Shadow Reading: Text & Subtext in Effective Communication (2)

[September 4, 2011]

Look at a wide enough swatch of Web site copy and you’re sure to encounter one of everything. That is, if you’re toting a machete sharp enough to chop through the thousands of acres of wild, uncultivated words that carpet digital space. 

Most of the time, you’ll also run into a fair amount of “astro-copy,” the pre-fab drivel that threatens to “Welcome,” “Please” and “Thank” you all the way to your grave. It’s copy touting the benefits, offers, ease, convenience, confidence and peace of mind that every product from mini-biscuit waffles to “non-abrasive blast finishing” purports to provide. 

What gives this copy its disposable, weed-like quality? Its utter disregard for the power of subtext to make a message memorable, moving and motivating. 

At Maytag.com, as of 9-4-11, the danger of leaving subtext to chance is on display in the following follow-up lines to subheads in the main message flow: 

“Count on the PowerWashTM Cycle to give you the best cleaning in the industry” 
“Count on dual temperature cooking to get every bit of your biggest meals done at once.” 
“Count on the extra-large pantry drawer to keep all their favorites in reach.” 
“Count on Silverware-BlastTMjet sprays to make sure your silverware starts each meail clean.”

Dolled-up like headlines, the cumulative effect of this copy is a classic list of “bene-bullets.” The parallelism achieved with the repetition of “Count on” adds not a whit of aerodynamic drag to the copy’s headlong descent into substandard communication. 

“Our products work good.” 

…is all these statements aver, the one message every consumer expects to hear. So much so that, years ago, in an era when brand advertising garnered the respect it still deserves, the self-deprecating ads of Volkswagen sparked a revolution. I can’t say it often enough: In 2011, Americans “get” advertising. It’s no good hoping your ad placements will be interpreted as selfless purveyors of “solutions.” Consumers know: if you’re doing it at all, you’re doing it to sell. 

If it’s not affective, it’s not effective. 
Meanwhile, Maytag’s one-dimensional approach merely attests to the product’s functional capacity. It conveys no emotion. With proper care of the subtext, a messaging strategy can guide consumers to arrive at a feeling about the brand. Don’t look for that here. In this case, the problem runs even deeper, all the way to Maytag’s self-identification with the concept of “dependability.” 

While this may have been a workable strategy when the Dependability campaign launched 50+ years ago, the connotations surrounding “dependable” have shifted since then. Living more than four decades after the founding of the consumer movement, we’re no longer grateful if a product works. We expect it to work. Besides, in many circles,” dependable” and its cousins “faithful,” and “reliable” have become synonymous with “boring,” “servile” and “unimaginative.” 

In the Maytag example, the problem is compounded by the pointless micro-branding of “PowerWash Cycle” and “Silverware-Blast jet sprays.” Leaving aside the amateurish quality of this effort, (right down to the inconsistent capitalization of “Cycle” and “jet sprays”) I doubt these phrases mean anything to consumers. 

Even assuming “Silverware-Blast” refers to a major design innovation, such innovations are outside most consumers’ direct experience. As such, these micro-brand names register only as noise—one more thing site visitors will bleep over as they struggle to parse out Maytag’s meaning. Here, a poor surface realization of an intended subtext 

“Check out the cool features on our advanced-design products.” 

…actually impedes communication. 

Of course, it takes no leap of imagination to recognize that visual assets are also shadowed by subtext. You see it in action every time a department store uses attractive models to sell casual wear. At Whirlpool.com, looping videos of clean clothes, fresh foods and delicious meals hover behind still frames of a washer, refrigerator and oven, respectively. While these aren’t the subtlest examples, Whirlpool’s awareness of visual subtext reminds us of simple pleasures and brings the subject matter to life. 

It’s in this sense that a well-crafted subtext has the greatest impact on the success of any campaign. For there, in the deep recesses of the imagination, are the things that make us human. It is, after all, not the stuff we buy that we remember, but how we use it to live our lives. The more nearly your message maps onto that memory, the harder you can sell—even if you never once raise your voice to scream, “Act Now!” 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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