A word to conjure with

Oxford Dictionaries have named their word of the year.

And it’s ‘post-truth’.

Like previous words of the year, it reflects our changing society.

Winners in the past have included ‘selfie’, ‘simples’ and ‘bovvered’.

But while these past winners seem to be more social and upbeat, ‘post-truth’ is different.

And when you look at the other words on the shortlist, it tells us a bit more about how the world looks in 2016.

There was ‘adulting’ (behaving like a responsible adult), ‘chatbot’ (a computer designed to communicate like a human) and ‘hygge’ (a Danish concept of cosiness and wellbeing).

All in line with previous years.

But others on the shortlist included ‘alt-right’ (extreme conservative views), ‘Brexiteer’ (I shouldn’t need to explain) and ‘woke’ (being alert to injustice, particularly racism).

There was even ‘coulrophobia’ – an extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

So, what do these choices tell us about today’s world?

For many, the rise of the alt-right in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK and even the need to become more alert to racism show the world is a more dangerous place.

And as for a fear of clowns, the spate of clown attacks around the world just heightens that sense of danger.

But, for me, ‘post-truth’ is the most dangerous concept of all.

The dictionaries define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In short, the truth matters less than it did.

If you feel something is true (or false), then it doesn’t matter whether it is or not.

Even if all the evidence is stacked against you.

Which could have major implications.

In fact, it could make things a lot easier for copywriters like me.

In the past we had to justify any claims we made in adverts or marketing materials.

Even when we were appealing to the audience’s emotions.

Now, as long as the audience believes what we tell them, can we say anything?

Some might think so.

And they might start to test the theory.

So, you might ask, what harm would it do if occasionally we let our emotions get in the way of the truth?

After all, there have been plenty of examples of advertisers who did just that, by appealing to what consumers wanted to believe.

And, yes, when you’re talking about yoghurt or breakfast cereals it might seem trivial.

But what about pharmaceuticals?

Or politics?

Because when politicians routinely resort to blatant lies and appeal to emotions over facts, then it becomes increasingly dangerous.

And that’s not just ‘post-truth’.

It may well be post-everything.


Believe. And repeat.

“Crooked Hillary.”

What does that make you think?

It’s a phrase that Donald Trump uses at every opportunity to describe his presidential election opponent.

Without any hard evidence to back it up.

He throws vague accusations and innuendos around about Hillary Clinton’s political past.

Such as using a private email server (something she has been called ‘careless’ over by the FBI, but for which she hasn’t faced any charges).

And he keeps calling her ‘crooked’.

Of course, his supporters lap it up.

Because they want to believe she’s a crook.

But what about the undecided voters?

Surely they’ll see through his tactics.

After all, the facts speak for themselves.

Except, of course, they don’t.

In advertising, however, the facts have to speak for themselves.

You want to say something about an organisation or a product?

Then, as a copywriter, you’d better check your facts.

Again and again.

Because your words will come under intense scrutiny.

In the past, advertising standards weren’t so stringent.

And there are many slogans that would now be completely unjustifiable.

“A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” even though it’s full of sugar and fat.

“Mackeson looks good, tastes good and does you good” for a milk stout beer.

Yes, a beer that was believed to be good for you. And at one time, was actually RECOMMENDED for pregnant women.


Those cigarettes really soothed your throat. Apparently.

You get the idea.

Then people realised that making these unjustified claims was bad for advertisers, their clients and their customers.

So they brought in regulations that meant you don’t see advertisers making such outrageous claims any more.

Unless they’re so outrageous as to be ridiculous.


(Note the spelling of ‘wiings’. Although it didn’t stop them being successfully sued for not giving a customer wings.)

The thing is, a lot of people believed these advertising claims for years.

Not because they were patently true.

But because the claims were repeated, unchallenged, many times a day, every day.

And the more you repeat a claim, the more believable it becomes.

Of course, it couldn’t happen nowadays.

In advertising.

But in US politics?

Apparently, it can.

Which I think is what’s really crooked.

Really. Crooked.

The problem with jargon

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions

Jargon, buzzwords and meaningless expressions (Photo credit: Gavin Llewellyn)

I saw an interesting infographic from Monster.com today, which showed that candidates are turned off by jargon in job ads. This came as no surprise to me. As someone who’s made a living out of writing recruitment communications of all kinds for 26 years, I’ve always tried to avoid using jargon.

Why? Well, according to the dictionary, jargon is defined as: “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.”

