Category: Marketing Language

Don’t ask.

Roman Thumbs down 2
Wanna buy a toothbrush?

Here’s a hot tip for you ad-makers: Don’t ask for the sale right off the bat.  Really good salespeople already know this. Really good marketers also know this. Normal human beings know this. But whoever’s been producing the bulk of advertising lately don’t seem to know it. They apparently think they have to start off by asking for the sale. “Looking for tires?” “Tired of paying high prices for catheters?” “If you die, have you planned enough for your funeral?” “Wanna buy a toothbrush?” (this latter isn’t an actual lead line in an ad, but a punchline in an old joke about marketing, which I think you can reconstruct yourself.) All of these may sound like perfectly innocent questions, but we all hear them as sales pitches.

It’s a well-known fact that nobody likes being sold to. Even when we’re in the actual market to buy something, we don’t like being pitched. It feels pushy. It feels like the sales person only sees us as a mark. And forces us to have to answer something unpleasant back, “No.”

And yet, generation after generation of marketers, who themselves don’t like being sold to, seem to think other people aren’t like them. They just charge right in asking a question that they know they don’t want the honest answer to. They force an answer before we have a chance to even consider their offering.

Even as I’m writing this, I just received an e-mail ad with the subject line: “We haven’t heard from you lately, what’s wrong?” Nothing’s wrong, Bucky; now go away. The first line of this e-mail put me on the spot by asking why I hadn’t clicked on any of their recent e-mails lately (or, in my case, never). “No. No. No. Go away.” I felt like shouting. Did the poor guy who is responsible for this e-mail marketing think this approach would work? That starting off defensively, negatively, would somehow win me over? It’s like a person whom you work with asking, “How come you never want to go out with me?”

Never Ask a Question

Years ago, when I was in art school taking an advertising class from one of the industry’s great copywriters, he told us a maxim: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a question in an ad. Even if it’s a rhetorical question. The reason is that the person reading or hearing the question will, in their mind, automatically answer it.  And, more often than not, the answer is “no.”  He pointed out, that once they’ve said “no”, even to themselves, they’ll shut you out. “No” is the most negative of responses. And people don’t like saying no. It makes them feel negative. I even felt bad sending that e-mail I just got to the spam bin. I feel like I just cost that poor guy a commission, or his job. I’m an awful person. A monster. And I hate that guy for making me feel that way. I want him to die. And now I even feel worse about myself. I’m a seething mass of negativity. And I have to lie down now.


I’m okay now.

But I’d go further than the No Questions Maxim. I’d advise you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask for the sale anywhere in an ad, not even at the end. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a CTA (call-to-action) in it . It’s okay to let people know what you’d like people to do after they read the ad; go to this URL for more info, think about us next time, ask your doctor, etc. But it shouldn’t be to ask them to make a decision about whether or not they’ll buy. Leave that open. Because once you’ve forced the decision, that’s it. Once they’ve said no, heard themselves say no, they imprint that in their memory and condemn you and your low-priced catheters to the spam bin forever. So don’t ask.

Besides. They know you’re trying to sell them something. It’s an ad, for crying out loud! Just don’t sully the mood by asking them to part with money out in the open.

Giving Bad News

inkjet-hypodermic-needle-2Be honest. Do any of you ever read those agonizingly composed letters from marketers that begin with the deadly phrase, “Your business is important to us…” (YBIITU)? In the first place, even if you open the envelope or the e-mail, you know what this means. It means bad news coming. They’re raising their rates; they’re closing your local branch; they’re discontinuing a service you’ve enjoyed; your frequent shopper points have expired…something bad. In other words, YBIITU means the opposite; that “your business isn’t important to us,” at least important enough to be honest upfront. And if it were that important, why would you do this bad thing to me?

YBIITU letters are examples of marketing that shoots itself in the foot. We have all, as good little Pavlovian dogs, become conditioned to regard this phrase as the buzzer before the electric shock. It’s the commercial equivalent of the equally deadly phrase in a romantic relationship, “We need to talk.” Somehow, you know that the “talk” isn’t going to be about something positive, like whether the Kings have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. “We need to talk,” is the bell that announces the bad news coming; “I’m seeing somebody else,” “This isn’t working,” “I’m moving out,” “You’re moving out,” or “I’m going to have to raise my rates for you sleeping with me.” YBIITU is the same. It’s the wrong way to deliver bad news.

