In the run-up to the Olympics, several athletes were signed up to appear in advertisements for the products of one of the sponsors. One athlete was lucky, or unlucky, enough to be assigned a well-known anti-dandruff shampoo, and is now, declares the advert, “100% cool, 100% confident and up to 100% flake-free*”. (Forget that asterisk for a moment.)
It’s the sneaky little preposition up to that caught my attention here. The claim “up to 100% flake-free” is surely meaningless, even in the strange marginal universe in which flakes of dandruff are counted and recorded. What percentage would be acceptable to someone with a dandruff-related problem? And doesn’t the word ‘flake-free’ denote a complete absence of flakes, anyway? You wouldn’t expect products labelled ‘sugar-free’ or ‘gluten-free’ to contain any sugar, or gluten, at all. The adjective (or suffix) ‘free’ is not normally gradable.
The internet offers a huge amount of discussion on the use of so-called ‘up to claims’ in advertising. According to studies of consumer behaviour conducted on people who had money in their high yield savings account, most people believe that if they are offered, say, “up to 47%” savings in energy costs after installing new windows, then this is approximately what they will get. Thus the Federal Trade Commission advises marketers that up to claims should be used only when it can be proved that customers “are likely to achieve the maximum results promised under normal circumstances”.
Ah, “under normal circumstances”. This is the crux of the matter. In the shampoo advert, the small print aims to tell us exactly what “up to 100% flake-free” means. That asterisk takes us to the words, almost too small to read:
*Removes up to 100% visible flakes seen at 2 ft. With regular use.
So now we know. It still doesn’t make much sense, but the advertisers have covered themselves with painful redundancy: visible flakes, seen at two feet. The moral: don’t get too close to a potential dandruff sufferer, or at least not with your eyes open.
Of course, this sense of up to is perfectly standard and is often used quite ‘neutrally’ to state a maximum amount or level, as in the information that a female silverfish can lay up to 100 eggs and live for up to three and a half years. Often, though, there is a point being made, a suggestion that the reader should exclaim “Wow! That much? That long? As big as that?”
The ‘Feedback’ column of the New Scientist has often voiced objections to up to claims, especially when used by the telecoms industry. For example, Virgin Media are reported to have promised “up to 50 megabit broadband speeds”, and then confusingly described this as “infinitely quick”.
A trawl through the New Scientist archive reveals that they themselves – inevitably – use up to in this rather vague way, in reports both on potentially beneficial scientific developments and on research that has dangerous implications.
These examples state the best possible results of a scientific discovery:
A type of fridge that can stay cool for up to 10 days without any power has been developed.
Combined with a conventional fan, the wind engines could increase microchip cooling by up to 250%.
A material that stores up to 40 per cent more energy and is less likely to overheat could be the answer.
But notice the use of modal verbs and phrases like can, might, could, and is less likely, which add to the essential vagueness of up to. Like advertisers, the New Scientist needs to qualify its statements, partly because its eye-catching reports are based on professional articles that were probably more sober in their claims (as well as being less accessible to a general readership).
The next examples report on more negative findings, or speculate on their worst possible effects; they are full of doom and dire predictions.
Up to 900 species of land bird at risk by 2050 [headline]
Northern Siberia’s thaw lakes are belching out up to five times as much methane as previously thought.
Air pollution is knocking up to nine years off some people in the UK, according to a new report.
Flooding in the country is set to increase by up to 40 per cent this century as global temperatures rise, the latest climate models suggest.
I’m sure you can think of other phrases with the same weight of implied meaning as up to. According to “the experts”, summarizes the New Scientist, limiting global warming is an achievable goal, and “could cost as little as one meal out, per person, per year”. How much is that, exactly, and how does it compare with the length of the proverbial piece of string?Email this Post