Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the way people use words.
Regular readers of this column may have noticed a recurring theme over the past two years: the annoying ways that marketing and advertising people use language. Our industry is by no means uniquely guilty of this. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell listed "worn out and useless words", and bemoaned how bad language stopped people from thinking clearly. We agree. We frequently despair when we listen to the marketing speak around us.
Grrr... Firstly, there are words that fail to inspire. There's no excuse for the ugly, over-familiar words that litter strategy documents and creative briefs. We are all guilty of defaulting to tired adjectives when describing our brands' personalities: passionate, warm, accessible, trusted, confident, and so on. These are adland's version of Orwell's "worn out words". Or, an example we came across of a very successful multinational company that prides itself on its marketing skills, describing its target as 'active women - pleasure believers who have experienced what is important to them and have learned to treasure meaningful pleasures'. Not easy for any creative team to feel inspired by this choice of words.
These kinds of marketing speak are frighteningly common - to be fair, it can be really hard to avoid when faced with the need for international 'alignment'. But we work in creative industries, and we do need to fight against these forces, and choose fresh and evocative words which inspire and enlighten.
Next, we have words which dehumanise, and so distance us from the task at the heart of our jobs - understanding real people. Time and again, words like consumer, target and housewife are defaulted to. Try inserting the word 'people' instead of 'consumers' into your sentences, and you will immediately sense how this distancing effect works.
Perhaps because of its historic focus on the technological rather than the human side, digital marketing seems particularly prone to this kind of dehumanising language. In Campaign recently, a digital expert claimed "consumers are expecting to participate as creators in their chosen media space, and are looking to engage in consumer-generated content". Apart from being horrible to read, this sort of jargon only increases the distance between ourselves and the people we are trying to talk to.
Finally, we come to words berated in previous Mythbusters that have hidden, faulty assumptions built into them. Step forward all those plans aiming to encourage 'active engagement', make ads more 'persuasive', 'force reappraisal', strengthen the brand-consumer 'relationship', 'drive brand loyalty', and so on. These all sound harmless, but actually the assumptions and principles built into these words are fundamentally flawed and can knock marketing effectiveness off course. By and large, people don't want to 'actively engage' or 'have strong relationships' with brands, advertising or even 'consumer-generated content', and they don't need to for marketing to be successful. Marketing can be effective without 'persuasion' or 'reappraisal'. In fact, it need not actually 'communicate' very much at all. And as we have pointed out before, brand loyalty is largely an irrelevance.
It is probably no coincidence that most of these words portray advertising as a powerful force, causing dramatic shifts in behaviour. People in our industry love macho words like 'driving', 'forcing', and 'active'. They make us feel in control. But they fail to reflect reality. Looking at how real people think, feel and act, you find marketing is usually a relatively weak influence that nudges us slightly towards one brand or another. This still may be highly profitable, but it's a much less macho affair than most marketing language suggests.
Worrying about the precise words we use may seem an overly intellectual exercise. In fact, it's the most practical thing imaginable. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking, ineffective creative work, and money being wasted. If we want to serve our clients well, we need to choose our words well.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.