Yet the writers of these communications, while they may stay up all night carefully composing their obsequious prose, don’t seem to get what starting off with these shallow clichés does to their audience. It immediately causes the defenses to go up. The same happens when they leaven the first few paragraphs with self-aggrandizing language that extols how much the company thinks of itself, of how many customer-service awards it’s won, of its commitment to excellence. Nobody gives a damn about your customer service ratings (those are rigged anyway, we all know). We’re only scanning for the bad news you’re about to hit us with; the broken glass in the sandwich.

Well, how do you give bad news to your customers?

Be honest. Be upfront. Since your customers are already going to be wary of the contents of this letter, just cut to the chase and say right out, “It pains us, but we’re going to have to raise your rates 1.5%” Then you can explain why. But the bad news is already over, and, usually, it probably isn’t as bad as you think. It’s like when the nurse gives you a shot. The good ones just do it quick and painlessly, before you can even tense up. The bad ones talk about how it’s not going to hurt, but may “sting a bit,” and then slowly push in the needle.

Relate to your own experience as you write these letters, too. When you hear someone yammering on about all the good things you should be grateful for in doing business with them, don’t you start thinking, “This is going to be bad.”? You brace for the pain. And that amplifies it when it eventually comes, way down in paragraph #4.

Likewise, make it short. Don’t fill up the page with cant about how great you think you are. We don’t care. In fact, it makes you look like an egotistical jerk. Bad news is worse when it’s verbose. Just opening a letter with bad news sets an “off” tone for the recipient. We can smell it. And if we see hundreds of words in 10 point type, you’ve added insult to injury by requiring us to sit down to do a lot of reading. Most of us won’t anyway. We see “YBIITU” and immediately start scanning below for the sting.

So if you have a rate increase to announce, or you’re closing a store, or you’re no longer supporting some popular software, don’t take more than 50 words at most to say that. Be deferential, of course, even apologetic. But be brief and honest.

And never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say that my business is important to you. That just makes me think the opposite.


Let’s make certain words go the way of the Passenger Pigeon

They once blackened the skies, but with diligence, we took care of that.

If I have to read one more Website, ad, brochure, PowerPoint slide, or e-mail that uses the following words…well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably nothing more drastic than to immediately mark it as “spam.” As an activist, I’m a wimp. But these words fill the skies like passenger pigeons once did. They need a mass extinction event.

Here are some words I’d like to see terminated…yes, with extreme prejudice:


“Methodology” is a malaprop, at least as it’s usually used. It’s one of those misapplied Latinate words (okay, Hellenate) intended to make the user sound more cerebral than he is; a word with unnecessary decoration on it. Broken down, “methodology” means “the study of methods” not the methods themselves. There’s usually no “logy” at all. But you read “methodology” so often when “method” would do just fine…and usually more accurately.


This isn’t a word. In fact, anything “…set”: “toolset,” “mindset”…I can’t think of any more at the moment.   What’s wrong with just “skills” or “tools” or “frame of mind”? People who say “skillset” want you to think they are more credentialed than they are. It’s a mask. When they describe their “skillset” they usually have just one skill, like the ability to sort socks.


Did you mean, “talking to people”? I must admit, I’ve heard myself use this asinine word way too often, and I’m trying to stop it. Usually I think, right afterward, “I can’t believe I just said ‘engagement.’ I sound like an asshole.”

“Engagement” in the military sense is a euphemism for a fight in which people are killed—not a good thing—less than a full-on battle but more than an exchange of withering insults. Or it refers to that cooling-off period after you’ve rashly asked someone to marry you.  But in marketing and branding; it usually means the wishful thinking that your customer actually gives a shit about you when you’re not in their face,”engaging” them.


