There’s a real problem with trust in marketing.
Salespeople love to work their magic – dancing around the facts with ambiguous phrasing and claims with no commitment.
They’ll say anything to avoid saying something. And I should know – because sometimes I’m one of them.
But once you know how to spot their (our) tricks, you’ll be able to see straight through them forever.
Here’s how to spot a wily copywriter in the wild:
The 1% contribution
“VomCakes are made with heart-healthy potassium, a naturally occurring ingredient that helps to contribute towards playing a part in the assistance of encouraging and promoting eternal life.”
If that sentence sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. But this multi-layered exaggeration is exactly as vague as the real claims you find on the back of almost any packet of ‘healthy’ food.
No matter how many times you dilute it by adding extra layers of participation – each time increasing the distance between the champion ingredient and the results of the product – you’re always saying the same thing:
This thing does something. (But we won’t say exactly how much.)
The effects could be huge. They could be negligible. They could be exactly the bare minimum required to legally make the claim – or they could be anywhere along the scale between a magic cure and not-quite-zero.
It’s a bit like a group project for school, or an Executive Producer on a Hollywood film. You don’t have a clue how much real work is being done by the relevant parties.
Here are the words you need to watch out for:
- “Our muffins are made with antioxidant blueberries.” (We use one blueberry to make a thousand cakes.)
- “Our active ingredient helps to reduce the risk of heart disease.” (Your 50% risk just became 49%.)
- “Our tasteless cereal is a source of Vitamin D, which contributes to the maintenance of healthy bones.” (Did they lead the group project, or just spellcheck the dissertation?)
Without the transparency of cold, hard numbers, the true values are left to your imagination – and we’re all far too optimistic to think we’re being short-changed.
The 1% improvement
“QuidPro makes managing your accounts easier and faster than ever before – so you can get a better understanding of your finances and keep a healthier bank balance.”
Sounds good, right? But how much gooder does it really sound?
We all want things to be fast and easy. But those are subjective terms that are open to interpretation.
Instead, marketers love to sell you on the promise of ‘more’ – a relative improvement to your current situation that seems more concrete.
But without the real-world numbers to back it up, it doesn’t mean much.
A sports car probably accelerates 20% faster than a family car. Shopping on Amazon is probably 80% easier than driving down to the high street.
But how much easier and faster is one professional accounting service compared to another? We’ll never know – because they probably don’t know themselves.
Here are the words that should come with a warning:
- “Our awesome software helps you find new clients faster.” (You’ll save about five minutes a month.)
- “We work harder than our competitors.” (We get the same results, but we only take a 20-minute lunch break.)
- “With our new online portal, we’re making your account safer.” (When the risk of a breach was already effectively zero.)
These relative improvements sound warm and comforting. But they’re just a direction, and not a degree – and with loose promises like these, you never really know what you’re getting.
The unbounded quantity
“As an executive sales associate for Not-a-Pyramid, you can earn up to £200 an hour or more – or even as much as £500 when you recruit more associates!”
That’s a lot of dough. But when you look a bit closer, you’ll see that there’s almost no commitment or promise at all.
A wage that’s ‘up to £200’ means just that – any number you like between zero and 200.
And that innocuous little ‘or more’ that they tag onto the end? That includes any number from 200 to infinity.
So when they promise you can earn ‘up to £200 or more’, here’s what they’re really saying:
‘You can earn a wage that sits somewhere between zero and infinity. And in case you’re not good with numbers, we’d like to remind you that £200 is a number on that scale.’
The unsourced opinion
“As a leading company in the chocolate teapot industry, CoCup is the number-one brand for all your pointless needs. Our chocolate teapots are seen as an essential part of the everyday kitchen – making them the perfect choice for any discerning tea-drinker.”
On the surface, everything seems to be in order. And as consumers, we let these kinds of phrases wash over us – we’re so used to seeing them that our eyes hardly process them.
But when we scratch below the skin and start taking those claims literally, we realise they’re not really saying anything at all.
They say they’re a leading company and a number-one brand. But by what measure? The most sales? The most progressive innovations? Do they hold the biggest market share – or do they literally mean that other brands follow in their footsteps?
They say they’re seen as essential, and they’re the perfect choice. But who exactly is seeing them that way, and how many people see it? Who is this ultimate authority on ‘perfect choices’, matching up tea-drinkers to their tea-drinking tools with their cupid bow and arrow?
All it takes to make these claims is the existence of one person with an opinion. And by no coincidence at all, it’s probably the same person who’s selling you the product.
So we shouldn’t ever use them?
I would be lying if I said I’ve never used sneaky words like these.
But consumers are sharper than ever. And after years of constant bombardment from slippery sales-speak on every screen they own, the advertiser’s promise has started to lose all meaning.
So if you want your message to cut through and hit home, try a little transparency along with your vague claims.
Your sneaky words might do the job. But numbers never lie – and your customers know the difference.