The Fun with Ambiguity

I don’t know about you, but advertisements can be really boring – so boring in fact, that I just don’t bother to pay attention to them. This is quite problematic for advertisers. Over the years advertisers have been doing everything in their power to catch and keep our attention. Ambiguity is one of the ways in which they are successful in doing so; it orientates a response from the audience.

Ambiguity creates surprise and humor through incongruity, which explains why some ads are quite entertaining; it is cognitively engaging and requires some actual brain activity!

Here are two examples of ambiguous sentences in ads I found online – the first is quite distasteful, in my opinion.

spread your legs

“Spread your legs!” Pretty straight forward isn’t it? The first meaning is quite literal: “Stretch your legs!” But why did they use the word spread instead? Hmm. Good question. The answer is of course, to draw multiple meanings at once. Often, one meaning is more prevalent than the other, but both are computed in parallel. Usually there is tension between the two meanings, and I this case – there most definitely is!

The first meaning tells the consumer that the Pontiac Star Chief is spacious; implying that leg-room is abundant. Makes sense, of course you want to be comfortable in your new car.

Do I really have to spell out the second meaning of this phrase? Okay, okay, I’ll just say it! Meaning number two: Spread your legs… in a sexual way! The second meaning implies that there is enough leg room in the car for sexual escapades. It’s obvious that the sexual undertone in this phrase is specific toward women and therefore I find it extremely distasteful. It uses the imperative form and that personalized touch of the pronoun, ‘your’ to really make you a participant in the advertiser’s reality. This is an obvious example of pragmatic ambiguity.

Come on. We all know what is meant by “spread your legs!” It’s hardly ambiguous. Look at the ad itself. The woman is sitting in the back seat of the car. If you were a woman buying this car, wouldn’t you prefer to have your leg room in the front? Wouldn’t you expect to be in the driver’s seat?! Unless you were a nymphomaniac maybe – then all you are concerned with is how much leg room is in the back, so you can get down and busy when the urge arises. This ad looks as though it is geared towards men. He already has his woman in the back seat ready for action. What a nice perk to buying a Pontiac – the backseat can be converted into a brothel!

By no means am I a prude, I applaud the cleverness of the ad. However, because the sexual undertone of the ad exploits women’s sexuality specifically – I find it presumptuous and sexist. It implies that women are ravenous sexual creatures – that, provided they have the means and the leg room, they will spread their legs for anyone anytime. Yuck.

Here is something more to my taste:


I recently stumbled upon this e-card and instantly fell in love with it. Extra clever! There is syntactic ambiguity in this sentence, can you see it? Structurally ambiguous sentences may take longer to read, but the reward is worth the effort.

Even if you disregard the linguist comment at the top, the ad still holds its ambiguity. The first meaning is ‘I love ambiguity more than other people love ambiguity.’ The second means: ‘I love ambiguity more than I love people.’

The icing on the cake is the statement, ‘I’m a linguist.’ As linguists are passionately concerned with the study of language, it is no surprise that linguists love language more than they love people.



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