Meaning “business” or “company”. When you use the word “enterprise, ” however, you’re sounding like you have an MBA from some name-on-request, online university. Can you think of an enterprise that isn’t a business? (Aside from the aircraft carrier and the starship, I mean.) It doesn’t mean that “enterprise” can’t sometimes be used to describe the whole magilla that is a modern, commercial operation, but stop to think about another word for a change; you know, to liven it up a bit.


People do love to use words that end in “logy,” don’t they? But unless you have a defensible patent on it, it’s just a way you do things around here; it isn’t technology. It’s only a method (and not a methodology).

What’s even worse is “technologies.” Plural. What makes that thing you do plural? Does “technologies” sound more hi-falutin’ than simply “technology?”

And my problem with it is that both “technology” or “technologies” sound way too precious, like when people pluralize “water.” (Don’t make me demonstrate.) Years ago I needed to get a new shirt in LA and I went into this snooty store in the Beverly Center (let’s face it, a shopping mall), where the sales clerk described what he was selling as “shirtings.”  The signage over that part of the store also said “shirtings.” Shirtings are $300+. I went to Nordstrom, where they had shirts. For $40.


Do you think it makes you unique to describe your company as customer-centric? Can you imagine any successful company (aside from a derivatives trader) that is not customer-centric? And when you use this mule-of-a-word to describe yourself, you sort of invite closer scrutiny of how UN-customer-centric you really are. Especially if you keep talking about yourself: “At Dingbat Digital, we’re customer centric. We do this. We believe that. We, we, we. But enough about us. What do you think of us?”


Next time somebody uses the word “granular” in a PowerPoint presentation, ask them what they mean by it. Is it composed of grains? Does it promote regularity? Does it make you want to rub your eyes?

Full confession here: I also misuse this word. I’ve hired somebody to kick me under the table when I do, though. And my frame of mind when I do use it is, “Oh, shit! I don’t know what I’m talking about! Say “granular” quick!”


Usually used as an adjective for “provider.” “We’re a solutions provider.” What your customer, or prospective customer hears is “We still haven’t figured out why we started this company. So we’ll do anything you pay us to do.”


This just means rotund, fat, bloated, and beyond the reach of the law. It also means you use criminally negligent sweatshops in the developing world to pay little girls twenty-two rupees a month, working under life-threatening conditions to glue, sew, weld, dye, solder, or assemble your solutions providing technologies.

The Net

That’s a phrase I’d also like to see stuffed and mounted in the Smithsonian (preferably in a dramatic diorama showing prehistoric people driving herds of it off a cliff). But it’s also my exhortation. Seriously. Stop writing like this. Hire a writer. Or if your hired writer is writing like this, get another writer. At least get them to come back with simpler, fresher, more direct words.

I promise, I’ll try, too.




May cause some rectal bleeding and blurred vision.

Wait a minute, let me get this straight, did you just say that your drug may cause testicular cancer and some brain liquification? Well, in that case, what’s that 1-800 again?

I was watching cable over the Memorial Day weekend, and amid all the Salutes to our Fallen Heroes (mostly involving John Wayne movies), came an overdose of drug ads. Each one seemed to be 90 seconds long. I clocked a couple to make sure that it wasn’t just the time-slows-down-when-you’re-bored-out-of-your-skull effect. The first 30 seconds of each was taken up with the drug’s benefit, though not too specifically, to be inferred not claimed. Over half of these spots seemed to be a solution to my low testosterone problem. (It’s uncanny how they knew. Is it because men with Low T watch a lot of John Wayne movies?)

But then, after the 30 seconds of pitch, came 60 seconds of the mandatory FDA disclaimers. Yikes. Or, in one of the appropriate uses of a bang, Yikes!

