Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.
I have been thinking about language a lot lately. I have a saying which is let’s not get lost in the forest of maybe. It is the place where a lot of advertising ends up before it is made. The simple reason it often happens is the imprecision of language. Let me give you an example. Take the word real. In your mind, think what the word means to you. Whatever you thought, it can mean many other things. Real can mean authentic. It can mean gritty. It can mean a documentary. It can mean unvarnished. From the streets. Full of unrestrained emotion. It can mean showing things as they are. My point is whatever you think it means it can mean other things. This is the path to the forest of maybe. But there are other ways to get there.
Take the word Metaverse. What does it actually mean? 6 months ago, it didn’t exist. Then it did. If you listen to any conversations in the marketing world at the moment you will hear terms like blockchain and NFT’s sprinkled into sentences like confetti from the future. The power of the new. It is something our industry does to create energy and possibilities. It is not that any of these terms are wrong but just that they can mean many things and that normally involves very different levels of investment. Never let anybody tell you money is not important when it comes to creativity. Ideas might cost nothing. Making them real does not.
In the past, we have had other words and phrases. Pokemon Go, data is the new oil, Google Glasses, Vine, VR and AR just to mention a few. They were the things creating excitement and energy. They were also used to seem contemporary and of the moment. And then this weekend a company made a television commercial that consisted of a QR code for the Super Bowl and our industry got very excited. To be clear, this is a technology that nobody gave any love to for a decade. I guess there is a big difference between words and ideas.
The great photographer Sir Norman Parkinson once said the purpose of fashion is to change. I often think that same need lies inside advertising. And that can often be wrapping paper without a gift. Language can impress but in the end you better have an idea. While thinking about this I bumped into the picture above. It sums up everything in a single image.
The old saying is that words have power. But, perhaps there is a flip side. Words lose their power. They lose meaning and feeling. This occurs when words are used over and over. Or, it happens when what those words mean do not suit your purpose and you begin to stretch the truth using language. When this happens we start saying things like brands are religions. Sounds good, but what does it mean? We have just entered the forest.
Why does this matter and why does it happen? The simple answer is the familiar becomes less and less noticed. The familiar becomes boring. Language loses its charge and there is an understandable desire to make those words powerful again. It is the battle between accuracy and intensity.
It is a schism that exists in our business. On the one hand we want clarity. We want it all to make sense. On the other hand, we want to sell things, concepts and ideas. We want human beings to do stuff. The solution is to create emotion. Emotion drives behaviour far more than clarity on its own. So, we get weird phrases like turning customers into fanatics. And you don’t have to look far to see how weird it can get. If you look at companies like WeWork or Theranos at their core there is was a religious fervour. When you tell people what they are doing is special and deeply important they will go to ridiculous lengths to make that true. I mean WeWork sells space in buildings but to the people that worked there it came across like it was a cure for cancer.
If you read Amanda Montell’s excellent book Cultish you realise this way of speaking has become far more prevalent than we think. She looks at modern exercise programmes like Peloton and F45, Jim Jones and Donald Trump and everything in between to try and define what a cult is. It turns out it’s way more difficult than we think. The main ingredient seems to be language and how it is used. If you know secret words or phrases you feel part of something. You feel special. Another is measurement gives meaning to people. When you can see progress you can see movement in your life. Many tech brands understand this very well. Another secret ingredient is conviction. And it might very well be the most underrated ingredient of all. It also just happens to rely on language for success. Conviction gives people a solid path. It creates direction. This is incredibly powerful. And this normally starts with people believing that something is better than something else. I said believe rather than know.
Which brings us back to language. Which brings us back to selling.
Watch a documentary like the Tinder Swindler on Netflix and you can see just how dangerous absolute conviction and use of language in the wrong hands can be.
The question is in a world that loves the rational and the measurable how much is selling still about conviction and persuasion?
If the examples above prove anything, it is that people desperately want language to create a path of simplicity and understanding. But, language can do a lot more. It can also create conviction. A certainty of feeling. In a word, belief. This seems to be how you get people do just about anything. And I do mean anything.
Let’s choose our words carefully.