What is “Consumer Friendly Language?”

[October 9. 2010]

Of the many ambiguous topics that haunt an ambiguous business, the idea of what’s “consumer friendly language” ranks high on the list. Its ambiguity has its roots in other areas of continual confusion and controversy: What are the limits of language, and what is the definition of “consumer?”

Despite the fact that the answer to either question is subjective, brands and the agencies who represent them continue to act as if these issues can be resolved with mathematical precision.

Yet despite that conviction, long volleys of back and forth about “what people understand” are not uncommon in agency conference rooms. As with every other business issue, the answer “The Team” comes up with will inevitably have more to do with local politics than a reasoned search for global truths. 

That’s understandable. Though we would like to believe—and our clients demand—that advertising is a quantifiable endeavor, it remains what it always has been: a craft.

Attempting to elevate a craft’s rules of thumb to the status of scientific theory is, I’m afraid, one of the saddest delusions of the American marketing industry. 

False assumptions.
Just look at the phrase itself: “Consumer Friendly Language.” The underlying assumption, that there is, in the abstract, a universal Language of Consumers that “everyone” can grasp is a rank absurdity. Until such time as we have developed some sort of precision-crafted “psycho camera,” we’re never going to know what “everyone” understands.

Any definition of “Consumer Friendly Language” is therefore subjective. And the first step to addressing the issues implied by the term is to admit that, however we define it, we can only do so with a rule of thumb. 

Now, just for the record, by “rule of thumb,” I don’t mean we should use our thumb-knuckles to measure the length of the copy. Should I have used this idiomatic expression, which may or may not be familiar to an English speaker in Mumbai, Edenborough, Waco, Osaka or Oslo? Maybe I should run a focus group on the topic…

Or maybe I should just be me: a real person writing to other real people with the intelligence and experience to dial up a blog post, and who, should they really be confused by an idiomatic expression, have the aptitude to consult Google. 

Few generalities.
OK, perhaps there are a few general parameters we can use as a reliable measure of what’s “friendly” and what’s not. Certainly, jargon words from most technical fields are, by definition, off limits. That’s why I’ve studiously avoided the word “semiotic” in this discussion. Oh, my bad…On the other hand, sometimes jargon crosses over. 

Anyone, for example, who’s watched a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie in the last 25 years knows what “closure” is, a term taken from some branches of psychology. Try telling that to your VP of Marketing, however, and you might as well settle in. It’s going to be a long rant. 

But aside from a few generalities, the rest of our decisions have more to do with our assessment of our ownabilities than it does with our assessment of our audience’s abilities. “I understand this,” says the proud graduate of Albuquerque College of Business Sciences, “but then, I have a Master’s Degree in Communication. The consumer…”

Understanding: so misunderstood.
In the end, the problem really stems from a misunderstanding of how language actually communicates. Having evolved over 10,000 years, it’s a little too late to teach Human language to communicate like Chicken McNuggets, storing its meaning, all nice and tidy, in cute little red boxes. To clarify your message, the answer, in other words, is not to chop every sentence into bite size chunks, but to say less in each communication.

Ultimately, comprehension, Master’s Degree or no, comes down to how many different trains of thought you’re asking a reader to entertain at one time. This is something that can’t be fixed at the level of individual words or sentences. There’s no amount of “rewriting” that can make an overly dense message less so.

What, then, is “Consumer Friendly Language?” 
The answer’s irrelevant. What we should be asking—before anyone starts making tracked changes—is “What is a Motivating Message and How Can I Keep Secondary Topics From Interfering with It?” While this may disappoint the keepers of the flame of Added Value, it’s time we realize we’re drowning ourselves and our audiences in too much information. That’s what’s unfriendly and that’s where our editing process should begin.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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