These disclaimers were truly hair-raising (and not in the Rogaine sense), especially since they were delivered in the same, soothing tone as the benefit parts of the commercial. And since there were typically so many mandatories, it usually took over a minute to get them all in. So after the announcer talked about how this drug with the mellifluous brand name (like Cyllexify ™or Allurexa™) can solve all your libido-depression-incontinence-fatigue problems, she then started to tell you in the same comforting voice how it can also cause impotence, suicidal urges, birth defects, infertility, bowel impaction, breast/uterine/ovarian/testicular cancer, loss of memory, and bleeding from all the orifices. At the end of this litany of horrifying side-effects, the announcer always responsibly concluded by encouraging you to ask your doctor about Allurexa™. The last impression you have is that the pretty name may turn you and your whole family into flesh-eating zombies (some anthropopahagy). But hey, that’s a small price to pay for…uh…what is it supposed to do for me again?

Drug companies need a hug.

Now, I recognize that these disclaimers are required by the FDA for drug companies to market their fine products. And that no marketer would, without being forced to do so in such a “nanny state” as the United States (or any other modern democracy), voluntarily include these in their copy. Unless they were stark-raving mad (funny I should mention that; there’s a drug that can help).  So we should have pity on the poor pharmas who are discriminated against in a way that no other responsible company is.

I’m sure the marketing executives of the drug companies feel the inherent injustice of the straight jacket they are forced to wear while they watch how the insidious purveyors of food, cars, airlines, cell phones, toys, and every other product are allowed to advertise without having to mention the lethal dangers associated with their wares. Why aren’t car companies, for instance, required to spend 60 seconds in every commercial telling you that 34,000 Americans die horribly mangled in car crashes every year? Or why isn’t McDonalds required by the FOOD and Drug Administration to inform you that their Chicken McNuggets® (the 20 piece menu item, not the Happy Meal® size portion) may cause congestive heart failure? Or that Papa John’s be required to tell you that their Double Bacon 6 Cheese Pizza™ can cause colon cancer? Hmm? Why not? Double Standard™, that’s why not.

I feel you, drug marketers. It isn’t fair.

The whole issue reminds me of  how overreaching government interference squashed the success of Happy Fun Ball. I really wish that product still existed. It was more fun. Damned FDA. (Or maybe it was the Atomic Energy Commission.)

Not to be a doubter…

I do wonder, though, about some of these drugs. Now bear with me, I don’t want to come across as an anti-capitalist and an enemy of freedom. But if, for instance, the purpose of erectile-dysfunction or testosterone enhancement drugs is to increase the desire to get nearer to your loved ones in that special way (wink-wink-nudge-nudge), why is there a warning not to get near those loved ones if they happen to be female? Or I’m confused about the utility of an anti-depression drug that may increase the risk of suicide. Isn’t suicide one of the symptoms of depression? And if I’m supposed to ask my doctor (since she’s the one who has to prescribe it), shouldn’t I just go to her with my problem and ask about possible solutions instead of suggesting solutions to her? That’s why she spent all those years in medical school, after all.  Of course, I’m living in a dream world.

I know it’s a really cool patent for whatever this molecule is, and the holders of it spent a lot of money on researching, developing, lobbying,  legally protecting, and marketing it. But maybe we should pop an Abilify® (aripiprazole), take a deep breath, and  look one more time at the social wisdom of selling this stuff if it takes twice as much time to read the warnings as the benefits. Either that, or maybe an increase in lobbying investment is warranted…you know, to compete with the lobbyists for McDonald’s and Toyota. Let’s level the playing field, as they say on K-Street.

I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist. So I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I should just stick to marketing.

Never mind. I never brought this up. Ask your doctor about Tabularasa™, “For a clean slate.™”



Mass extinction onestarbucks-latte





One of these two pictures is of something awesome.
Can you spot the difference?

There are some words that have been overused and abused and lately one of them is “awesome”. No, the word itself isn’t awesome…well, it is…but it isn’t, especially when it is used as a malaprop. I don’t need to clarify, right?

Oh, okay…if you insist:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “Awe” is

“Awe: 1. Immediate and active fear; terror, dread.”

So unless that pizza you  took a picture of with your phone (a phrase that is guaranteed to confuse a time traveler from the past) to put on your Facebook Page is about to smother the surface of the planet in a tsunami of molten cheese, causing a mass extinction event not seen in 65 million years, it probably isn’t awesome. Neither is the vente soy caramel no-whip latte your barista pronounced as an “awesome choice” (except in its tsunami of planet-smothering adjectives).

