRAGMATICS OF ONLINE MEDICAL ADVERTISEMENTS
The language of advertisement plays an extremely important role in convincing a person to purchase, or
subscribe to, a particular product or service, by several means, including informing, attention-attraction
and persuasion. Advertising language has been the subject of linguistic research for so long but less
attention has been paid to the pragmatics of online advertisement, despite the fairly-recent tilt of the
advertisement industry towards Internet discourse. This study is thus focused on the discourse pragmatics
of online medical advertisement, especially given the global explosion of e-commerce (electronic
commerce). Working within Paul Grice‟s (1975) Cooperative Principle and using twenty (20)
purposively-sampled online medical adverts for data, the study sought answers to two main questions: (1)
In what ways are Grice‟s maxims flouted?; (2) Which implicatures are generated by the breaching?
Findings revealed that the advertisers encoded and negotiated meanings by flouting and violating all the
maxims more through the deployment of particularised conversational implicature (PCI) than generalised
conversational implicature (GCI). It was found that advertisers often deliberately breached the maxims
and chose to imply meanings to implicate readers‟ reliance on context to successfully interpret the
adverts. The study concluded that the use of conversational implicature in the advertisements were meant
to make their contents more memorable as well as arouse readers‟ curiosity about, and interest in, the
product or service being advertised.
Keywords: Conversational Implicature, E-commerce, Medical Advertisements, Cooperative Principle,
Maxims, Paul Grice
1 Oladejo, T.O.(2021) „The Pragmatics of Online Medical Advertisements’ Dutsin-Ma Journal
of English and Literature. Bookworks Publisher . pp. 56-75 Vol.4 No 2.ISSN: 2659-0360
Advertising is a form of communication often providing information about the
commercial promotion of branded products but which can also be used to enhance the image of
an individual, group or organisation. Adverts also provide people with information on the place
of purchase and nature of the products. Advertising is viewed as the engine that drives
consumer purchase and, therefore, “keeps the wheels of the economy turning” (Rodgers &
Thorson, 2012: 68). Advertising is the set of strategies with which a company unveils its
products to society. It uses the media as its main tool. These media are diverse, including the
traditional media (newspaper, television, magazines, coupons, direct mails etc.) and new media
(Internet-based), and they have so much impact on the public in general. Advertising is the best
way to communicate with customers as it helps to inform the customers about the brands
available in the market and the variety of products useful to them.
The essence of advertisement is to capture the attention of the members of the public by
means of a short message often verbal and/or visual to persuade them to buy a product or to
behave in a particular way. Accordingly, Odebunmi (2007:35) observes that advertisement, often
shortened as „advert‟, is the means by which a consumer accesses a product. Furthermore, it is a
form of commercial communication which aims to increase the consumption of a product or
service through the media by informing the potential consumer about the benefits of a good or
Language is an important factor for the success of advertising. The language of
advertising or the advert message, which is either spoken or written, gets across to a vast number
of audiences so much so that the success or failure of an advert to achieve desired results
depends largely on the language involved. As such, the advertiser takes the reading/hearing
public into consideration while drafting his/her advert message, bearing in mind the need to be
cooperative in communication.
The importance of communication is for people involved in the conversation to ideally
cooperate with each other. Paul Grice (1975:102) coined the Cooperative Principle (CP),
fascinated by how the hearer gets from the expressed meaning to the implied meaning (Dornerus,
2005: 48). In clearer terms, Grice‟s aim was to find out how the hearer infers what is said from
what is meant and this was encapsulated in Grice‟s: CP‟s overall maxim, „Make your
contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or
direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged‟ (1975:45). Grice then coined the term,
„implicature‟, to indicate the additional information which is not said but can be understood if the
speaker and the hearer share the assumptions of the CP. It is based on the premise of the need
for cooperation and assumptions of cooperation in Internet communication that this paper seeks
to analyse selected medical online adverts in terms of Grice‟s (1975) „implicature‟ and, by
implicature, Cooperative Principle.
