Ethan Arlt is a graduate student in his first year of the Masters in Teaching program at SOU. He grew up in Southern California, and completed an undergrad degree in Business and Creative Writing at the University of Oregon. He loves it here in Southern Oregon. In his spare time, he likes to hike, write poetry, and play volleyball and board games.
“Love” is a strange, complicated word. In some respects, it is frivolous (McDonald’s, “I’m lovin’ it”) and in other contexts, such as between partners, it can be one of the most powerful expressions of affection toward one another (“I love you”). How can these two very separate instances be connected by a simple word? What could be the dangers and implications of loading such a semantically powerful word with so many meanings? In this paper, I will seek to understand the meanings of the word “love” by tracings its history of meaning and comparing it to one of its most similar counterparts, “like;” in doing so, I will seek to understand the implications of its widespread use in media, especially advertisements, and the potential dangers associated with using “love” when it relates to products or brands.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “love,” comes from multiple origins, and multiple meanings; the noun form traces its origins to Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, and also Gothic, and the verb form derives much of its use from Old English. Evidently, the word has a variety of origins, which match up with its variety of meanings. There are many root words, and therefore many meanings, some overlapping, so for the purposes of understanding the complexity of the word, I will highlight the root meanings that I feel are most pertinent and contain a semantically significant meaning. Some of these meanings of the noun form include: inclination, piety, willingness, hopefulness, agreeableness, friendship, and the pleasure one experiences for or through an act of goodwill. Its verb form consists of meanings such as: to desire, to cherish, and to become dear. Likewise, the current definitions reflect this array of meaning, as the primary definitions for the noun form include: senses relating to affection or attachment, affection toward a spiritual ideal or entity, a strong liking of something, and an intense passionate feeling toward something or someone (often including sexual desire). Most notably, the verb form contains meanings such as: “to show love towards…to caress..,” to love reciprocally, and “To have a strong liking for…to be devoted or addicted to” (Love, n.1.). While the most common definition seems to relate to the idea of desiring and cherishing, what’s interesting is what sets “love” apart from “like” – the idea of love as connected to piety, that it can be action, that love can be addictive, and that love is a form of reciprocal trust .
To further understand the complex idea of love, researcher Robert Sternberg delineates the word into three separate marking components: Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment. From each one, he describes eight different types of love, based on whether the three previously mentioned categories are fulfilled. These types include Nonlove, Liking, Infatuated Love, Empty Love, Romantic Love, Companionate Love, Fatuous Love, and Consummate Love, which represents the most “complete form” in which all three aspects of love are represented (Sternberg & Weis 119). Sternberg’s definition of love then attempts to break down the word, however it only does so in a relational, person-to-person sense, as the word still maintains its connotations of piety, and generalized feelings of inclination toward an object or brand. What’s interesting in Sternberg’s definition is the idea of commitment. To include commitment into the three categories of love is to elevate and highlight this notion that to love implies a bonding, one that persists over time. If a person is to love something, that person’s commitment toward it is just as important (definition-wise) as that person’s feelings of intimacy and passion toward it. Again, this is developed mostly for a person-to-person relational sense, but its implications should not be understated, as they may impact the efficacy of the word’s use, especially in marketing situations.
In Sternberg’s model, “liking” is included as a form of love, but it is absent of those important qualities of passion and commitment. In a purely definitional sense, too, it only relates to an indication of similarity (“I like to be around like-minded people), and overlaps with love in how it indicates agreeability or pleasure (“I really like that chocolate”) (Like, n.1.). “Like” is often used as a precursor to love, and it seems we also have the capacity to love without liking (“I don’t like my brother, but I still love him”), perhaps by hitting either one or both of the passion and commitment aspects of Sternberg’s model. What then can these slight differences tell us about the power of the word, and also about the effect of its usage?
