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Aluminum Foil Phrases

Man Wearing Tin Foil Hat -- NOT Steve!

Man Wearing Tin Foil Hat -- NOT Steve!

There are some phrases that are the literary equivalent of biting into aluminum foil. Most writers have their pet peeves when it comes to certain aspects of the language. (Yes, it’s nitpicky and elitist, but that’s why we’re writers.) Misplaced and misused apostrophes spring to mind. I recently revoked a client’s right to use a semi-colon again. EVER. (“You are not allowed to use semi-colons. Eventually, yes, you might randomly place one where it actually belongs, but with global warming, I don't think we will live to see the day.”)

I started thinking about this because of a comment my friend, master juggler and uber-funny man Steve Russell posted on Facebook the other day. (Find Steve and his equally talented wife Kobi at SteveRussellJuggles) Here’s what Steve posted:

I was writing some copy for a website of an illusionist, recently. I was encouraged to "think outside the box." Two thoughts on that: 1. If, in 2013, you are still using that phrase, YOU ARE STILL INSIDE THE BOX! and 2. Do you realize the irony, given what an illusionist does for a living?

After I stopped laughing (hard to do when you’re around Steve), I thought how much the phrase “outside the box” irritated me. As does “paradigm shift.”

The phrases, once “cutting edge” (another phrase on its way out if not already gone) are “old school” (a phrase that needs to go) now. They scream 1980s (no apostrophe, thank you) management seminar.

Yet they are instantly recognizable. They carry more meaning than just the mere words. When someone says “outside the box” we know instantly that they want something creative, striking, inspired and innovative. A paradigm shift infers such a major change that things will never be the same or looked at in the same way again.

Words and phrases can be charged – filled with meaning that conjures up emotion and experiences. When I give talks on copywriting, I go through various words copywriters use to elicit responses from men and women. And yes, I can always count on big laughs when I flash the phrase “private members forum” on the screen.

But there comes a time when words lose their oomph. (Oomph is a word that will never lose its oomph, by the way.) Over-use and incorrect use wear a phrase out. It loses its meaning and therefore its power. While clients may still ask that you create something that is “out of the box” if you use the phrase (or any of the other tired phrases) in your copy, you are doing them a disservice.

It’s lazy.

I can write long page sales copy all day long (usually while watching NCIS re-runs) that incorporates all the phrases and facets that marketers want to see on their sites. I could charge big money for it. But I don’t. (Proof that I am a complete IDIOT.)

If you are writing copy for yourself or others, maybe you should use all those phrases. People still respond to them. They are known to work. But it gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.

Words are precious to me. I like the way they sound. I like their rhythm. (A very cool word, rhythm. Look! No vowel in that second syllable!) I like that they can mean more than one thing. I think they should be honored and respected.

I also think they should be played with. Come up with new combinations. Create new meanings. Words are meant to communicate, to convey information and emotion and to connect humans with each other.

So the next time a client asks you to think “outside the box,” slam him with it. Rupture the atmosphere, bamboozle reality, cupcake the deal. Most will, of course, come back and ask you for something that looks like everything else that is already out there, i.e., inside the box. But every so often, you will find someone who goes with it, who gets it. And at that point, you will be able to stand and point and say, “That day, I used words well.”

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February 2018
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