Pursuant to this objective, the paper raises two questions: in what ways are Grice‟s
maxims flouted and which implicatures are generated by the breaching? Answering these
questions is important because despite the fact literature on online advertising has blossomed
since the incidence of e-commerce in 1994. But not much has been said on the pragmatics of any
form of online advertising, let alone medical advertisements.
Lazovic (2014) identified the use of persuasive language in online bank advertisements
and found the use of graphology (ellipsis, capitalization, trigger words), addressivity (direct
reader address) and pragmatics (speech acts) for the purpose of influencing (potential) customers
financial attitudes and habits. Labrador et al (2014) investigated the communicative values of
language and rhetoric in the online of advertisement of electronic products. They found two
rhetorical moves (identifying the product, describing the product) and the use of informal style
(clippings, imperatives, omissions) and lexico-grammatical elements conveying positive
evaluation (emphatic enumeratives, quantifying expressions, etc). In his study of the linguistics
and the metadiscourse of online advertisements of makeup brands in the UK, Gustaffson (2017)
reported advertisers‟ deployment of specific interactional and metalinguistic resources to retain
and persuade customers (of makeup brands). From these few examples reviewed above, it is
clear that nothing thus far exists on the pragmatics of online medical advertisement hence the
importance of this paper.
2. CONCEPTUAL REVIEW
2.1. (Online) Advertising
In basic terms, advertising means „to inform a large number of people about something‟
(Dyer 1990: 2). This definition implies the relationship of the three aspects of communication:
sender/informer, audience and message. However, more nuanced definitions of advertising, like
Dibb, Simkin, Pride, & Ferrell‟s (1991: 400) have identified the commerce-oriented
operationalisation of advertising:
a paid form of non-personal communication about an organization and its
products that is transmitted to a target audience through a mass
` medium such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, direct mail, public
transport, outdoor displays, or catalogues.
Here, advertising is tied to an organisation‟s deliberate financial investment in marketing itself
and its products to a specific audience via different mass media. However, beyond information,
advertising is also strategically used to persuade potential customers. According to Janoschka
(2004: 16), the advertising message or body copy, often contains an artificially created argument
a “USP” (abbreviation for „Unique Selling Proposition‟) or UAP, (abbreviation for „Unique
Advertising Proposition‟)‟ , the latter for products which have no exclusiveness .
The main aspects and functions of the content and functions of advertising
communication has been summarised famously by Elmo Lewis, using the acronym, AIDA, to
describe the cognitive impact intended for the advertisement‟s audience (Strong, 1925). This
acronym contains the keywords, Attention‟, „Interest‟, „Desire‟, „Action‟, respectively. By this is
meant that advertising is intended for „(attracting) Attention, (raising) Interest, (establishing)
Desire and (initiating) Action‟ (Lasovic, 2014: 88).
Although the definitions above do not specify online advertising, they contain most of the
elements of online advertising. Online advertising began in 1994, when Netscape Navigator 1.0,
was released (Hyland, 2000) , Online advertising is an asynchronous, monologue-orientated form
of mass communication, where „the online advertising message provided by the sender can be
activated by various receivers at different moments‟ (Janoschka, 2004: 16). Internet
advertisements have three main functions: „to attract the user‟s attention … to persuade the user
to activate them, and … to meet the user‟s expectations provoked by the advertising message‟
(Janoschka, 2004: 6). Labrador, Ramón, Alaiz-Moretón, & Sanjurjo-González (2014) identified
six criteria which demarcate online advertisement from other types of advertisement: medium,
type of product, technique, appeal type, consumer profile and length. Of these, we think
„medium‟, „consumer profile‟ and „length‟ are the most prominent: the online advert uniquely
uses the Internet medium, targets computer-literate consumers and usually has a long copy.