The OED’s definitions of “awesome” itself are:

1. Full of awe, profoundly reverential.
2. Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird.
3. a. In weakened sense: overwhelming, staggering; remarkable, prodigious. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
b. In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: ‘marvellous’, ‘great’; stunning, mind-boggling. slang.

Note the third and last definition, “In trivial use…”

What bothers me, a writer, about the overuse of words like “awesome” is just this trivialization. Words like “awesome,” “passionate,” “content,” and “engagement” are used so frequently and without thinking that they soon lose all meaning, all the life sucked out of them. They end up like packing peanuts, bulking up our language without adding anything of value.

My grandfather, a farmer, used to say that a weed is any plant that’s growing where it doesn’t belong. Some words are like weeds, choking weeds. And “awesome” is the Himalayan blackberry of adjectives. Of course, if the Himalayan blackberries engulfing my backyard continue at the current rate, they are liable to become awesome.

My friends and family recognize this as a running joke with me (and roll their eyes). My co-author and business partner Cathey Armillas now uses the word “awesome” just to tease me (as she does with gratuitous exclamation points, another peeve of mine). And I, in retaliation, put two spaces after a period, which drives her crazy. We know how to goad each other. Other friends and colleagues also use “awesome” too much, but now, when they post or e-mail me, they put a smiley face behind it and tag me.(See? It’s a self-marketing device.)

So at least I’m getting them to be more conscious of it. (A ploy to get people to change their thinking and behavior–also marketing.)

English is a dirty language.

Some people are defensive about “awesome” and challenge my complaint with the argument that language evolves and the current usage of the word means, “something pleasant.” You know, democracy overcoming meaning. I’m not challenging that. After all, the current meaning of the term “terrific” means “wonderful” where it once meant “filled with terror.”  And the term “fag” once meant bundle of sticks, then cigarette, then a demeaning name for a homosexual, and now just a jerk, regardless of his orientation.  Or how the word “literally” which used to mean “in the exact, actual sense; not figuratively” now  also  means “intensely” or “figuratively.” English is terrific that way (in both senses of that word). Yesterday’s “decimated” (reduced by 10%) has come to mean reduced by 100%. Definitions are now crowd-sourced (see the many entries for “awesome” on Urban Dictionary).  And democracy always wins.

In fact, English is itself an impure language. It is a living, dynamic means of communication and evolves all the time. It’s a mongrel tongue.  In a way, it’s a hyper-creole. As it exists today, the majority of English words are not English at all (in the original Anglo-Saxon sense) but French, Hindi, German, Japanese, West African, Spanish, Dutch, or just made up by Shakespeare (an alien). The OED estimates that there are over a quarter million words in the modern English vocabulary. English just gobbles up other innocent languages and digests them, growing and growing to engulf the world. It’s the Himalayan blackberry of languages.

But that’s good because it means we have, on the tips of our tongues, a vast resource of expression. If language is power, we have one of the most powerful languages that has ever existed. So we should use it wisely.

Tiny vocabulary. Tiny thoughts.

George Orwell’s theory of language was that a limited vocabulary leads to limited capacity for feeling, or thought, or ideas. At least that’s what he has one of his characters say in 1984. The character, a word-destroyer in the Ministry of Truth, explains that “…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word.” Like “awesome” for instance. Not being a psycho-linguist, I can’t answer to the validity of this theory, (well, I could, but I’m too lazy to look it up), but as a premise, it has persuasive appeal.

One problem with having just one default adjective for the whole range of positive feeling is that when it’s a word like “awesome” you’ve got no place else to go. If your pizza is awesome, what word are you going to use to describe a mass-extinction event? Or even just something a little nicer than that pizza? (I know, but it could happen.) You’re already bouncing against the ceiling of potential human reaction, like an escaped party balloon. You’ll just have to pop when the shock wave hits you. Speechlessly.

