Right now New York’s airwaves and subways are being inundated with anti-cigarette ads from the city’s health department. The ads are pretty gruesome. But their most shocking element is not visual. It’s linguistic.
One of the TV ads begins by saying, “8 hours after you quit smoking, your blood oxygen level returns to normal.” “In 3 months your lung function improves up to 30%.” And so on, listing the physical rewards you’ll reap if you quit smoking. So far, the ad sounds bland and informational. “You” seems to refer to the generic public, and the verbs are all in the present tense, implying that these are general effects that occur across a range of cases.
Then the add takes a turn. “But right now you’re one cigarette closer to cancer.” “Every cigarette makes you sick.” These words are accompanied by graphic images of surgery and diseased organs. The images are meant to be disturbing. But the real shocker is the shift in the meaning of the ad’s language. Now “you” refers to a very specific person—you, the viewer, the smoker. And the present tense verbs, which seemed merely clinical at first, now describe a frighteningly immediate moment. This present tense is happening to your body right now, whereas that present tense (earlier in the ad) is revealed to be a hypothetical, what might happen if you stopped smoking today. Suddenly “you” wish you were living in the other present tense instead of this one.
Two senses of “you,” and two senses of the present tense. These ads are shocking because they effectively exploit the rich ambiguities of the English language.