We haven’t heard much in the mainstream press in the UK about the European Union’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, though it was passed in 2005 and became British law on 26 May2008. It aims to prevent traders from treating consumers unfairly, which may seriously cramp the style of a couple of firms that I have the misfortune to deal with. It also strengthens the laws against misleading advertising, which is likely to outlaw contextomy.
One group that’s in the front row facing the firing line — the group that has attracted most press comment — includes publishers and theatre managers. Their ability to creatively extract key words and phrases from reviews and use them as blurbs on book covers and placards is notorious. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times in 1998 that all critics “learn the hard way that a flattering phrase tossed off casually can become an advertisement nightmare somewhere down the line.”
The drama critic may be apocryphal who wrote that he “liked all of the play, except the lines, the acting and the scenery”, only to find he was quoted as saying that he “liked all of the play”, but such tricks are meat and drink to the unscrupulous. Sinatra At The London Palladium in 2006, which presented recordings of the late singer on video screens, was promoted with the phrase “Energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry”, although the Observer’s critic had actually written “For all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been short-changed.” In another notorious case, Linda Winer, theatre critic of Newsday, reviewed Walmartopia, a satire on the retailer Wal-Mart, in September 2007, saying it was terrible: “Though the heart is in the right place, the style is as simple-minded as the huge smiley buttons that define the level of the collegiate soft-target spoofing”. She also said that the director “uses every cliché known to recent parody to neutralize the preachiness — and betray the point — of this little-guy-fights-back inspirational story”. In an advert in the New York Times her comments became “This deft, fun, little-guy-fights-back inspirational story has its heart in the right place.”
Such extracts from reviews are called pull quotes in the jargon; massaging them into more favourable versions is quote doctoring. Another word, with apologies to Stephen Potter, is quotemanship (or quotesmanship). Yet another is contextomy, one used principally by academics in reference to literary misquotation. The ending -tomy means cutting up and has here been neatly reversed into context. It was created by the historian Milton Mayer in 1966 in reference to a much more significant issue, the misquoting of the Torah for propaganda purposes by Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi paper Der Stürmer in Weimar-era Germany.
Blurbs are hardly such a weighty matter. And there’s doubt whether the new EU directive will do much to temper the eternal enthusiasm of puffers for mangling quotes to commercial benefit. We must wait and see.