Online advertisements, technically „Web ads‟ contain a short advertising message or
body copy and often an instruction. They are hyperlinks which enable activation through their
users. There are different types of web ads: (a) Static (fixed images, language and graphics) (b)
Animated (moving, sometimes repetitive images) (c) Interactive (seek user‟s interaction, by
clicking or typing in data).
2.2. The language of (online) advertising
Language is a powerful tool used by human being in communicating effectively with
others. Therefore, the use of right and effective language both in spoken and written adverts
brings about its success. The language of advertising is always positive and emphasizes why a
product stands out in comparison with another. In general, advertising language may not always
be grammatically and stylistically correct, might be unconventional, may contain wrong word
order, abbreviated or contain rhetorical forms (e.g. metaphor, alliteration, etc) all in the bid to
attract attention (Leech, 1966; Janoschka, 1994)
According to Janoschska (2004: 124), the language of advertising is essentially a
„language of appeal‟. Janoschka (ibid) identifies as „appellative‟ the basic communicative
function of advertising, following Brinker (1997:109):
I (the sender) instruct you (the receiver) to adopt the attitude (opinion) X/to
carry out the action X.
This appellative character comes in the forms of imperatives, interrogative sentences and
infinitive constructions demanding that the reader does something. Online advertisements are
also instructions, demanding for example of the reader, click here, what Janoschska (2004: 125)
calls „direct user addressing‟.
3.0. Conversational Implicature
The theoretical framework guiding this paper is Paul Grice‟s Cooperative Principle. Grice
first introduced the term 'implicature' in the William James lectures, which he delivered at
Harvard University in 1967, basically to explain how, in conversational activity, the speakers
mean more than what they actually say. Implicature is tied to Grice‟s Cooperative Principle:
„Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the
accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged‟ (Grice, 1975: 45).
This principle is explained by paraphrased by four supermaxims and eight maxims:
(1) Quantity: (a) Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current
purpose of the exchange). (b) Do not make your contribution more
informative than is required.
(2) Quality: Try to make your contribution one that is true.
(a) Do not say what you believe to be false. (b) Do not say that for which
you lack adequate evidence.
(3) Relation: Be relevant.
(4) Manner: Be perspicuous
(a) Avoid obscurity of expression (b) Avoid ambiguity (c) Be brief (avoid
unnecessary prolixity). (d) Be orderly
According to Grice, conversational implicature occurs when the maxims are breached by the
language users. And this breach comes in five major forms:
(i) flouting: intentional, intended to prompt additional meaning;
(ii) violating: unostentatious, liable to mislead or potentially misleading;
(iii)infringing: unintentional, indicative of poor linguistic competence;
(iv) opting out of: intentional unwillingness to cooperate;
(v) suspending: intentional, systematic, culture-specific or event-specific.
Once a speaker breaches any of the maxims in any of the ways outlined above, an implicature is
Grice (1975) operationalises implicature as any special, non-conventional inference
which is intended by the speaker to account for what s/he can imply, suggest, or mean as distinct
from what s/he says (Brown & Yule, 1983). Likewise, implicature is defined as “information
which is implied in a statement but cannot be derived from applying logical inferencing
techniques to it” (Baker & Ellece, 2011:78). As such, implicature connects expressed meaning
with implied meaning to give the utterance its total meaning. It can occur in any kind of
communication, written or spoken.
Grice also makes a distinction between conventional implicature (meaning derived from
the conventional features attached to linguistic constructions) and conversational implicature
(additional meaning implied in context of utterance). And conversational implicature come in
two forms: generalized conventional implicature(GCI) (relatively context-independent) and
particularized conventional implicature(PCI) (relatively context-dependent).
The study of implicature facilitates the study of meaning not only in oral communication
but also in the interpretation of any text, including advertisement. In his Logic and Conversation,
Grice opined on how logic and conversation relates to each other in language users‟ mind during
the process of communication (Grice, 1991). In the nature of communication, where one person
speaks to others about certain thing, there is a cooperative effort between them to achieve
successful communication. This effort demands that an audience links linguistic form and
intended meaning for an appropriate interpretation.
