Saturday, March 14, 2009

It’s the Ultimate!


I’m always interested in how marketers use language. So often, they fall prey to common misuses, such as using popular but incorrect definitions to promote their products and services. For example, the label on a personal care product I use caught my eye with its interesting mis-use of the word “ultimate.” The product is a deodorant, touted as “Ultimate Clear.” On the label, it promises “Six Ultimate Benefits.” Wow!

OK, but what’s an “ultimate benefit”?

My Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (20th ed.) defines “ultimate” (which derives from the Latin ultima, meaning last) as follows:

1. Beyond which it is impossible to go; farthest; most remote or distant.

Are the benefits of this product remote or distant? NO.

2. In which a process or series comes to an end; final.

Are the benefits coming to an end? Are they final? NO.
3. Beyond which further analysis, division, etc., cannot be made; elemental; fundamental; primary.

Are the benefits beyond analysis? Are they elemental? If so, elemental to what? NO.

4. Greatest possible; maximum.

Ah! This must be it. Maximum benefits. The marketing team must have had this fourth, less-frequently used definition in mind, thinking, as many people do, that “ultimate” means “best.” But here again, the meaning is most, not best.

Consider, too, the synonyms that my dictionary offers for “ultimate” – final, terminal, conclusive, and eventual – these clearly imply a sense of finality and ending, not of superior quality or size, as implied by “maximum.”

Related to this common misunderstanding is the frequent mis-use of the word “penultimate” by people who thinks it means “better than ultimate.” Wrong! Penultimate means “next to last" (from the Latin pene, meaning almost, and ultima, meaning last).

Still wondering what the “six ultimate benefits” of this product are? The label poses the question, “What makes it ultimate?” The answer, given in six bullet points, promises 1) wetness protection; 2) odor protection; 3) stays on skin (!); 4) moisturizers; 5) smooth and silky application and 6) beautiful fragrances.

Hey, wait a minute! I bought the unscented version, so I can’t even enjoy last-named benefit, the final one on the list, the ultimate benefit! Now there’s an irony.

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