In his study, Zick Rubin sheds light on this issue. He also attempted to define love, but chose to do by comparing it to “like.” People we like, he found, are those that we have admiration for, appreciate their company, and want to do things with. The connection for loving, however, had some other, deeper connotations. He found that couples in “love” tended to gaze into each other’s eyes more, included desires for contact and intimacy, and also included caring about the loved one’s needs as if they were one’s own (Rubin 265). Rubin’s research then highlights and confirms one of the important differentiations, which is also touched on in the formal definitions – love is not only a process of attachment, but when we attach via love, we are connected to the desires and needs of the other. In this way, love is a reciprocal act, as opposed to liking, which is absent of this kind of reciprocity. This idea of reciprocity also has the implications of action. If one is to care about another’s needs as much as one’s own, then this could be a prelude to loving action. Love, then, as opposed to like, carries more inclination toward action.
There is, along with an action-orientation to the word, also a connection to trust. In their study, Hatfield and Rapson distinguished and two types of love – passionate love, and companionate love. Passionate love is love that begins with intense feelings of emotion, as well as sexual attraction. Companionate love, on the other hand, is love that is based on mutual respect, caring and affection, and trust. Essentially, then, semantically, love can connote both a feeling of energy, and also of long-term trust (Hatfield & Rapson). Love then, unlike its pseudo-synonym “like,” is not simply a word of agreeability or sameness, it connotes commitment, energy, action, reciprocity, and trust.
If this is true, then how can we begin to understand the word’s usage in our current everyday lives, and the effect it might have? On a micro-scale, its overuse has the potential to dilute its meaning. If the word is frequently used in its sense of agreeability, it has the potential to reduce its meaning when its other connotations are needed most, in conveying the deepest form of affection for another. On a broader scale, we can postulate and examine the influence that the usage of this word might have on people as it connects to brands and objects.
In her book, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, Jean Kilbourne discusses this very effect; she states, “Advertising encourages us not only to objectify each other, but also to feel that our most significant relationships are with the products we buy. It turns lovers into things and things into lovers and encourages us to feel passion for our products rather than our partners. Passion for products is especially dangerous when the products are potentially addictive, because addicts do feel that they are in a relationship with those products” (Kilbourne 27). These kinds of connections of loving relationships to brands are prominent. Take for example, McDonald’s popular slogan “I’m lovin’ it.” Because of those various connotations with love – trust, action, attachment – through its use of language, the brand is subtly developing a relationship with the audience. It’s not simply that the brand is agreeable or enjoyable; rather, the slogan encourages the audience to feel connected to the brand on a deeper level, to care about its well-being, and to take action to ensure that well-being.
One study proves that people can indeed feel a type of love toward a brand (and that love is delineated into multiple aspects), as it shows that both US and French consumers show aspects of love toward brands, specifically in the realms of passion and pleasure. However, what’s interesting to note is that French consumers relate to their brands by saying they “like” or “adore” them, while American consumers explicitly use the word “love.” In the same study, French consumers were more likely to align with the memory (inciting positive nostalgia) and trust aspects of their relationship to the brand, while American consumers were more likely say they feel attached to a brand (Albert, Noel, Merunka, & Valette-Florence 13). While this data is not entirely conclusive, it is interesting to note “love’s” usage toward brands in the US, as opposed to the French words such as “like” and “adore,” and what implications that might have for what level of attachment (or addiction) we have to our products. It is entirely possible that “like” and “adore” connote different meanings, and therefore foster a different kind of brand relationship.
Love, then, is evidently a semantically powerful word, connected to action, trust, and deep attachment. Because of its power, it seems worth considering its current usage, especially in forms of media and advertisement; it is a word that can be so ambiguous, so apparently surface-level, and yet, one that we desperately need to describe our deepest affections.
Albert, Noel, Dwight Merunka, and Pierre Valette-Florence. “When consumers love their brands: Exploring the concept and its dimensions.” Journal of Business research 61.10 (2008): 1062-1075.
Hatfield, Elaine, and Richard L. Rapson. Love, sex, and intimacy: Their psychology, biology, and history. HarperCollins College Publishers, 1993.
Kilbourne, Jean. Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. Simon and Schuster, 2012.
“Like, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/46809760. Accessed 26 November 2017. “Love, n.1.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/110566. Accessed 26 November 2017.
Rubin, Zick. “Measurement of romantic love.” Journal of personality and social psychology 16.2 (1970): 265.
Sternberg, Robert J., and Karin Weis, eds. The new psychology of love. Yale University Press, 2006.