Word Forge

How to avoid making your readers say “Eh?”

I’m not talking about the mistakes (and occasional downright lies) that trip up some ad campaigns. This isn’t a case of measuring a well-known takeway’s footlong sandwich and finding it isn’t, or giving your yoghurt a scientific sounding name you just made up.

These are faults most readers wouldn’t spot without considerable background knowledge (or a tape measure). No, I’m talking about the sort of statement that immediately makes you sit back and say, “Eh?” because it so blatantly disregards reality.

Exhibit 1: An ad in a rather ancient Innovations magazine (which I kept because it tickled me) which says:

Do untidy bath plugs annoy you?

The answer, of course, is no, they don’t.

Exhibit 2: An email I just received from an office services company offering:

Hot new photocopiers to manage every task

And finally, Exhibit 3, which you’ll no doubt have seen in the featured items of a gazillion websites:

Life insurance companies hate this trick

The first example shows what happens when, in desperately seeking a pleasure/pain reference for your product, you overegg things. Untidy bath plugs aren’t, unless I’m really missing something, a common niggle. Nor, in any world I want to be a part of, can photocopiers accurately be described as ‘hot’.

There’s nothing sinister or disingenuous about these lines. They’re just a bit desperate. But what they really do is establish an immediate barrier. They make the reader think ‘your reading of the world isn’t the same as mine.’ At that point engagement breaks down (if it ever got started) and your target audience wanders off in search of a photocopier that offers something other than hotness.

Then there’s that 3rd example. As you’ll find should you click on ‘Life insurance companies hate this trick’ (or any of the similar lines you’ll find), the page to which you’re directed sells you life insurance. From a life insurance company. Oh the irony. I don’t know about life insurance companies, but that’s certainly a trick I hate.

This is a headline built on cynicism. It plays on mystery and the promise of discovering something that gives you an advantage, only to whip it away.

Finding the truth

Hyperbole and advertising puffery are part and parcel of marketing, but every customer proposition should be built on at least a kernel of truth. How do you know whether your headline tips too far? Read it again, and be objective.

If your response is a nod of the head; if the line is something you can genuinely say ‘yes’ to then, however witty, leftfield or overblown the statement, you know its foundation is solid.

If, on the other hand, you’re left with a head-scratching “Eh?” you’d probably best think again.

And with that thought, I’m off to tidy my bath plugs.

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