by Craig Evans
With discourse analysis, there is sometimes a tendency to view spoken or written texts prototypically for the purposes of illustrating a theroretical point. This can have the effect of divorcing the theory from the reality of texts as each individual experiences them in their everyday life. In an effort to reclaim some of that reality, here’s an account of my recent experience of some junk mail:
Bright colours and glossiness at the foot of the door is all I usually notice about junk mail. Later, I scoop it up, and without taking a closer look, drop it on the kitchen table. It will remain there unread, sometimes for hours at a time, sometimes days, eventually acquiring the appearance of waste, and then I throw it away. Although, there was an occasion recently where this didn’t happen. The usual clutter of text and boxes and colourful shapes was missing, and a single word in bold red letters jumped out at me:
What? How strange. The word was emblazoned on a white rectangle of card. It resembled a sudden utterance of surprise, but no sound had been made. As I leaned down to pick up the card from where it lay on the coir doormat, my immediate thought was that it must have slipped: whoops (as if having unintentionally fallen through the letterbox).
I had half a mind to respond, or at least to open the front door to see if anyone would be waiting to explain what had happened. The oddness of finding this interjection with no apparent cause had thrown me, but this was fleeting. Examining the card up close, I could now see what it was all about.
“Whoops! Sorry we were late…”
The words of apology were displayed in black, in a smaller handwriting style beneath the initial exclamation. These were followed, at the bottom of the card, by the distinct blue and red logo of Domino’s Pizza.
When suddenly confronted with an unexpected apology, your initial response is to try to recall exactly what happened. I was unable to remember the last time I ordered pizza, let alone the timeliness of the delivery. Had there been a considerable delay that merited this printed-out admission of tardiness? No, I would have remembered, and surely they would have just said something at the time. There had to be another explanation, and then it suddenly dawned on me: what somebody says is not always the same as what they mean.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” might be a genuine enquiry into your capacity for alcohol consumption, but more likely it is meant as a rebuke for your excessive drinking. Could it be that, far from sending me an apology, Domino’s Pizza was in fact criticising my lack of custom? After all, it had been a while.
“Whoops! Sorry we were late…” I re-read the message. The words had acquired a sarcastic edge to their tone: Oh dear, we’re so terribly sorry that we were too overworked and understaffed to deliver your food in a timely manner…
Surely not? I looked at the back of the card: of course not. It was just an advert with a promotional offer. The “whoops” and apology were repeated in a smaller font on the reverse. Added to this was the promise not to let the same thing happen again. And then came, by way of reparation, the offer:
“£5 OFF WHEN YOU SPEND OVER £15”
The money off part of the text was three times the size of the minimal spend conditions. What followed, in an even smaller font, was an instruction and code to use when ordering online. A border of dashes reminiscent of the ‘cut here’ guide surrounding vouchers in newspapers encased the whole thing. Beneath this, the barely legible small print of further conditions.
So: not an apology, just a promotion. I walked down the hallway and into the kitchen, letting the flyer fall onto a pile of junk mail on the kitchen table, whoops-side up. The bold red exclamation seemed to be mocking me:
Whoops, you thought this was an apology; whoops, it was really just an advertisement; whoops, the idea was to make you think you were owed something, but whoops it has just annoyed you instead.
I gathered up the pile of junk mail, and shoved it all in the bin.