Meaningless Words and Terms Advertisers Use

This is going to be one of my “Grinds My Gears” type posts. Some types of business speak really grind my gears, as I have already discussed. Advertising though is a whole other kettle of fish. There are some words and terms that I really would not be upset if I never encountered them again.

I’ve discussed advertising before. This is a general post on advertising way back from four years ago. Here I wrote about emotive language and here I wrote about using reason and logic as sales tactics. So, what advertising terms and words would I stick in my Room 101?


Yeah. It’s not just the unscientific nature of the term which has no context. After all, most things are “natural” including “chemicals” that is mistakenly used as a synonym for “artificial” and therefore “dangerous”. Botulism is natural, as is a starving man-eating shark, so are supervolcanoes when we come to it. Nobody would say any of those things are harmless. Getting away from the dangerous misappropriation of the word natural and how it is used to scare the clueless, what does it actually mean? Who can explain what it means? Anybody want to give it a try? Well, according to the American FDA, it has no meaning. It has no criteria by which marketers can use it and therefore, it is meaningless. Yet people buy it and they are willing to pay more than the odds for it.

A Great White Shark is natural, so it's harmless, right?
A Great White Shark is natural, so it’s harmless, right?

No Chemicals

This is kind of a follow on from the first one here. Again, this is unscientific. Nothing can contain “no chemicals” except, well, nothing. Even the vacuum of space is not a complete vacuum and therefore has chemicals. I mentioned in a review on my other site for The Eden Project that in summer 2015, the seller of a cider stall claimed that his product was better because it had “no chemicals”. Disgusted, I drank the rather average tasting cider, discarded the sample cup and walked away shaking my head muttering about the impossibility of any product containing no chemicals. If it had water in it, then it had a chemical. If it used apples, then it had chemicals. Where do people get this idea that anything can have “no chemicals”? Has science education in the western world dropped so low that we can accept this rather awful, false and meaningless selling point?

Blood has chemicals and when put like this, sound scary. Source: The Credible Hulk


American, Canadian and Australian readers, please enlighten me as to whether you get this over there. Why is this trend for telling you that their store, shop, supermarket is “yours”? I think it began about 20 years ago and I saw it in WH Smith (a well-known but on-hard-time newspaper, magazine and stationery seller over here). I went to pick up a basket and all I could see was signs telling me that this shop was mine. I wasn’t picking up a basket, I was picking up “Your Basket”. Oh great, can I take it home then? M&S do it now. It’s “Your M&S”. Somehow, I doubt store security would take my rather literal view to helping myself to their stock, shelving or any number of baskets. I don’t want possession of all these things as I have no space for them and, quite frankly, don’t really want the burden. The most recent version for which the company was left red-faced (and told to take down the advertising for falsely claiming that they were handing back their assets into public ownership), was First Group. Last year, they told us that “We are giving back the West Country your GWR”. Now, I’m a steam train nerd but even I saw cynically through this appeal to nostalgia. We have every right to be proud of GWR and the achievements of our greatest son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but First Group is a private company.

Science Jargon That Obfuscates

In a previous post, I discussed scientifically proven as a way of using logic to sell. Then, I pointed out that there was likely to be dodgy science behind it. But it isn’t just about that term. Now taking it beyond the corruption of that term and look at some others that confuse or bewilder, that sound sciencey but are probably nonsense. Things like synthesised to make your hair glossy and rejuvenating and even purifying. In fact, any long word with “ing” on the end used in relation to toiletries and cosmetics. It is as though they throw a dictionary in a blender and scoop out only those long words to dump them into advertising material. Again, these words are seemingly meaningless. What exactly will my liquid hand soap “rejuvenate”? Surely, no soap, no matter how good, can purify our skin? Not even bleach can do that as it “only” claims to kill 99.9% of germs.

Germs / Bacteria

As you can see, this post of mine has largely developed into a post on false scientific claims. This use and misappropriation of words in advertising is dangerous. Now, they’ve demonised the most important and earliest lifeforms on planet Earth – germs and bacteria. Our bodies are riddled with bacteria. We have them in our gut; they aid digestion. We used bacteria to turn milk into cheese. We simply cannot live without bacteria. So why do we have such a negative perception of them? It’s because of cleanliness products. Bacteria and germs are presented as some sort of dangerous substance that can and must be eradicated. In truth, we can’t and shouldn’t. A sterile world is one without life.

E-Coli is a dangerous bug and it is understandable that you would want to get rid of it. But not all bacterium are harmful.
E-Coli is a dangerous bug and it is understandable that you would want to get rid of it. But not all bacterium are harmful.

Why Do They Do It?

Sales techniques are about providing a solution to a problem. Advertisers are very good at making us see a problem. The difficulty though is making people see that they have a problem. If you don’t have a problem, they must invent one. In demonising bacteria and chemicals, and in presenting “natural” as a panacea, they are doing the only thing they know how to do – present the black and white thinking of problem & solution. It is to our detriment that we are not as critical about these things as we could or should be. They do it because we let them. They do it because we don’t know any better. They do it because we’re too lazy to challenge the misappropriation of these words. And so “natural” becomes something good; “chemical” becomes something bad and “bacteria” becomes dangerous.


5 thoughts on “Meaningless Words and Terms Advertisers Use

  1. My personal bugbear words are ‘Pure’ and ‘Organic’ — there was even a non-diary spread called “Pure Organic” which prompts the obvious question, “Pure Organic what?”. Turned out from reading the ingredients the ‘what’ was Chemistry, since the ingredients included ‘Natural Mineral Oil’.

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