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Stupid marketing copy mistakes

Christopher Richards
Stupid marketing copy mistakes Christopher Richards

Are you rational? Most of us like to think of ourselves as rational beings making logical choices. However, there's a raft of evidence telling us we are far more motivated by emotions. And who knows this better than the advertising community? If emotions rule, does it matter if advertising copy makes little sense? Does it matter if it's original? Does it matter if it confuses us?

There's much talk about delivering ads, but less about writing content. Here are some common mistakes.

Sloppy copy
Occasionally, attention to writing meaningful copy gets ignored -- and this can lead to confusion if not outright hilarity.

This is from a print ad that recently appeared in the Economist: "SDA Bocconi is Italy's number one business school, the sixth in Europe and the twenty-first in the world for the executive education, by the Financial Times."

The ad makes it sound as if the Bocconi School of Management in Milan is located in a building next to the Financial Times. The last time I looked, the Financial Times was in London.

Does it instill confidence? How much would it have cost to rewrite this clearly?

Here is an example from the American Translators' Association (ATA) of how it can all go wrong.

"…Lina's a pricy French sandwich chain, advertised for franchisees abroad…The slogan: 'Tomorrow we will expect on your dynamism.' Response: zero."

Translation matters now that companies are extending their global reach. When this slogan was translated, it became meaningless. So keep in mind that if you're translating from another language into English, the translation should be done by a native English speaker.

Of course we shouldn't laugh at people genuinely trying to communicate in English when it isn't their first language. But you'd think a business would have the budget to get this sort of thing right.

Grand confusion
The rather grand sounding "Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme" from the Saïd Business School claims that, "Leadership cannot be taught, but leaders can be educated."

Why can't you teach a leader anything? Is it a case of you can't teach an old dog new tricks? And, what does education without teaching look like?

Confusion can be intentionally used to influence. When people are perplexed they search for meaning and grab onto anything that they can understand.

I put this question about an education without teaching to a number of people who are smart. Eventually, someone suggested the philosopher Hannah Arendt had written on the subject. This may be true. But will prospective graduates get it -- smart though some of them are?

Seeking to ignite the imagination
Whether advertising sets out to be straightforward, or create a hyperventilated fantasy, it's supposed to create desire and point to a better imagined future. All too often, efforts strain toward the superlative and become farcical or mind-numbingly repetitive. 

Here's some frenzied copy from the Infiniti website: "The thrill of effortless exhilaration." It sounds positively orgasmic. Of course sex and cars have always been the stuff of fantasy. Infiniti plays it to the limit. There are lots of references to effortlessness on the luxury car's site (except the effort you need to put in to buy the car), seduction and performance.

"An epic sculpture of sensation, an Infiniti G Sedan reshapes performance beyond the mere thrill of horsepower."

What's wrong with horsepower? Elsewhere the company seems to think horsepower is fine. Look at that word "mere." It has an air of insufferable snootiness about it. You can denigrate anything with mere. How about: beyond a mere sculpture of sensation?

Next page >>

Beyond cliché
Honda helpfully tells readers, "You are more than a driver." Should the company have said mere driver? Somehow or other I already knew I was more than a driver. The copy goes on to say, "People rather than drivers were studied." That passive voice sounds as lively as the tax code. So the company studied people who don't drive. Is that it?

The ad reads, "So, we went beyond the road." What is beyond the road? I haven't a clue.

Infiniti embraces the beyond cliché, too. The car company says "beyond performance, beyond refinement." It all sounds to me beyond belief.

And another ad brags about a car that takes you "beyond your destination." Why would anyone want that? Surely it's something of a problem. What do you have to do? Catch the bus back?

I found a limousine company touting its wedding service that also takes you "beyond your destination." I know the bride is supposed to be late. Is she going to show up on a bicycle because she has to find her own way back to the wedding?

At Adventureholidaytravel.com the site commands you to "go beyond your destination!" Why should I? I want to know how I get to my destination. The company does promise that "Armed with the right information, nearly anyone can enjoy an adventure trip." Armed is probably the right word. It could be scary being lost in some far-flung wilderness. Fortunately, the site also promises to "take the fear out of thrill travel." Isn't fear where the thrill comes from?

Using "the question"
There are ads written without much thought at all to how they can be perceived. Have you noticed just how many ads start out with telling us what the question is; and then go on to tell us what we should ignore? The question is a device to focus attention. That's what successful smart advertising does. But surely a little originality, something different would be in order.

