Schrödinger’s Gecko: thoughts on “could” in advertising

I’m struck by the use of the word “could” in advertising. Fifteen minutes “could” save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance, says the abominable GEICO.

What does that mean?

I have a car insurance policy, and if I were to apply for a GEICO policy (which I never will, because of their commercials) they would presumably figure out what to charge me, and the amount they come up with either will or will not be fifteen percent — or more — less than what I’m paying now. It’s deterministic: there’s no uncertainty as to the outcome.

So what’s with “could”?

“Could” means: we haven’t run the numbers on you yet, so we don’t know. That’s the thing: they don’t know. But their not knowing doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. There’s no time-bound factor here; I’m not going to get fifteen percent off based on how well I eat for a month, or how fast I can walk. Everything is in place already.

“Could” is the advertiser’s way of saying, “From our perspective, it’s uncertain whether or not you would save money because we don’t know anything about you. In fact, no uncertainty is involved, but we can’t admit that. We have to make it sound like what we don’t know is indeterminate.”

It’s a subtle yet rather clumsy way of treating potential customers as an undifferentiated mass, while pretending to have their interests at heart.