Telling lies #10: Weasel Words

Colgate.jpg

 

Ovid in Metamorphoses, describes how Juno orders the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to Hercules.

Realising that Lucina is using magic to frustrate the birth Alcmene’s servant Galanthis announces outside the birthing chamber that the birth has been a success.

Lucina, in her amazement, drops the spells of binding and Hercules is born. The furious Lucina responds by transforming Galanthis into a weasel.

So we come to the term “weasel words” which are vague, unsubstantiated and easily deniable claims. Weasel words abound in the modern world. Colgate were banned from using their claim that 80% of dentists recommend their toothpaste when the Advertising Standards Authority analysed the basis of the claim.

Anti-vaxxers continue to quote the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield long after the work has been discredited as junk science.

Once the #Brexit referendum was won the #VoteLeave campaign admitted that there was no £350 million for the NHS.  It was a chimera, a phantasm.

Brexit bus

There is an entire body of pseudo-academic work aimed at spouting out clickbait studies with small, highly biased, carefully selected “judgement” samples, dubiously leading questions and highly conjectural results.  These studies are funded by “interest” groups to deliver on foregone conclusions.  They are then trotted out as though they are science.

Politicians are particularly adept at using weasel words.  If you cannot make your point using science, statistics or aggregate national data then you resort to telling the story of Joe the Plumber.  Go for the down homey personal story of the plucky underdog who nobody can seem to track down.

Journalists will use weasel words to give spice to a mediocre story.  If the police raid the home of a white collar tax cheat the story is unlikely to set the world on fire.  The police will probably seize papers around the house to use as evidence.  They will put the papers in a bag to carry them to the squad car.  The bag may also contain several weapons.  The bag may also contain cocaine.  The bag may also contain undisclosed cash.  The bag may also contain a ham and cheese salad for lunch, but who wants to read about that?

If you find yourself on the receiving end of weasel words alwasy get specific.  “What scientific study are you referencing?  Who are the researchers?  Who paid for the research?  What was the original stated aim of the research?  What questions were asked?  Who was sampled?  How does the sample match the general population?  What is the sample error?”  You need to be very, very specific.

How would Nigel Farage have coped if any decent journalist had hauled him fully over the coals on the NHS £350 million?  How would Boris Johnson have coped if anyone sat down and ran the calculations in front of him and forced him to justify the numbers?

Advertising standards authorities actually impose considerable discipline on commercial advertisers, especially in response to complaints from consumers.  Politicians face no such discipline.  Politicians have the greatest freedom of any group in society to spout lies to the voting public.  Politicians have no interest in passing laws against the telling of lies, because politicians are perfectly happy to continue to use weasel words to fool most of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.

Weasel Words from the Swamp

 

 

 

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Yer matey’s a bottle of fun.

Matey

The impact of advertising is that I can’t read this poem.

I can only sing it in my head.  Har har me matey.

A Life on the Ocean Wave; by Epes Sargent

A life on the ocean wave,
A home on the rolling deep,
Where the scattered waters rave,
And the winds their revels keep!
Like an eagle caged, I pine
On this dull, unchanging shore:
Oh! give me the flashing brine,
The spray and the tempest’s roar!

Once more on the deck I stand
Of my own swift-gliding craft:
Set sail! farewell to the land!
The gale follows fair abaft.
We shoot through the sparkling foam
Like an ocean-bird set free; —
Like the ocean-bird, our home
We’ll find far out on the sea.

The land is no longer in view,
The clouds have begun to frown;
But with a stout vessel and crew,
We’ll say, Let the storm come down!
And the song of our hearts shall be,
While the winds and the waters rave,
A home on the rolling sea!
A life on the ocean wave!

Synge happy birthday

Currach

Rowing the beer to the island.

Born this day 1871 John Millington Synge wrote the poem below which describes how the keg of porter had to be rowed to the island of Beg-Innish though the Atlantic waters where the gannets fish.

Beg-Innish in gaelic simply means “small island”.

In 1977 Guinness made the iconic ad “Tá siad ag teacht” (They are coming) describing the same journey.  Still evocative after all these years, you can find it on Youtube.

The rowing boat they use in the still above is a traditional Irish Currach.  A high riding fragile shell made of ash frames covered in tarred canvas.  It is one of the oldest types of craft in continuous use.  Originally made with tanned ox-hide, and similar in construction to a coracle.  The Currach is a surprisingly good craft on the open ocean.  It was the workhorse of the fishermen of the Irish west coast for hundreds of years.  The design reflects the lack of large timber available, due to the scouring effect of Atlantic storms.