The data for this study contained twenty written medical adverts which were selected via
purposive sampling from the Internet. Conscious efforts were made to select adverts whose
messages (or body copies) and/or graphics projected implied or hidden meanings. As such, both
the verbal and visual contents of the adverts are taken into consideration during analysis. In all,
ten of the adverts were sampled. The samples are exclusively static web ads (fixed images),
because the focus is on language and images and they are analysed below, using Grice‟s CP and
5. DATA ANALYSIS
Advert 1 is an advertisement of Aspironal, a drug meant for relieving cold and flu. It has an
unusually-wordy body copy but the area of pragmatic interest is its headline, „Better Than
Whiskey for Colds and Flu‟, in which the advertiser violates the maxims of quality and manner.
First, it is not a universally-accepted truth that whiskey cures colds and flu: maybe, at
best, whiskey suppresses colds and flu. The reader, especially the non-whiskey-drinking one, is
then left in bewilderment as to why a drug meant to cure cold and flu is being compared with
whiskey. In essence, the advertiser generates the generalised conversational implicature (GCI)
that although both Aspironal and whiskey cure colds and flu, the former does it better. Second,
the headline can be regarded as ambiguous. The conceptual meanings of „for‟ (i.e. „on behalf of;
in favour of; because; since‟ (https://www.thefreedictionary.com)) do not denote that Aspiron
cures colds and flu. It is only conversationally implied; (via particularized conversational
implicature or PCI) that the advertiser presupposes that the reader should know that what
Aspiron does is cure and not „stand for‟ colds and flu.
The headline of Advert 2, the imperative, „Cool the fever‟, which advertises an analgesic,
is potentially misleading, as it violates the maxims of quality and manner.
Since an advert‟s headline is supposed to briefly and succinctly capture the whole
essence of the product being advertised, it is natural to assume that Bufferin is basically an
anagelsic (as comparison with Aspirin in the product‟s slogan implies) that cools fever.
However, this information cannot be true since very few people will be attracted by or interested
in a product that only cools but does not relieve or eliminate fever. This breach leads to the
violation of the maxim of manner: there is obscurity in the information passed in the sense that
the drug is not clearly stated to be a reliever of fever but only stated as a coolant. The violations
in Advert 2 therefore generate PCI as the advertiser assumes that the reader will trigger previous
knowledge and the context of commerce to interpret „cool the fever‟ as „relieve the fever‟.
In Advert 3, which advocates against smoking cigarette, we discover in the double-placed
headline, „Stop Smoking, Start Repairing. Every cigarette you don‟t smoke is doing you good‟,
a flout of the maxims of manner and quantity.
The headline is divisible into three parts, based on the distinct functions of the
imperatives: (a) „Stop smoking‟, (b) „Start repairing‟, (c) „Every cigarette you don‟t smoke is
doing you good‟. As regards the flout of the maxim of manner, while the first and third parts are
clearly stated, the illocutionary force of the second part (i. e. „Start repairing‟) is obscure, as the
reader may not know what s/he should start repairing. Even the timelines in the body copy do not
provide relevant information.
As a corollary, therefore, the maxim of quantity is also flouted, because the information
given is not adequate. The advertiser could thus intend to generate the PCI, based on advertiser-
reader shared knowledge, not only that smoking cigarette destroys the human body but also that
stopping smoking can repair (or help the doctor repair) the spoilt parts of the smoker‟s body.
Moreover, the third part, „Every cigarette you don‟t smoke is doing you good‟, generates the GCI
that cigarette is dangerous (to health) and not smoking it will be of tremendous help to the
In Advert 4, both the verbal and visual representations provide relevant information for
analysis. Specifically, they are flouts of the maxim of manner.
