Verbophobia & the Dearth of Meaning

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Taking into account the huge volume of written communication generated by marketers and spewed out at consumers every year, you might imagine the average brand assumes the average American actually knows the meaning of common, everyday words.

But spend just one week in the advertising industry and you’ll discover how incorrect that assumption is.

Granted, one of the greatest strengths of human language is its flexibility of interpretation. I’d venture to say that’s the secret behind the survival of literature many people still appreciate today, even though it’s hundreds of years old. While we’ll never know precisely what those works meant to their first audiences, they’re rich enough, taken as a whole, that we continue to find meanings of our own, new interpretations in every generation.

Trouble is, that same glorious richness, that same triumph of human evolution, drives the average marketing manager bat-guano crazy. At each turn of phrase, Marketing Anxiety rears up and devours another quavering soul who wants one thing and one thing only:

A perfectly unambiguous statement deflecting any but the most narrow possible interpretation.


It’s a quixotic quest that makes unicorn-hunting sound like a trip to the grocery store. Mythical beasts? Aisle 12, right next to Perfect Birthday Gifts.

But it’s a quest that nevertheless dominates the creation of all marketing communications, regardless of medium. Hence the endless rewrites, the frantic, last-minute hairpin revisions, and the constant struggle to define “clarity,” which, I’m sorry to report, is the hardest word in the English language to nail down.

Why? Because, like it or not, its meaning is culturally determined. Some people believe clarity lies in short sentences. Some people believe it lies in simple words.

OK, hold it. Try to define “simple” and we’ll be here all night.

Yet even if we walk away from an abstract discussion of the topic, the issues to be resolved are no easier to tackle. Take for example, a comment I heard years ago when I wished to refer to songs in a music catalog as “memorable.”

“Can’t say that,” said the tough-minded marketer I was dealing with. “Someone who doesn’t know those songs can’t remember them, so they won’t be memorable.”

And more recently, the phrase, “This research concerns itself with the study of…” also raised an eyebrow. In the mind of my colleague, “concern,” is inherently negative. Forget the context, forget the fact that words, even simple words often have more than one meaning. My colleague was worried that any use of the word “concern” anywhere in the document would be tantamount to saying there was “reason for concern” about the product in question.

“Presto, change-o.”

Now, on one level, if you were to ask me,

“What’s the difference? Isn’t there always another way to say something?”

…I could partially agree with you. Yes, there is always a way to edit, rephrase, restructure, etc. And you’d have to have lived your life in an isolation booth not to realize that, even among people from different regions of the same country, cultural differences have to be taken into account. Regardless of the absolute meaning of your words, your collaborators may be, for various reasons, incapable of interpreting your text the same way you do.
So yes, compromise in these matters is essential.

My concern—look out now—is the limiting impact of mindless fear on the tools available for reaching your audience. Even if you don’t share the dim view that the average American is too illiterate, too impatient, too much of a diva to actually read a text carefully, the chances are you still don’t need to stumble over even the most idiomatic phrases simply because they’re idiomatic.

And I hope I can assume that if you’ve chosen a text-based communication medium, it’s because you believe your audience is literate. Otherwise, why bother?

So if I were to write about a technology product:

Now that you’ve learned the ropes, you’re ready to discover the TabPadFire’s advanced features.

…you wouldn’t wake up screaming, in a cold sweat, out of fear that someone, somewhere, might think your spiffy new smartphone is really a sailboat.

Would you?

Or would you bury your fears in a clumsy attempt at creative evaluation and call that sentence “confusing.”

Rhetoric aside, what matters here are not the acrobatics writers go through to function as Valium for an entire roster of agency clients—a grossly under-compensated aspect of the job description—but the damaging effects of chronic word-phobia on the final result.

Because time and again, as the clock ticks and the dickering mounts, words are saved and the message is lost. Fuss and fuss and fuss some more, but remember this: The longer it takes to finalize the copy, the farther it will be from actually saying anything.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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