Light as a large canoe, the fishermen lift it over their heads and carry it up the beach to dry out after a day of fishing.  The image of fishermen with their currach brings to mind a scarab beetle and the circularity of life and death.  Many legs beneath a shiny black carapace.

 

Beg-Innish ; by John Millington Synge

Bring Kateen-beug and Maurya Jude
to dance in Beg-Innish,
and when the lads (they’re in Dunquin)
have sold their crabs and fish,
wave fawny shawls and call them in,
and call the little girls who spin,
and seven weavers from Dunquin,
to dance in Beg-Innish.

I’ll play you jigs, and Maurice Kean,
where nets are laid to dry,
I’ve silken strings would draw a dance
from girls are lame or shy;
four strings I’ve brought from Spain and France
to make your long men skip and prance,
till stars look out to see the dance
where nets are laid to dry.

We’ll have no priest or peeler in
to dance in Beg-Innish;
but we’ll have drink from M’riarty Jim
rowed round while gannets fish,
a keg with porter to the brim,
that every lad may have his whim,
till we up sails with M’riarty Jim
and sail from Ben-Innish.

currach2

Digital; where amateur beats professional.

thorne-travel-ad

In the digital world of marketing there are no prizes for bland professional output.  Your product can be great, or it can be terrible, but if you are simply alright then you are nothing.

With traditional media, where you pay for placement, there is plenty of room for a professional job that is a bit ho-hum.  What you don’t achieve in standout you can make up with placement.  So your ad agency may not have made the most exciting ad in the world, but it will be seen by your target audience.  Let’s face it, if you are selling computers or financial services you are more interested in portraying professionalism than you are in achieving fame.

There are famous TV ads that are fondly recalled and pop up on TV programmes that review the “Greatest Ads” but lets face it, most mainstream ads are delivering in a reliable, steady manner without setting the world on fire.

If you get a bunch of amateurs to make an ad for traditional media, it looks like an amateur ad.  The cost of media placement means the amateur operator cannot balance poor production quality by wallpapering the media with placement.

Digital is different.

In the digital world success is achieved by fame.  If you capture the imagination of the digital consumer public and go viral then the amateur can beat the socks off the professional.

There is a lot of random chance involved in what goes viral.  I have worked with many clients who asked us to make an ad that would go viral.  As an ad agency you can never promise it will.  Yes, you can make an ad that is more disruptive, more edgy, funnier, surprising, all the things that make for good viral videos.  But you can never predict what is going to be a big hit.

There is also the issue of target audience.  If your ad goes viral with teenage boys and your target market is middle aged women your fame will not convert into sales.

A great example of how random success can be is the Thorne Travel ad.  It is simply awful.  It is so awful that it is brilliantly awful.  Awful enough to go viral.

The travel agency know people are laughing at them.  Do they mind?  Get this, since the ad went viral, bookings have increased by 110%.  And believe me, this is only the beginning.  Good work Thorne Travel.  Long live the amateur!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR3gpqGH1_U

Cowboy Advertising

marlboro-country-1970

There is a great story told in the Leo Burnett Advertising agency about how the boss created the Marlboro Cowboy campaign.  As with all ad agency stories, it has a smidgen of truth masking a lot of fuzzy reality.  The story is that Philip Morris invented a new cigarette, with a filter tip and a crush proof box.  Leo Burnett pointed out that the innovations would be copied within 6 months.  Instead he came back with an image of a rugged cowboy, and the legend of the Marlboro Cowboy was born.

The truth is that the tobacco companies were well aware of the health implications of cigarettes.  Filters were an approach to cleaning up their act.  But filters were seen as unmanly, they were for women.  Marlboro was originally marketed as being “Mild as May”.

Burnett realised that any concession to “health benefits” would simply raise the looming specter of the long term damaging effects of the product.  So he wanted to avoid talking about the filter.  To make the filter acceptable to men he designed a campaign that would show “manly men” smoking Marlboro.  The Cowboys were supposed to be followed by Sea Captains, Weightlifters, Construction workers.  Sort of like an early version of YMCA, a homoerotic muscle man revue (in retrospect anyway).

What happened is that the Cowboy succeeded beyond expectations, and you don’t fix what ain’t broke.  So the Cowboy became Marlboro.  Ad agencies never admit that their successes are accidental, but the truth is, you need a hefty dose of luck on top of all your good planning and design work to make an iconic campaign.