First, the three-part headline, (a) “I‟m HIV positive.” (b) „But I‟m getting free treatment‟
(c) „so we can be there for each other‟, is ambiguous. The reader will find it difficult to
determine the link between the first two parts (taken together) and the third part. The problem
lies with the deictic, „we‟, whose reference is difficult to decipher. The possible and plausible
thinking is that it‟s an inclusive „we‟, so that the target audience is only conversationally
implicated, via the PCI, as carriers of the HIV virus. The implicature generated by the advertiser
is to inform the reader that there is a free treatment for anyone who has tested positive to
Also, the picture of the woman and the baby flouts the maxim of manner, as it offers
confusing information; as it neither specifies whether the baby is the woman‟s or if the baby is
also HIV positive.
Natural Medicine for Heart Disease; The best Alternative Methods for Prevention and
This violates the maxim of quality which is to make your information one that is true. The
information given by the advertiser for the purpose of selling and promoting his products might
not actually be true because the advertiser cannot say or affirm unequivocally that his product is
the best all over the nation or world. The information given is not even adequate. Hence, an
implicature was generated by violating the quality maxim.
Good News for Diabetes Patients!!!
This advert is violating the maxim of quality which says do not say what you believe is false or
that for which you lack adequate evidence. How authentic is the information; can it really be a
good news to all diabetes patients?
Ross& Robinson Family Practice
Restore Refresh Renew
Your health is my Priority!
This advert violates the maxim of quality which is to say that which is true. How true is it that
for someone‟s health to be your priority? Is there anything to measure or gauge the authenticity
of the assertion? The writer presupposes that the reader would have known the advert is just to
inform the reader of the services the advertiser renders. These words: Restore, Refresh, Renew
violate the maxim of quantity. The information given was not accurate. The information was less
than what it was expected. The reader could not comprehend what restores; refreshes or renews
for the writer has violated the maxim of quantity of providing adequate information as it is
Beat Diabetes with Cactus pills and Cinnamon
This advert violates maxim of quality which is to say something that is true. Beat Diabetes
cannot be true because Diabetes is not human that can be beaten or a physical thing that can be
beaten. Also, the maxim of relation is violated because there is no relationship between diabetes
and the act of beating. Therefore, the advertiser personified diabetes to mean a person or thing
that can be beaten. Also, the information violates the maxim of quality which is providing
information that is true. Beating Diabetes with Cactus pills and Cinnamon may not be true
because pills are required to be swallowed and not to be used as a weapon of punishment.
Support Immune Systems
Helps Support Cardiovascular Health
This is a violation of the maxim of relation because there is no relationship between Max
Strength and anti-aging antioxidant.
For Nasal Congestion
How true is it that it is an easy breather that can decongest the nasal? Has it been tested and what
evidence can the writer provide to substantiate the claim? This also violates the maxim of
manner; the advertiser is not explicit in his advertisement. An average reader might not
understand what easy breather is meant for and might not be able to connect it to nasal
congestion. It would have been appropriate for the writer to say „Easy breathers cure you of nasal
It is clear from the analysis that cooperative principle is flouted intentionally to get the desired
attention of the audience. The analysis of the selected online Medical Adverts from the point of
view of the conversational implicature reveals that the maxims demand the speakers' extra
contextual knowledge. Of course, the contexts of utterance and the situations help the writers to
connect their apparently irrelevant statements into a coherent discourse. It occurred as the results
of violating cooperative principles on four maxims, namely: maxims of quantity, quality,
manner, and relevance. The purpose of the cooperative principle was to run the conversation
smoothly and effectively. It means that the participants (the speaker and the hearer) had to obey
the cooperative principles which consist of the four maxims during the conversation in order to
achieve its purpose. To grasp the notion of communication as well, context happened to be
completely important since both the speaker and hearer had to know the context in which the
conversation took place. Therefore, the understanding context could be a helpful way to know
the speaker and the hearer`s intention.
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