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Double Negatives in Branding: Nobody Doesn’t = Everybody Does?

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Food, International, Marketing, Television, Trademarks, Truncation

There is a time and a place for the use of double negatives. The Rolling Stones made the double negative "I Can’t Get No" lyrics famous in the legendary hit Satisfaction (#2 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s List of the Top Songs of All Time). Pink Floyd made the double negative lyrical phrase "We Don’t Need No" famous in the song Another Brick in The Wall, Part 2. With respect to song titles, what about Diana Ross’ recording of the double negative Ain’t No Mountain High Enough?

Despite these widely popular uses, we are all taught (at an early age, my children have confirmed) not to use no double negatives, never, ever, as they are grammatically incorrect, inappropriate, and most likely to be avoided at all cost in writing and speech. Indeed, to fix the double negative problem, we also are taught that a double negative should be removed and resolve to a single positive. So, we’re told that a double negative carries the same meaning as a single positive.

Does that mean Mick Jagger and Keith Richards really meant to say, "I Can Get Satisfaction"? What about the "We Don’t Need No" lyrics? Did Roger Waters really intend to communicate that "We Need Both Education and Thought Control? Did Diana Ross really mean, "There is a Mountain High Enough"? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Those "positive" versions of the double negative lyrics create entirely different meanings, in my opinion, and if used, they would have put us into a collective slumber.

So, clearly, there is a creative role for double negatives in music, but how about in branding?

My question was inspired driving into work a couple of weeks ago, as I was passed by a Sara Lee delivery truck prominently displaying a double negative tag line ("Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee"), confirming that the guardians of the Sara Lee brand continue to believe there is a time and place for the use of double negatives in branding.

In fact, Sara Lee owns several federal trademark registrations for the "Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee" tag line covering a wide range of food items, including "rolls, pies, cakes, cheesecake, muffins, ice cream," "flavored mustards, sauces and mayonaises," "cheese," "bread, bagels and buns," "bakery goods," "processed meats," and "frozen prepared meat lasagna entrees."

Perhaps not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any other trademark on the entire USPTO database that included both of the terms "nobody" and "doesn’t." Given how unique and inherently awkward the phrase is, one might wonder whether substituting any term or other brand name for Sara Lee might avoid a likelihood of confusion with the original.

In any event, the delivery truck was well on its way down the road, yet I still found myself scratching my head, trying to figure out what "Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee" means. In other words, is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Does it mean, "Everybody Does Like Sara Lee" or "Everyone Likes Sara Lee"? If so, why not just say it? The double negative is certainly more tentative and a weaker affirmation. Perhaps even more importantly, if you’re going to say it, why water down the affirmative with "like" when "love" is available. I don’t know, perhaps that’s too direct, too strong?

Apparently in the French language, two negatives often make a stronger negative, not a positive, so how do French speaking consumers interpret the Sara Lee tag line?

Just so you know, I’m not the first to be confused by the tag line. One family has posted their effort to solve the mystery on Youtube. Others have misunderstood the tag line to be the phonetically similar phrase Nobody Does it Like Sara Lee. And yet others have speculated that this was the original Sara Lee tag line, but the double negative version later resulted from management’s concern that the "does it" phrase contained a risqué double entendre that the company wouldn’t want attributed to Ms. Lee.

Dan reminded me that this tag line is actually part of a Sara Lee jingle that goes way back.

Here and here are a few vintage television commercials sporting the entire jingle: "Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee." The jingle actually makes more sense to me than the tag line, especially with the corny visuals – less head-scratching. Having said that, it highlights for me how truncating the jingle into the tag line and using it outside the context of the jingle can cause real meaning problems. 

In case you’re wondering whether there are many other brand owners who have embraced double negative trademarks, not a lot, at least that I easily could find: Cannot be Undone, You Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ad Agency, Limes? We Don’t Need No Shtinkin’ Limes!, The Land Guys "They Ain’t Makin No More", This Ain’t No Stroll in the Park, Ain’t No Secret It’s the Sauce!!, Never Say No, Never Say No, Because No Was Not the Answer You Were Looking ForImpossible Isn’t, and Never Hear "You Shouldn’t Have" Again. Do you know of any others?

So, I leave you with this close to final thought to ponder, if nobody else doesn’t avoid double negatives in branding, why isn’t Sara Lee listening? Perhaps the answer lies in Justin Gressel’s PhD Dissertation.

Last, given all this, what are your thoughts about the use of double negatives in branding?