Cadillac tells us that "the question isn't about whether your car has a world-class interior." That's gratifying. Now I can sleep better at night. For one thing, I wouldn't want anything that is world class. I've been a victim of world-class customer service too often. I want something better. The same ad lists a lot of things about what the question is not about. But eventually it says, "…when you turn your car on, does it return the favor?

Here's another use of the technique. The Hartford, "Trusted Since 1810" (by whom?), says: "The question isn't how do you reach your goal, it's who do you follow?" Much advertising flatters. It makes a person feel special. But this one tells us to become followers. For me the question is: what are you selling that is of value to me?

Reading it the wrong way, or pants with a mind of their own
Clothes maketh the man, or so the ancient Roman proverb goes. Clothes have always been an outward display of one-upmanship. Of course clothes maketh the woman too. "The Daniel Cremieux Signature sportswear collection elevates your spring style above the ordinary…" This sounds reasonable enough. I don't think the company is talking about elevating my spring style by putting my clothes in a tall closet. But Dillard's ad in the New Yorker goes on to say "… with classic designs, refined details, and luxurious fabrics that go to the office, out to dinner, or on vacation."

Don't you just hate it when you reach into your closet and find your pants have gone on vacation, your socks are out to dinner, and your shirt has gone to the office and started work before you get there?

Could this be why the folks at improveverywhere.com organized a "no pants day" on the New York subway?

Creativity is daring to be different while not losing sight of your intention. But you probably couldn't do worse than this Bruce Springsteen look-a-like video created for the launch of Vista SP1. The original Dancing in the Dark exudes sexual energy and emotive power. But where is the emotive power of this video touting the not-so-much-loved Vista operating system? There is a disconnect between Springsteen, an American original, and an actor (who does admittedly look a bit like him) singing about computer code. Microsoft's video has all the excitement of soggy white bread. If you "get" Springsteen, this video may make you feel ill. If you don't "get" Springsteen, then who cares who it is?

Attracting or distracting attention
Advertising draws you in to your own imagined future. In his book, "On being certain, believing you are right even when you're not" Robert A. Burton, M.D. tells a story of how he and his wife attended a neuropsychology seminar at the University of California at Berkeley. The participants were asked to watch a basketball game and count the number of passes. Most agreed that there were 10 or 11 in the short clip shown. The lecturer then asked the group who saw the gorilla? None did. But when they played back the tape slowly, it was clear that someone in a gorilla outfit stood in plain sight beating his chest in front of the camera. Why didn't anyone see this? The reason was that their attention was focused elsewhere.

Researchers tell us that we spend much of our time in a trance during the day. Almost everyone experiences traveling to work and not remembering any of the details of the journey. We were otherwise preoccupied with our own thoughts, or conversations.

Successful advertising creates a focus of attention. And advertisers would do well to pay attention to how content is likely to be perceived.

And one last note about The Saïd Business School in Oxford. Its advertising copy may be questionable, but a recent graduate just got 100 percent funding for a TV series teaching English language through comedy. How rational is comedy?

Christopher Richards is non-fiction ghostwriter, and consultant. He writes humor at SlowDownNow.org.


to leave comments.

Commenter: chris nievs

2008, July 25

i'm looking for a job.
learning of a Hemmingway contest on the shortest novel written; his being " baby shoes, for sale.
never worn."
mine would've been: " up yours, from in here.."
obviously i would start at the bottom and work my way up. brain storming is fun. southern claifornia.

Commenter: Neil Squillante

2008, July 18

The real problem with the first ad is that you probably shouldn't boast about being 21st or even sixth in anything. If you aren't number one, don't use that angle.

Commenter: Adam Isler

2008, July 18

While your overall point is certainly valid, I think your examples are poorly drawn. The quotation from the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme, for instance, does not say that "leaders" can't be taught - it says that "leadership" can't be taught. The clear distinction is that while education can improve the leadership ability of born leaders, those who are not leaders can not be taught how to become leaders - echoing, perhaps, Shakespeare's Malvolio.

As for the Infiniti ad, while it is annoyingly devoid of anything like the grand meaning its bombastic phrasing hints at, it doesn't say there's anything "wrong with horsepower," as you suggest. Rather, horsepower is just the start of the experience this car offers. Though what the hell an "epic sculpture of sensation" can possibly mean is hard to say - I guess it sounds good. Nor do I understand how performance can be "reshaped" or how the preposition "beyond" can be attached to that reshaping.

Try this copy error on for size. Thirty years ago, I heard a political ad on WQXR, a NY classical radio station that called itself "the radio station of the NY Times." It was for someone running for re-election tot he bench. "Judge X has forged a brilliant career," we were assured. Now that's sloppy copy, without the benefit of mistranslation.