Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Behold the principal English modal verbs - can/could, will/would, shall/should, must, ought to. They play a significant part in the verbal system of the English language, expressing such concepts as possibility, necessity, permission, obligation, ability and willingness. But when we speak, they are usually very unobtrusive. Only in certain rather marked contexts is the meaning carried by a modal verb strongly emphasised by the main stress in a sentence falling on that verb. In the musings which follow, main stress in sample utterances will be marked by words being underlined.

Consider this unremarkable utterance: "I can be there on Friday." Ordinarily, the word most heavily stressed by the speaker would surely tend to be "Friday", which is the single most important unit of meaning in this sentence. In contrast, the following utterance is a lot less common: "I can be there on Friday."

So let's try to imagine a context in which we might hear this second variant (with the modal verb "can" stressed most heavily). A plausible context would be an exchange like this telephone conversation:

A: "When can you come to the office?"
B: "I should be able to make it on Friday."
A: "Sorry. The line is bad. I didn't catch that. Did you say you can't make it on Friday?"
B: "No, Friday is fine. Friday works for me."
A: "Sorry. This line's terrible. What did you say?"
B: "I can be there on Friday."

In the final utterance, then, the usually unstressed "can" becomes the most heavily stressed word because B's ability to visit on Friday is the matter on which the conversation becomes completely focussed as both participants seek to clear up a misunderstanding.

It took a while to set up this scenario as a plausible context for a modal verb being the most emphatically stressed word in an utterance. I think this adds adequate support for the claim that stress on modals is a highly marked phenomenon in English speech.

Why bring all of this up? Well, it's all to do with a series of adverts that has been running on TV for the last couple of years and which have been bugging me like hell. The specific message varies from ad to ad, but the same jaunty tune and cartoonish rainbow colour palette is used throughout. Listen for the company catchphrase, which is the final utterance in this sample clip:

When picking a slogan, then, Simplyhealth, a UK private health insurance provider, opted for a phrase notable for the kind of marked stress on a modal verb which was discussed above. The phrase is unusual in one other way - it contains a highly marked reworking of the the far more common expression "can't be bothered". 

If someone were to utter the phrase "we can be bothered" (we being the company on whose behalf that person was speaking), I can think of only two contexts in which such a marked utterance could occurs:
  1. The company has been accused of not being bothered (to fulfil some important obligation or meet some important standard)
  2. The company is seeking to distinguish itself from other parties which can't be bothered (to fulfil those obligations or meet those standards)
I think we can dismiss the first of these suggested explanations for this company's choice of slogan. Sure, the rebuttal of accusations of poor standards or poor service is something that a lot of companies may have to get into at some stage. But it's not very likely to be the core message of a breezy advertising campaign.

So Simplyhealth are using this slogan to achieve differentiation versus some other party or parties who can't be bothered. But who can they mean? Well, a look at the Simplyhealth website is not terribly enlightening. The about the company blurb begins with this: In a world where so many people can't be bothered, we're proud to be the healthcare company that can. No specifics, though. Non-botheredness is not a charge levelled at any specific people or organisations.

Two things are striking here. Firstly, the imagined world in which Simplyhealth operates offers an extraordinarily bleak vision -  a world in which brightness, optimism and effort are rare and in which "so many" interactions with our fellow human beings are characterised by apathy and sloth. Secondly, I can't help detecting a nauseatingly smug attitude when a company tries to make out that its key selling point is being one of the rare "bothered" organisations in an otherwise dystopian hell resembling the setting of Mike Judge's Idiocracy.

But I'm being disingenuous. Because I am actually reluctant to believe that the Simplyhealth adverts are really inviting us to believe in world in which not being bothered is the norm in all areas of life. I just don't see the point of that. Instead, and operating on the observation that playing on viewers' fears is a common device when advertising both insurance products and healthcare products, I am minded to infer that Simplyhealth have a much more modest aim in mind. I think they just want you to fear the consequences of having your physical well-being in the hands of those awful unnamed parties who can't be bothered [to look after you properly]. This, then, leaves me rather fixated on the question of the identity of these uncaring and unprofessional brutes. Could they mean rival private health insurance providers? Possibly. But if that were the case, I don't see why they would need to be coy about it. If the intention were to dissuade prospective customers from signing up with the likes of BUPA or AXA PPP, surely the advertising copy would cut to the chase. Something along the lines of "Choosing the right health insurance is an important decision. You deserve the best treatment and the best service. So choose the insurer with the best range of cover options and the best customer service. Simplyhealth: We can be bothered." Job done, right? You've implied that the competition are shit by stating that you're the best provider on the market - a fairly standard advertising format.

No, my belief is that Simplyhealth's reluctance to be clear about just who can't be bothered is down to slyness. My belief is that the suggestion this firm wishes to plant in your mind is that the dear old NHS is staffed by people who can't be bothered. They want to imply it. But they don't want to come out and say it. Not while there exists genuine affection for the NHS and widespread concern about its future.

You don't want to die young because of the fucking NHS, oozes the insinuating voice in your head. You don't  want to expire while abandoned on a trolley by some lazy public sector layabout who can't be bothered to treat you. You're not a peasant. Come on. Don't take any chances. Stick your hand in your pocket and jump the queue. Let the poor be snuffed out in a miasma of waiting lists, poor staff morale and organisational chaos. But not you. You're special. You need Simplyhealth. They CAN be bothered....

Nah. My mind's playing tricks, right? A nice cuddly insurance company wouldn't stoop to dirty insinuations, would it?

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