Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Tensions, Power and Words: The Use of Authoritative Brand Identity Language on Ad Agency Websites

Tensions, Power and Words: The Use of Authoritative Brand Identity Language on Ad Agency Websites

Robert McCallum

Ad agencies create and manipulate linguistic semiotics that coalesce into brand personalities for their clients. The intent is to convey authoritative and authentic experiences for consumers that will result in sales. As hired intermediaries, agencies also have to create these brand personalities for themselves to attract clients — a type of reciprocity. On their websites, agencies utilize language of authority, as described by Bourdieu, to mobilize the action of attracting clients. The resulting discourse creates tensions within what is a negotiated and contested power relationship — potential clients have many choices in a highly competitive market — and the resulting attraction process plays out like a courtship. This paper explores authoritative branding language approaches utilized in this courtship ritual as manifested on the websites of 30 agencies. Websites are spaces in which the value and power of an agency’s linguistic capital are used to leverage power. A comparative methodology was used to examine the similarities and differences in the approaches these agencies take in their use of language of authority — specifically power-word choices and themes — on their home and about-us web pages. The sample consists of the 2017 Ad Age (a respectable trade paper) A-list winners, and it is presupposed that by being so honored, they represent successful case studies. The study provides insight into ways agencies distinguish themselves from other agencies while retaining a recognizable agency schema within this courtship ritual.

April 2, 2018 - Posted by | abstract


  1. The ways in which words are used to evoke authority is a fascinating topic in and of itself. Exploring the “use of language of authority” employed by ad agencies to distinguish themselves in the selling of services that hopes to result in sales to consumers for their clients cries out to be read.

    Comment by Jami | April 8, 2018 | Reply

    • Thank you, Jami. Bourdieu made an observation that the power in words is “the belief in the legitimacy of the words and those who utter them.” So it’s really that agencies (and really anyone who is trying to sell something) need to convince others to believe them in order for those others to act.

      Comment by Robert McCallum | April 26, 2018 | Reply

  2. Robert, this looks really interesting. I think the courtship analogy is really interesting in this instance. I would be interested to know how the power is negotiated once an agency is chosen. Who holds the power at that point and how does it affect this courtship?

    Comment by Craig Meiners | April 17, 2018 | Reply

    • Hi Craig, That’s an interesting comment. From what I have seen, in general, clients wield the most power and agencies have to argue for their positions. Most clients view that they are paying for services and should be able to have what they want (regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea or even possible). However, agencies have to maintain their credibility and do effective work. The center of the power is really the account management team that works with the client and that team’s skills in managing client expectations. Because the environment is so competitive, there is a strong tendency to overpromise and become “yes” people to hold onto accounts.

      Comment by Robert McCallum | April 26, 2018 | Reply

  3. This is a great subject! I worked for an internet marketing company as a copywriter, and I can say from experience, you’re onto something! When writing for clients’ websites I used a whole different set of buzzwords than when writing for our company’s website. For clients there was a whole lot more “quality” products “reliable” services, etc. On the other hand, on our site we were selling a “partnership” with our company and promising to “work together to achieve your business goals,” etc. I would love to read and compare to our company’s website!

    Comment by Carly Slank | April 19, 2018 | Reply

    • Thank you for the comment, Carly. There are definitely a lot of buzzwords! It would be interesting to explore deeper the selling of “partnerships” as opposed to “products,” and what the relationship is in how branding language is constructed. My thought is that “partnerships” and services in general could be viewed as abstracted products. In a sense, they are still products, but in a much more complex way.

      Comment by Robert McCallum | April 26, 2018 | Reply

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