By Robert W. Bly
Years ago, I interviewed Burt Manning to gather information for a book I was writing on careers in advertising and other industries. In the course of our conversation, Mr. Manning, who at the time was vice chairman of the J. Walter Thompson Company, complained of the lack of basic writing skills in the young people who sought employment with his agency.
“We get people who have college degrees,” said Manning, “and they can’t write an English sentence.”
Functional illiteracy is nothing new, but among advertising people? I was skeptical until I turned on the television that evening and heard a commercial describing a new television series as “the most unique show of the season.” This seems a strange claim to make, since unique means, “one of a kind” and it is therefore impossible for anything to be the most unique. Or very unique, or quite unique, or somewhat unique, or even, as one advertising executive used the phrase modestly, a little unique.
But the television network is not the only advertiser guilty of turning advertising copy into what E.B. White, coauthor of The Elements of Style, called “the language of mutilation.” A Detroit automobile manufacturer once based an ad campaign around the theme “new innovations” -- which may lead one to believe that there can be such a thing as an old innovation.
One of my clients, normally an articulate and intelligent marketer, changed some ad copy I had written for one of their products, a wire splint that helps keep loose teeth in place. The advertiser decided that what the product really did was “to stabilize mobile dentition.”
Dentition is what you brush with Crest. And if someone should punch you in the dentition, my client believes that the dentition may become mobile, but certainly not loose. (If they fall out, the dentition fairy may deposit some “monetary compensation” under your pillow.)
“I’m chagrined at the decline in the writing skills of college graduates,” Hugh Farrell, then president of Hammond Farrell, Inc., a New York business-to-business advertising agency, told me in another interview for my book. “Roughly half of the cover letters accompanying resumes that cross my desk contain errors, and I don’t think that was true 15 years ago. And good writing is important, even with account people. If a person can’t write a lucid, clear, correct report, he or she shouldn’t be in this business.”
Jargon, double-talk, and weak, watered-down prose proliferate in advertising, but are nowhere more prevalent than in business-to-business marketing. A brochure for a storage silo informs us that material is “gravimetrically conveyed” -- not dumped. Sony’s advertisement for cassette recorders explains that my tape recorder captured Burt Manning’s voice so perfectly because “a counter-inertial flywheel keeps the tape speed constant.”
True perhaps, but did I really need to know this? And, of course, every system, product, and service now sold to business is said to be “cost-effective” or provide a lower “total cost of ownership.” How refreshing it would be to read of a product that was inexpensive, low in price, or just plain cheap!
I’ve always maintained that good copywriting is clear and conversational … but there are many marketers who apparently disagree. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a brochure promoting a conference on Buying and Selling eContent:
“Instead of building universal, definitive taxonomies, information architects are finding there is a tremendous benefit to creating un-taxonomized miscellaneous pools of enriched data objects so that users can sort and organize to suit their own peculiar needs … [resulting in] information systems that are far more contextualized.”
I call this example “What did he say?” It’s pretentious, laden with jargon, and it’s not how people talk. My fellow copywriter Steve Slaunwhite comments: “This is a case of trying to impress, rather than express. The problem is, it does neither.”
Certainly, such obfuscation has not always been embraced by English-speaking people. Winston Churchill, faced with Hitler's armed forces, said to Americans, “Give us the tools and we will do the job.” He did not say: “Aid our organization in the procurement of the necessary equipments and we will in turn implement the program to accomplish its planned objectives.”
Happily, academia has now recognized the problem and is working toward a solution. Forbes reports that undergraduate engineering students at MIT will be required to take a course in English composition. The New York Times notes that the number of writing courses at colleges throughout the nation is now on the rise – and that American corporations are now spending more than $3 billion a year teaching employees how to write clearly.
As a result of improved education, the next generation of college graduates should be able to write sales letters and reports that buyers and managers can understand. Meanwhile, those of us who may never see the inside of a classroom again would do well to heed this bit of advice from E.B. White: “When you have said something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair."
About the author:
Robert W. Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of 60 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha). His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his Web site address is www.bly.com.