Phrases Out of Phase: The Essential Irony of Clichés

[May 18, 2012]

To illustrate this post, I’ve included a partial list of well-worn phrases.

Many of the phrases on the list aren’t in common use anymore. That some are heard at all is surprising, considering the major shifts in our culture over the last 50 years. You might expect someone who says “That got my goat, so I took the bull by the horns and did something about it,” to be living in an agrarian society in which everyday contact with farm animals was common.

And yet, you continue to hear these and similar phrases even now when, according to the USDA:

Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living today,
and only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas

In fact, as far as having any visceral, tactile, or emotional connection with farm animals, the closest many Americans come is the Aflac duck. As a result, the impact of such imagery is muted at best. In a similar way, most clichés are also embedded with cultural assumptions no longer relevant.

What exactly is the “cart” in the expression “putting the cart before the horse”? Is it a shopping cart on an e-merchandizing site? And are we talking about a race horse, a sea horse, a saw horse, a War Horse or “a horse of a different color”? Ironically, though clichés are intended to speed comprehension, they inevitably call up associations that distract your audience from your main message.

The persistence of memory.
Yet phrases out of phase with current culture continue to appear in advertising, marketing and PR—and I find that incomprehensible. If your goal is to motivate consumers by making an emotional connection, the imagery you call up must have direct, immediate impact.

At the same time, straining to keep your communications “up to date” merely substitutes one repertoire of mechanically applied phrases with another. Consider the transformation of

“…whether you’re busy at work, or relaxing at home with family and friends…”


“…whether you’re working for the Man, or chilling in the hood with your peeps…”

The effect is more alienating than modernizing. Besides, this diction update does nothing to update the communication’s underlying structure. In 2012, if your main way of connecting with consumers is the knowing nudge of slice-of-life anecdotes, it’s time to re-evaluate your strategy. 

Our mobile, click-a-second digital culture demands value for attention. Use any copy tone, stock art style, Web font, or pixel-width you want. Distribute your message through Vimeo, You Tube, Tumblr or Instagram. It’s all for nothing unless your content adds tangible value to a consumer’s everyday life.

In light of that, you can’t afford to send out communications littered with verbal clichés. To deliver value you first have to capture attention. See the words you choose as the enticing wrapping paper that makes your offering seem worthy of attention. The more run of the mill (oops) your language, the less likely your audience will associate your brand with relevant value.

Vying for attention in a sea of “happy face.”
Of course, the same can be said for your visual choices. Today, photogenic models are used over and over again to hawk everything from burritos to Barettas. You’ll see them high-fiving at the beach, piling out of SUVs or jumping for joy at the thought of a true 4G network. These visual clichés and the false sense of personal satisfaction they try to engender are the opposite of value and—let me be the first to inform you—they fool no one.

Look at it this way: Even if there are phrases on my list that still sound current in your regional sphere of influence, the mere fact that they are irredeemably familiar automatically lessens their impact. In a cultural climate where everyone, we’re told, has “ADHD,” these familiar phrases have become white noise. The more you use them, the less likely you are to grab and hold audience attention.

Going fresh.
Now, I’m not saying it’s easy to invent fresh visual and verbal idioms, It takes skill, experience, persistence and talent. With today’s absurdly compressed project time lines, it’s no wonder our output is so predictable. If your idea of marketing success is getting communications “out the door,” this may be exactly what you deserve—especially if it’s all you’ll pay for.

But if you want to achieve lasting results, and discover what real, no-statistics-juggled success looks like, you’ve got to “go fresh” and craft a vocabulary of idioms all your own. Whatever value these phrases and associated imagery have as cultural artifacts—in consumer communications, they’re simply “old hat.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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