Choosing the right words

When many turns of phrase have become trite as a result of the constant bombardment of advertising we’re hit with on a daily basis, how do brands make words work for them?

The great Russian writer Chekhov once said about the art of writing fiction, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”. This lesson could be applied equally to all forms of writing, whether fiction, journalistic, or marketing copy: it’s all very well telling the reader/listener something, but when you describe it well, they begin to understand its benefits for themselves.

Brands have always understood the importance of a good slogan, or some well-chosen words upon an advertisement. As an example, back in the 1930s Heinz, maker of tinned beans, ketchups and soups, knew how to catch your eye with a bright yellow poster, upon which are the following words:

Heinz Perfect Soups — Every Grocer Sells Them For Quality

Here the words ‘perfect’ and ‘quality’ stand out; there are some words that are considered to have strong associations with the kind of characteristics that make consumers want to buy. These words have nothing in common with the product, and could just as easily be applied to printer paper or an airline.

A list of the most persuasive words in advertising were listed by David Ogilvy in his classic 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man. They included: sensational, miracle, quick, revolutionary, amazing, magic and startling. But haven’t the prevalent use of these words started to become a little predictable since the early days of advertising? As much as Chekhov instructs us to utilise language to its fullest to engage an audience, there comes a point where our ability to appreciate the original meaning of these words fades as we get more and more used to such selling techniques. Eventually brands run the risk of alienating the consumer completely, to the point of passive non-interest.

Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, the — Television, The Drug Of The Nation [full official video] by Sonny Beech on YouTube

Back in 1992 The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy pointed out that language was itself being hijacked to sell while becoming disconnected from its original meaning (see above video). Oxymoronic phrases such as ‘virtually spotless’, ‘fresh-frozen’ and ‘light yet filling’ can all immediately be identified as advertising-speak. These aren’t phrases people use in real life because they are essentially meaningless.

So how can brands make sure that they’re engaging with consumers using real language rather than a manufactured language that is an instant turn-off for those generations who have grown up with the hard sell?

Straightforwardness can be an overlooked quality in advertising, and yet in the age of global communication it has much to offer. Niklas Nikolaidas, writing for Joinville, makes the point that many brands want an easily understandable message that can be understood by the bilingual or multilingual, and is also translatable. A good example of this is financial services group Prudential, which has often concentrated on being seen as a plain-speaking brand, even enlisting chat-show host Michael Parkinson (known for his own straight-talking). Its adverts often make use of what would traditionally be seen as a persuasive word, but by just choosing one — in the case of the advert below the word is love — and keeping the spoken content clear and accessible around a central concept, the word becomes stronger, not weaker, and has a more memorable effect.

Prudential — Do What You Love — TV Commercial by Commercial Archive on YouTube

Compare it to Colgate’s 2014 advertisement for its Max White One toothpaste.

New Colgate® Max White One Optic Toothpaste Advert 2014 by ColgateUK on YouTube

The voice-over starts with the word: Superb! And we also get both Instantly! and Beautiful! The phrase ‘Optic brighteners’ is used to describe the benefit of the product, which has all the hallmarks of a manufactured advertising slogan that’s light on actual meaning. Team that with some fairly standard images to the beauty industry, a small disclaimer at the bottom of the screen, and you have an advertisement that makes little impression on a crowd who are used to such overkill.

Treating words with respect is difficult in a time when we are surrounded by everyday clichés and endless chatter, both online and in the real world, but by using a little less of recognisable advert-speak the product can then start to speak for itself. Sometimes no words at all are necessary. To return to the world of tinned beans, here’s an advertisement that was constructed by animation and visual effects studio Cinesite in order to showcase what they can do.

Beans by Cinesite on YouTube

The product is not real, but that doesn’t matter — we’re instantly engaged in this scenario, and we’re all so used to the world of advertising that our interest level is engaged by trying to work out what we’re being sold. The lack of selling words and advert-speak means that the consumers’ curiosity, so often left behind, does all the hard work. The only three words used — ‘Not For Astronauts’ — are clear, straightforward, and a world away from promises of quick amazing miracles. Here the makers play with the viewer and involve them in a joke we all get.

Chekhov’s premise that we should show and not tell can be used to great effect in a world that has become used to being told too much; products may be incredible, but the public’s appetite for hearing about it in terms of superlatives and well-worn phrases has been steadily diminishing. Brands that are respecting the power of the words they choose to represent their products may well find that they are saying the things that people still want to hear.

This piece was written by Aliya Whiteley and originally published on

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