University of Rochester

Linguistics Professor Explains What Makes Our Favorite Superbowl Ads Funny

February 4, 2011

Professor Greg Carlson doesn't just watch, chuckle, cringe at, and rank Super Bowl ad like the rest of us—he teaches them.

Since 1994, the University of Rochester linguist has used the annual advertising extravaganza as a teaching tool in his popular language and advertising class. In fact, Carlson is so indebted to the fresh crop of ads during the big game that he only schedules the class during the spring semester.

"There is no other time of year when advertising is so much in the news," says Carlson. And, serendipitously, the game falls within the first few weeks of the semester.

The class analyzes the advertisers' linguistic tricks. For example, is the wording ambiguous, leading you initially in one direction, then surprising you with a different message?

One of the 2010 game ads that "caught his ear" was a spoof on the television drama Lost" and the phrase "Everyone listen up."

still from television ad shows man with beer
Watch the ad

Why is the phrase so effective? Because, says Carlson, "it rings of the kind of words that coaches or drill sergeants would use. It's the kind of phraseology authority figures use to demand attention." And in the first use of the phrase, that's exactly how we interpret the situation. A stern looking young woman shouts "Everyone listen up" before announcing that she may have found a way off the island.


But the humor hinges on flipping the phrase on its head. When the second speaker uses "Everyone listen up" to announce that he has found a cooler full of beer, the phrase is used to replace gravity with alcohol-induced good times.

Carlson does caution that, "Once you start to dissect the humor in an ad, it ruins it." But a few questions and clever answers could provide a new angle on the annual tradition.

Carlson is coauthor the new book Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says about You (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) with fellow linguist Julie Sedivy at the University of Calgary. He is also editor of Language, the official journal of the Linguistic Society of America, the largest professional linguistics organization in the world.




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