Purposeful Polysemy in Marketing Communication: Ethical Implications and Policy Challenges

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Abbas, Rumaila
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University of Guelph

Past research has identified purposeful polysemy (i.e., multiple meanings in interpretation) as a strategy that enables various marketing goals to be achieved. However, an area that extant literature has largely been silent about is when polysemy can be strategically used to overcome legal boundaries. This thesis examines purposeful polysemy, as a practice used in varying product sectors, and explores the consumer, ethical, and policy implications that emerge from its use. This research explores whether marketers, through using verbal and visual devices, can imply multiple meanings, where one meaning pertains to a brand message (e.g., inferring a health-oriented attribute) that is navigating within a stringent regulatory environment, while additional meanings can be used as a legal and ethical defense if undergoing scrutiny for the claim being made. This research first sets up a conceptual framework and uses a well established image (i.e., a heart symbol) as a demonstration of polysemy and delves into the ethics of using such a marketing tool. Next, it examines resulting consumer perceptions and policy implications of using polysemic elements such as a heart symbol. Obtaining understanding of consumer evaluations extends the initial framework set up and examines whether polysemy can be guided in interpretation through contextual cues. Finally, this research examines the potential of purposeful polysemy to create problems from a tobacco control standpoint and its ability to allow navigation in a stringent regulatory environment.

Polysemy, Ambiguity, Marketing Communication, Ethics, Policy