Doublespeak in Marketing: When Does It Become Sugar-Coating?

Doublespeak in Marketing: When Does It Become Sugar-Coating?
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“Doublespeak,” as described by George Orwell, is a way in which governments or media bureaus can cover up the stark truth of some unpleasantry. The idea, Orwell thought in his essay, was to make language more precise, but because the way we think about things is shaped by the language used to describe those things, we can manipulate language to get the reaction we want.

Consider for a moment a recent shift: taxes have become referred to as “revenue.” No longer is it a matter of raising taxes in order to make ends meet and take care of the federal deficit, now it’s a matter of increasing the revenue. “Revenue” is a word that has far fewer connotations that the general public associate with being another bill. I expect, the government believes that by calling it “revenue” and not “taxes” that there will be fewer objections when this number is increased.

Imagine the difference when referring to something as being rejuvenating. Rejuvenating projects would seem to make something “fresh” again. “Fat-free” seems to imply “healthy” (even if the calories are the same as the with-fat options). “Detect” seems to imply an active element to a product that seeks out and gets rid of whatever it is it detects.

Think about your favorite pharmaceutical commercial. Imagine if instead of “may cause nightmares” it said “may cause extremely vivid night time hallucinations.” That sounds more appealing, doesn’t it? But should you take advantage of this spinning of half-truths out of words?

Implications Can Be Lies

“Ungood” and “bad” can mean the same thing, but not necessarily. Just because something is “ungood” doesn’t mean it’s bad (it could be neutral), but if something is bad, then it is ungood. This is true of many of the synonyms one could use when describing a product. For example, vivid night time hallucinations might be nightmares, but they could be other types of dreams as well. Revenues might involve taxes, but it might involve other things too, and here’s where the deception becomes evident.

If you mean one very specific thing about your product or service, and that thing is negative in the consumer’s eyes, but you use a broader term to describe it that implies that there are positive as well as negative factors. When there are no positive factors, then it is considered false advertising. False advertising is purposely misleading, and engaging in it can lead you to a lawsuit.

Implications Can Create Misrepresentation

Even if your words aren’t as ambiguous as the words used above, implications by words can create misrepresentations of your product or service. For example, the word “effective” implies that it works. However, you have to be careful. A lot of companies state “Can be effective…” this means that the consumer only hears “effective” without hearing the lead-up. Worse is when a company prefaces a word like “effective” with “might be” or “may be.” Yikes! Would you want to drink water that may be effective in alleviating your thirst?

Implications Can Create Distrust

Even though some of your customers may buy your products or your services, it is possible that many may distrust you if you engage in this kind of doublespeak. If you consistently distort the meanings of the words you use to describe your products, you may find yourself without customers or clients. Sure, people may hop on the bandwagon at first, but then, after some time, they may determine the product isn’t worth it or that the results were not what were expected.

Think about those weight loss ads you see on TV. They broadcast the best results, but there’s a starred note and it reads “results not typical.” (I think by law they need to include this disclaimer to avoid false advertising.) Does this make you want to buy the product? No, but people will want to buy it before then. Once they see that note, on the other hand, they may become skeptical of your intentions. Will this product really help or will it just cause them to spend money they don’t need to spend?

Is Honesty the Best Policy?

One day, while in a particularly impoverished area of San Francisco, my friends and I were approached by a homeless man. Instead of saying “Can I have money for food?” he asked my friend, “Can I have money for crack-cocaine?” Wow. We all exchanged looks. How honest was that? Did it work? Well one out of four of us gave him a dollar and wished him luck.

On another occasion, in front of a hotel, a man came up and began singing to us, telling us he could have gotten a degree in music, but he hit hard times. That time two out of three of us gave money to the panhandler. What’s the point? Sometimes we want the sugar-coating. Who knows what the real intentions were, but it seemed as though it were easier when the money was involved to buy into the sugar-coated, doublespeak story.

What does this mean for your products? Well, it may mean that the sugar-coating is easier to digest. We want the all-in-one quick fix but, the thing is, if that quick fix is expensive, doesn’t work, or has unwanted side effects, does that keep us from buying it? Well, if you look at the painful-to-watch pharmaceutical commercials, it doesn’t seem to! People still ask for various prescriptions despite the doomsday-sounding list of potential side effects. In fact, listing the side effects (even if it is mandated) may make people trust the company more than they otherwise would.

Coming Clean with Customers and Clients

About ten years ago, there was a product on the market—Olean Potato Chips—that contained the ingredient olestra. The creators of this product promised people that they were providing a zero-calorie and zero-fat ingredient in the chips. Millions ran out and purchased the product. Many alleged, however, that there was a stinky side-effect the company producing the product denies existed: gastrointestinal distress and an inability to digest the product.

It’s important to give out the dirt on your products to your potential clients and customers. Even if it might be bad press. Think about it—they’re going to find out anyway. When they do, it will cause customers and clients to distrust you. By putting it out there, you can allow those who may be shelling out a lot of money to make an informed decision.