What Words Did You Write or Say?

Marketing words are now too simple

With the rise of social media, the world has become a more complex place. It’s now easy to take offence from the written word; and for what was intended to become completely misconstrued as it’s taken out of context. Why? Because often we don’t read and understand the exact words used and the context, in which they were written. But it’s not just social media’s fault; it’s also marketing’s.

Too Few Words

Words often get us into trouble. Particularly for people like me, who write and talk precisely. But, also for everyone who for some reason use a word, which triggers a strong emotional response in their hearer. Such as the overtalkative child, who in adulthood never wants to hear the words ‘shut up’ because it takes them right back to the ‘naughty step’ and feelings of guilt and anger.

The average English native speaker knows 20,000 words; graduates typically know 40,000 which skews this average upwards. But we typically only use 5,000 in everyday writing of emails, social media, blogs etc – our active knowledge. The average reading age for the UK is accepted as being 9 years old. This audience can read and understand about 10,000 words (passive knowledge) but half of these they would recognise but never write.

Marketing has consistently driven the communications message towards simplicity targeted at that average reading age of 9. The messages today are all about certainty and superlatives in simple terms. This product kills all germs dead. Or at least 99.9% of them just to keep the scientists happy and in case it doesn’t kill a particular germ. And how many times do we see the absolute best model you could want; until next year’s is launched. Marketing wants the emotional response because you are more likely to decide either to buy or not. If not then you can be discounted from the sales funnel. The drive is to keep messages short and strong.

Knock-on Effects

The world of simple messages is dangerous. The real world is nuanced with checks and balances that have enabled real meaning. It does not really presume choice between simple options. Last week brought this sharply into focus.

A story has built around AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine and blood clots. The thing that is meant to save us is actually going to kill us and is unsafe. This is the simple message based on fear and lack of understanding. The real message, which was finally allowed to emerge, is that all medicines have side effects in some people. Given the number of cases of blood clots and doses administered, the chances are very small. When weighed against the risks of death for older people, more will be saved by having the vaccine today. Simplicity has blown the risk out of proportion. This is in part because the common presumption from marketing is products are simple and faultless.

The second instance relates to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. This turned the coverage on AstraZeneca into blanket coverage of his life for the mainstream channels. Suddenly there was no choice causing many complaints. But isn’t this a reflection of the way news is now covered, with an over-focus on an issue so we all become experts with an opinion; until something else becomes the issue of the day tomorrow.

Broadcasters like marketers, need to understand what their audience wants and needs and make the judgment between the short and simple; the more detailed or the whole full unedited version. In marketing communications, it’s time we treated more people as adults and moved back to the middle ground of truly informed choice with more detailed messages.