The cowboy is a symbol.  That is the secret of the success.  In the same way as we talk about the heart, but really mean love, when we talk about the cowboy we really mean freedom, adventure, excitement.  It is a male fantasy of escape from the drudgery of the job and the responsibilities of mortgage, bills and the hassles of family life.  This escape fantasy is personified by the cowboy, or the drover.  You will find it in the Banjo Patterson poem “Clancy of the Overflow”, Eric Bogle’s song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and in the Irish poem below.

The Drover; by Padraic Colum

To Meath of the pastures,
From wet hills by the sea,
Through Leitrim and Longford
Go my cattle and me.
I hear in the darkness
Their slipping and breathing.
I name them the bye-ways
They’re to pass without heeding.
Then the wet, winding roads,
Brown bogs with black water;
And my thoughts on white ships
And the King o’ Spain’s daughter.
O! farmer, strong farmer!
You can spend at the fair
But your face you must turn
To your crops and your care.
And soldiers—red soldiers!
You’ve seen many lands;
But you walk two by two,
And by captain’s commands.
O! the smell of the beasts,
The wet wind in the morn;
And the proud and hard earth
Never broken for corn;
And the crowds at the fair,
The herds loosened and blind,
Loud words and dark faces
And the wild blood behind.
(O! strong men with your best
I would strive breast to breast
I could quiet your herds
With my words, with my words.)
I will bring you, my kine,
Where there’s grass to the knee;
But you’ll think of scant croppings
Harsh with salt of the sea.

POEM

REGrant

Photo:  Richard E Grand in “How to get ahead in Advertising”

 

As anyone who reads my blog soon learns, I end each post with a poem.  The purpose of the poem is to trap emotion.  Poetry is emotion encapsulated in word.  This blog is a record of my emotional state at any given point in time.

However, I learned something very new about the POEM this week.  It is an analysis frame for tracking public relations communications in a firm.

The acronym stands for Paid, Owned and Earned Media.

Paid Media are the messages that we pay for, mostly falling under the terms “Advertising” and “Promotions”.  Advertising is sometimes referred to as “Above the Line” ATL communications, with Promotions being “Below the Line” BTL.

There is a bit of debate surrounding the origin of the terms ATL and BTL.  My preference is for the following explanation.  Under the agency system an ad agency presented a bill to the client every month.  The bill was in two parts above and below a line.  The top part, ATL, billed the advertising creative and media placement for the month.  In this section the ad agency would detail the full retail cost of the media placement if purchased on its own.  Because ad agencies place large volumes in media, they receive huge discounts against the retail cost.  They pass some of these discounts on to the client, depending on client size.  For large clients they are able to display how much the client saved that month by being with the ad agency ( as opposed to making their own ads and buying retail price media space).  So the bill to the Marketing Manager was traditionally presented as a saving.  The ATL costs came from the Marketing budget.

Promotional activities are discounted from the cost of sales.  So product vouchers, BOGOFs, 50% extra, half price offer etc all come from the sales budget rather than the advertising budget.  So the Marketing Manager did not have to spend this money.  As a result the BTL was of less concern.

With paid media you own the message but not the medium.  You might advertise your alcohol product in the middle of a programme about alcoholism, or your beautiful auto ad might follow a road safety ad.  The issue of message control, reach and message cost is central to media debates.  As a rule the more expensive the medium is, the more control we have, and the less reach we have.  We gain the greatest reach at the lowest cost in the media where we relinquish the most control.

Owned Media are those where we control both the medium and the message.  A corporate website, an annual report, product brochures etc.  In general it is not the kind of channel that sets the world ablaze, but we do retain ownership and control of both the medium and the message.

Earned Media is the bear trap.  This is the place where we can gain column inches for free, but the story is not under our control.  It may not be telling the message we want to get out there.  At the high control end we have trade magazines, which beg for copy to generate interest in the publication.  These publishers are unlikely to publish a savage dissection of a good advertising client.  At the other end of the scale is social media, where audiences will routinely hijack your message for their entertainment.  If this damages your company, brand or product they don’t care.  In the past the earned media environment was dominated by PR companies who seeded the media with positive news stories, and who attempted some form of damage control when a negative story hit the presses.  Nowdays it is increasingly in the digital space where sharing a squash club with a national newspaper editor carries no weight.  In this space everyone is still learning.

The Advertising Poem

A man wakes up after sleeping under an advertised blanket,

on an advertised mattress, pulls off advertised pajamas,

bathes in an advertised shower, shaves with an advertised razor,

brushes his teeth with advertised toothpaste, washes with advertised soap,

puts on advertised clothes, drinks a cup of advertised coffee,

drives to work in an advertised car, and then, refuses to advertise,

believing it doesn’t pay.

Later when business is poor, he advertises it for sale.

Why is it?

Unknown