How advertisers trick your brain by turning adjectives into nouns

It's all about the bisociation

In marketing, it's become quite popular to use an adjective as a noun. Take a look at some examples collected by branding expert Nancy Friedman:

Find your fabulous (Thai Tourism and others)

Go directly to fabulous (California Lottery Monopoly Scratchers)

Welcome to fabulous (ULTA)

Welcome to possible (Mindtree)

Rethink possible (AT&T)

In search of incredible (Asus)

15 seconds of smart (Farmers Insurance)

111 years of extraordinary (Bergdorf Goodman)

Celebrate your extraordinary (Sephora)

Give artisanal… Give whimsical… Give local… Give exceptional (Oakland Museum of California)

Generate positive (Sungevity)

The future of awesome (Xfinity)

Where there's happy, it has to be Heinz (Heinz, of course)

Spread the happy (Nutella)

It's what happy tastes like (Carvel)

Where better happens (Sears)

Your best beautiful (Olay)

Committed to great since '78 (Ben & Jerry's)

What's your active? (

Unlock your more (Fiat)

End the awkward (

Some people love these unexpected turns of phrase. Others think of them as the worst kind of linguistic evil.

Now, using adjectives as nouns is nothing new. For instance, we've long said "the poor" when we really mean "the poor people." But when we "spread the happy," we aren't spreading happy people, but happiness. Some adjectives have come to be nouns in their own right, not short forms for nouns they describe. Evil is one. Jolly, as in "get your jollies," is a more recent conversion. And some of them even name actual physical substances — fat is a good example of this, an adjective that got borrowed to nounhood a millennium ago and has been spreading ever since. But the above trend is different.

When a word of one type is taken unchanged for use as another type — most commonly when we verb something — the linguistic term is zero derivation, also known as conversion. But these marketing usages are not aiming simply to noun an adjective for convenience. They aim, as so much marketing does, to produce a striking effect. The word for what they're doing — forcing a word into an unexpected grammatical slot for effect — is anthimeria (also spelled antimeria), as has been pointed out in articles over the past decade by Nancy Friedman, Ben Yagoda, Robert Lane Greene, and others.

Why do this? Because language. Because marketing. Because bisociation!

What is bisociation? It's an idea given a name by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation: You have two things operating on two different planes or according to two different scripts, and at the point where the two meet, you jump from one to the other. According to Koestler, it's central to creativity. Puns are a classic case of bisociation: The humor comes from jumping from one meaning to the other. Metaphors bisociate between two things on the basis of resemblance and often give striking insights and images — think of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "My candle burns at both ends." Syllepsis is another good sort: "At the entrance, I checked my coat, my privilege, and my watch." Bisociation tickles your brain, and that's just what marketers want to do.

But exactly how does the bisociation in this adjective-to-noun anthimeria work?

Consider some other examples of anthimeria using slightly different types of words in the noun slot: Crystal's slogans "Full of Wow" and "Full of Yum," and the popular use of fail as a noun, as in "an epic fail" or "buckets of fail." In these cases, wow, yum, and fail can be seen as one-word expressions — the first two exclamations, the third something written (or stamped) on a document — used in noun slots. A similar structure is used in "Because X."

Adjectives are often one-word exclamations: "Fabulous!" "Extraordinary!" "More!" So one possibility is that we are really seeing a sort of quotation: Not just "Find your fabulous" but "Find your 'fabulous!'" It may also be that the usage is not meant as a direct quotation, but that the possibility of being a one-word utterance gives an adjective a thingness.

Did you just pull out your "Really?" on that one? Or pour a bottle of "Forget it" on it? True, this doesn't work for all of the adjectives. "Happy!" is an uncommon exclamation, and "Positive!" could be… um… awkward! But once the pattern is established, it could be extended to other adjectives.

One thing we can say with some certainty is that the qualities named by the adjectives are being transmuted into magical things. Neal Whitman has observed that we can talk about "buckets of fail" and "bags of win" — we imagine fail and win as bulk items that can be carried around, which has a bisociative effect like a metaphor. Let's have a look again at what sort of thing an anthimeric adjectnoun can present:

* It's a place (fabulous, incredible, more): You can search for it and find it. You can go to it. You can be welcomed to it. It can be unlocked.

* It's an event (smart, extraordinary, better, awkward): It can be measured in seconds or years. It can happen and it can be ended.

* It's a substance or energy (artisanal, whimsical, local, exceptional, positive): It can be given or generated.

* It's a comestible thick fluid (happy): It can be spread (like fat!) or tasted.

* And, very importantly, it can be yours (your fabulous, your extraordinary, your beautiful, your more). Which means you can be it.

Of course, in many cases these characteristics are characteristics of the thing being advertised. In fact, when we look a second time, we see that it's not just the quality being turned into a thing; in many cases, it's the thing being turned into the physical realization of a quality. Bisociation is a two-way street, after all. Fiats can be unlocked just as your more can — so a Fiat is being magically transformed into more. Heinz ketchup and Nutella are comestible thick fluids just as happy is, so they become the physical essence of happy. Marketers sell the sizzle, not the steak; with these anthimeric adjectnouns, they're selling the steak as the physical realization of sizzling.

That also means we can use this as a guide to what kinds of things tend to go with what kinds of qualities: Happy = food. Fabulous = leisure. Possible = technology. Extraordinary = fashion. And vice versa in each case, of course.


'Goblin mode' is Oxford Dictionary's word of the year
Oxford Dictionary sign
going goblin mode

'Goblin mode' is Oxford Dictionary's word of the year

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian
Volodymr Zelensky.
Picture of James HarbeckJames Harbeck

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian

Most Popular

Finland offering free happiness 'masterclass'
flag of Finland
teaching joy

Finland offering free happiness 'masterclass'

Mosquito species from South America discovered in Florida
Culex lactator.
new in town

Mosquito species from South America discovered in Florida

5 toons about Trump's possible indictment
Political Cartoon

5 toons about Trump's possible indictment