But this gets me to my real point. Finally. I’m not decrying the promiscuous use of the word “awesome” based on some Grandpa Simpson in-my-day crankiness. What I’m decrying is the laziness of people’s speech. And this is nothing new to this or any generation. With a quarter million words to choose from, why is it that so many people can only think of one adjective to describe something pleasant, or delightful, or tasty, or refreshing, or exciting, or invigorating, or comforting, or inspiring, or even terrifying? English is a pretty versatile toolbox of ways to express nuance, scale, complexity, abstraction, and feeling. And a lot of us are smarter than Frankenstein’s monster grunting “Food goooood! Fire baaaad! You awesome!”

So we should use all of our words. They’re free after all. And we should collect more and use them (correctly) in sentences.  ‘Kay?




Let’s not kill our customers, okay?

This is a little quirk of mine. I’ve mentioned it to any and all who roll their eyes and say, “Yes, we know. Now get over it.” But I’m not quite blue in the face, so here’s my plea:

Can we in marketing stop referring to our audience as “targets”? Please?

A target is something you shoot at. Or drop a bomb on. When I was in the Navy, one of my (many) collateral duties, besides choosing the movies to show in my squadron’s ready room, was Targeting Officer. It was my job (along with all the other Targeting Officers on our aircraft carrier) to select, analyze, and recommend targets for destruction to our command. Mostly they were contingencies, just in case the country in question pissed us off and we got the order from the White House to unleash hell (coded and authenticated by two-man control, of course). But the operative word here was “destruction”.  That means wrecking property and taking lives. That’s the job of the military. And it was the specific task of targeting.

So now, when I hear the term used in marketing to describe the people who you’d like to buy your products, I wince.

Make Sales Not War.

A few years ago, long after we’d gotten over the national trauma of Vietnam and before we got into less traumatic Afghanistan and Iraq, it was fashionable to use the Marketing-as-Warfare metaphor. Marketing professionals (who had themselves rarely been in an actual war) loved to use martial language to put hair on their otherwise low-T careers. They talked about “taking the high ground,” “planting the flag, ” or “stealing a march” on the competition. They didn’t just introduce new products, they “launched” them, like you’d launch a missile. Like the military they grew to love TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) to describe otherwise banal abstractions like CPM (Cost Per Thousand–the “M” means “mille”), USP (Unique Selling Proposition), CTA (Call to Action), QSR (Quick Service Restaurants–you know, Fast Food), SEM (Search Engine Marketing).  It’s all been very Pentagony. The very term “campaign” came from bellicose origins. And potential customers, of course, were now “targets”.

The military origins have pretty much disappeared through overuse and these terms are now accepted as industry jargon. But, as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, the subversion of language can have a subversive affect on our view of the world. I’ve come to think that the hyper-aggressive language now used in marketing has colored our view of our customers. When we “target” them, I think we unconsciously regard them as marks, as prey, as the enemy. Language has that insidious power. We are horrified whenever someone uses a racial epithet because we are conscious that it diminishes and dehumanizes the person. But I would submit that using the term “target” to describe your customer, also diminishes and dehumanizes that person. Only we’re just not conscious of it.

When Mark Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn, few European-Americans were conscious of the offensive nature of the “N” word on our African-American fellow citizens.  It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement raised all of our consciousness about the offensive power of that word, and the malicious intent of it, that it came to be proscribed. Now it is disconcerting to read that classic and see that now-offensive word so liberally (ironically) used in a conversational way.

I want to proscribe the term “target” in reference to our customers. You know, for Dr. King.

“Well, what else are you going to call them?”

I was actually challenged by a colleague last week, as if he couldn’t think of an alternative.

How about just “customers”? Or, we could fall back on the old phrase they used when I started in the business, “intended audience”.  Not as macho, granted, and a tad literal. But it’s descriptive. An audience is composed of people you want to entertain, to interest, to cajole, to entice…in short, to persuade.  Marketing isn’t just about selling stuff; it’s about persuasion. And it’s certainly not about destruction.

So, let’s just think before we speak, shall we? Maybe (and this is the ’60s in me coming out) if we stopped calling them a “target market” we’d subconsciously love them more. And maybe get better at persuading them.

Now excuse me while I go back to playing Call of Duty.