  • http://www.ipmvs.com Sarah

    Oh thank goodness!!! That Sara Lee tag line has bugged me for years! (I was a journo in my previous career prior to jumping ship to the dark side — marketing/PR.) I have a great appreciation for the company’s tag line, but it just grates on my literary-leaning nerves. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in the Sara Lee conundrum.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dmitchel David Mitchel

    “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee” could be perceived as confusing. I think “Everybody Likes Sara Lee” or “Everyone Likes Sara Lee” would be more effective tag lines. They are simple, clear and succinct. Both are positive and affirmative tag lines. It would make sense for the brand management staff to want to have the Sara Lee brand associated with positive and affirmative feelings.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jkirstein Joel Kirstein

    It certainly has served them well for decades and is a part of their emotional brand equity… I’ve never heard anyone complain about, not even my high school English teacher.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/chris-finnie/0/300/80a Chris Finnie

    On the other hand, every time I tell people “quicker” isn’t a word, I get confused looks and the inevitable response, “But, what about the quicker picker upper?”
    I realize English is a living language. And, clearly, these grammatically challenged taglines have gained considerable mindshare. It’s even possible that what makes them unique is the fact that most people wouldn’t have said it that way–knowing their English teacher would have marked them down for it.
    I have to admit, I do things myself that might not have passed muster in class. I do them for tone, effect, and sometimes brevity. Still, there are places I draw the line. Double negatives, confusing adjectives and adverbs, mismatched subject and verb numbers, repeating words in a sentence, and inventing or misusing words are a few of mine. To me, these simply brand your communications as poorly done. My 2¢ on the matter.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jkirstein Joel Kirstein

    Good point, Chris. It is a very very selective moment when a brand can break the rules and get away with poor grammar and hamstring their efforts. Those are fewer and farther between.
    David, I doubt Sara Lee will walk away from the “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee” tag line after all these decades. It has been very effective and successful for them and it fits them perfectly. In the end, that is what matters…

  • http://winnowings.blogspot.com Christine Thresh

    What a revelation! Until I read your blog today, I had always read the phrase (and heard the commercials) as “Nobody Does It Like Sara Lee.”

  • http://www.georgepneumaticos.com/blog George Pneumaticos

    I think it’s shorter than “It would be quite a challenge to find somebody who does not like Sara Lee.”
    I’m with Joel and Chris on this one. Most people who BUY Sara Lee don’t really mind the dodgy grammar. “Everyone likes” seems too literal, too obvious, not poetic.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/davetaylorbrandgroup Dave Taylor

    The line works on many levels, foremost being the unique double negative. It has an authentic, vernacular feel to it, just as though someone were answering the question, “But what if somebody doesn’t like it?” I suspect that when the line was created the agency was thinking of the internal monologue of the hostess who is planning a party. The vast majority of their target audience does indeed take the double negative as a stronger positive, but it is not the same as some of the examples you use in your article which are truly just double negatives. (And yet we all know what Mick Jagger means in “Satisfaction.”) Should marketers use double negatives? Never! Unless, of course, it works as beautifully as this line has for decades.

  • http://onbrand.wordpress.com/ David Cameron

    Steve, this is a great piece. Thank goodness you caught sight of that Sara Lee truck!
    It would be of interest to have a Sara Lee guy/gal jump in on this conversation and provide us with the brand’s point of view. Clearly, they feel the theme has served them well.
    I actually think you hit on the effectiveness of this theme when you made reference to the use of double negatives in popular music. Take away those double negatives, and the meaning and tone changes dramatically. “Everbody likes Sara Lee” is just too plain… it falls flat. It doesn’t beg one to wonder any further. “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” is still simple, but intricate in its delivery. It’s almost like asking a question, which to me is a very effective way to get into the mind. The fact that the theme is a bit confusing might actually work to the brand’s advantage … because it’s not immediately understandable, it causes people to think. And isn’t that what we want to do as marketers? We want to be arresting!! We want people to stop and think. We want to get into the mind. For that reason, I think this use of the double negative is effective.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelcmcdermott Michael McDermott

    Hi there, I have just seen the above discussion.
    An examination of Sara Lee’s strategy shows that the company has come full circle and now appears to be once again returning to its origins – a US-based foods company.
    I think this choice of tagline should be ditched immediately. Now that the company has some focus, the time is ripe to focus attention on the positives and in so doing be prepared to have brand values that will appeal to some but not all.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/shortnames tom

    I’m with @Christine – ‘Nobody does it like Sara Lee’ is what I thought it said, too.
    As far as the slogan itself goes I don’t like the way it sounds/reads – it feels like stuttering to me. Has nothing to do with the semantic correctness of it, just the sound.
    As far as the semantics of it, I think it’s fine – hard to argue with success.
    In the fwiw department, I don’t know that I’d consider the song lyric examples you cited as true double negatives – their intent in fact was not double negation, which you pointed out. That’s different than the Sara Lee slogan, where the intent is in fact double negation. Would be interested to know how linguists treat this distinction, if at all (ok – so I’m probably the only one who even careas about this – I’m a words guy :-)

  • http://www.duetsblog.com Sebastian Manfred Humpert

    People use a double negative when children misbehave. Here’s the example:
    Crying won’t change nothing.
    That actually means crying changes everything. They cancel each other out and make a positive.