The Power of Words #1: Advertising

This is the first of a series of discussion pieces that I want to do this year on how we use and manipulate, or are manipulated by words. Language is a powerful tool and in the wrong hands can be a strong weapon. Despite the old saying words can hurt and do cause damage.

Commercial Advertising

Advertising is arguably the most prevalent method by which words are used (and abused) to persuade us to a certain point of view.Everywhere we go we are bombarded with information about products and services: how they can make life easier or better, how we can be more attractive as a person (either to the opposite sex or to a prospective social circle), how they can inform or misinform and how they can insist that the product or service is the most effective or otherwise best that the market can offer… and you’d be foolish to pass it up. Advertising is powerful. At its best it can permeate public consciousness, stick in the mind and create new trends or become part of the vernacular language. At its worst it can create a storm of negative public feeling and a backlash or worse, you could see your company end up in court sued by individuals or forced to retract your statements by the Advertising Standards Authority (or whichever equivalent exists in your country).

I remember a series of adverts over the last ten years by the car manufacturer Skoda. Poor Skoda, they have always had the reputation of building cars that are cheap, unreliable and ugly. Yet few people realise that they were bought out by Volkswagen about 15 years ago. Volkswagen cars have the opposite reputation: sturdy, reliable, attractive, affordable and well worth paying a little extra for. So now, Skoda vehicles are arguably the most reliable of the cheaper end of the motor market that are well worth picking up as a second or third owner. Their advertisements played on this, poking fun at their own reputation, not taking themselves seriously and gaining kudos for being damn good sports about it. Great advertising guys!

On a similar note, I recently purchased a new car – a Volkswagen Golf – and yes, people keep asking me if it sounds like a Golf. I hadn’t realised that these adverts…

…had caught on but now, as the owner of a Golf, I am fully aware of how this advertising has worked. Why have something like a Golf when you can have a Golf?

Sometimes advertisers get it horribly wrong and their words have the opposite effect of what is intended. McDonalds walked into a storm last year when it insisted that ‘bob’ is a slang word for the British Pound. Anybody over the age of fifty will know that it was slang for a shilling, roughly five pence in modern money, not a pound. Complaints were made – and even suggestions of referral to the Advertising Standards Authority – but McDonalds at first stood firm, insisting that in some regions a bob is slang for a pound (curiously, they didn’t say where) but soon dropped the ad anyway. Needless to say, their attempt to start a new trend did not work.

Employment advertising

Now cast your eye over this, feel free to experience a sinking feeling at this horribly generic representation of a graduate/professional job advertisement:

Are you a dynamic young professional willing to give 300% to the right employer? Do you have a passion for customer-focussed sales? We are Europe’s fastest growing business and you – as a high calibre individual – may be what we are looking for!

I know this long economic downturn has created a job market firmly in favour of the potential employer but when you are a graduate (like me) seeking graduate work and reading 30-50 adverts a month that all roughly say the same thing, your eyes tend to glaze over in apathy, boredom and eventually disdain at the lack of imagination in the corporate world. The employer will not stand out against the others and therefore will not get the “dynamic and high calibre” graduates they claim to be looking for. The lesson here to all advertising is this: Using and over-using jargon will not make you stand out. It will make your advert blur with hundreds of others and ten minutes after I have read your ad, I will have forgotten the job (or your product) and your company. Over-use of specific words in ads like the one above dilutes the impact of the text.

Blurbs

A blurb is the short piece of text, usually between fifty and one hundred words, on the back of a book that explains what it is about. We know the old saying about not judging a book by its cover but very often we judge a book by what is on the cover. This will include recommendations, which media gave it its four/five star ratings and any authors that are asked to give a short sentence containing a superlative.

The point of a blurb is to sell you a book so it is important to do this in as short and as punchy a style as possible. Blurbs can be badly written and subject to fallibility as demonstrated by this article. Blurbs that barely reflect the content of the book really annoy me, but then I haven’t come across anything as bad as in that article. Oddly, in that instance it seems that the author did not write the blurb as the blogger suggests the final sentence is just like advertising-speak.

If a book’s blurb fails to capture me by the end of the first sentence, it goes straight back on the shelf. We can normally judge the genre and style of writing in that time. I will only really read to the end if I’m still trying to decide or looking for any possibility that I might not like it. So in that respect, I’m looking to the blurb as a form of negative advertising “do I have a reason not to buy this?”

Future subjects on the power of words might include: headlines and propaganda; access to reading; inspiration and platitudes and any others I can think of.

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