In other words, jargon is deliberately confusing. So why would you choose to use it in a context that requires clarity? Particularly when you can’t even be sure whether the jargon you’re using is something other people in your industry would recognise, or if it’s specific to your organisation.

A lot of my recruitment communications experience has come in business sectors that thrive on jargon – IT, investment banking, accounting, But this doesn’t mean other sectors are immune from it. Local authorities, government departments and the NHS all have jargon of their own that can alienate someone who isn’t in the know. And that’s the problem with jargon – it alienates people, which is the last thing you want from a recruitment ad.

Having said that, there are certain occasions when it can actually be useful. If you need to recruit someone with specific skills and you don’t want to waste your time reading through applications from people who don’t have the right industry expertise, then jargon can be a useful filter. But only if you know for certain that the right people will understand it.

I’ve taken briefs from clients who litter their conversation with jargon – acronyms are a particular favourite in certain business sectors. And the rule I’ve always stuck to is that if I have to ask what a particular piece of jargon means, then the majority of the audience will need to do the same. Which means it shouldn’t be in your marketing.

So that’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news that candidates were turned off by jargon – I’ve always regarded it as common sense not to use jargon. But it’s nice to have the stats to back up what I’ve been telling clients for years.

What counts – age or ability?

A fellow writer, Alasdair Murray, recently wrote about his experience of redundancy in the recession that hit the UK in the early 1990s (you can read the full blog here). It seems like things were very different in those days.

I recently went through the redundancy process, too. And, at the age of 51, my main concern was where on earth I was going to get another job. Thankfully, things have turned out pretty well. In fact, I’d have to agree with Alasdair that it’s not only made me stronger, but it’s actually improved my life. And I think part of that’s down to a big change in attitudes since he faced a similar situation 20 or so years ago.

People on the outside looking in assume that advertising’s a young person’s game. And, yes, if I’m honest, when I was working at my last agency, at the age of 51 I was one of the oldest people there. And definitely the oldest in the creative team. But thankfully, I’ve always found that if you’re full of good ideas that are right for your target audience, people don’t care how old you are. They’ll always judge you on the quality of your work.

But until recently, this attitude to age wasn’t universal. There were many industries, particularly those that were more physically demanding, that only wanted fresh young things. If you lost your job at 50+ you were virtually on the scrapheap.

Phil 2


So, what changed? Well, with the age discrimination legislation introduced by the last Labour government, I think employers in general are more inclined nowadays to judge you on your ability, rather than your age. And if they don’t, they could be taken to court, as this recent story about John McCririck shows. As someone who specialised in employment communications, I’ve had a number of discussions about this with clients over the years. And many responded to the legislation by focusing on people’s competencies during the recruitment process.

Now, as it happens, I didn’t go out and get a job with another agency. Instead, I set myself up as a freelance copywriter. But I still have to deal with the same concerns as if I was looking for a permanent role. In fact, although I’m regularly employed and am building a good list of clients, almost every day is about searching for the next job. And, although I seem to have a decent reputation, that means selling myself to people I’ve never worked with before and wondering if they’ll see my ability or my age first.

Fortunately, I think attitudes have definitely changed for the better. And, as I’m discovering, most people are prepared to put up with the grey hairs when they discover that I’ll do a damn good job.

Global brands – what are they driving towards?

There’s a current radio ad for Esso that’s driving me mad.

Why? Because it ends with the claim that it helps “your engine’s fuel economy, wherever you’re driving towards.”

See the problem?

Would anyone who’s first language is English actually say that? No. Because the word ‘towards’ in this context doesn’t make any sense. Which makes me think that it’s been translated from another language. So, what really annoys me is that some major ad agency hasn’t gone to the bother of trying to get that line translated so it not only retains the essence of the original, but actually resonates with an English-speaking audience.

Why does this annoy me so much? Well, I started out in advertising as a proofreader. Now, this doesn’t make me a grammar nazi or anything (although I do believe that misplaced or missing apostrophes should be punishable by death). But it does mean that I take care over words, their meanings and the clarity of what they’re saying. I’ve also had my fair share of jobs where I’ve had to write for global accounts. So, each time I write a pithy headline or a sentence that zings off the page, I pause and consider whether someone who doesn’t have English as their first language will understand my meaning.

As I’ve got a decent grasp of French, I’ve even translated French headlines into English for an agency in Paris before now. Not literally, of course – I came up with creative alternatives that retained the essence of the originals, but made sense to an English audience.

Which brings me to my point. And that’s the apparent rigidity of many global brands. To me, if they don’t have the flexibility to adapt to different countries’ cultures, then global brands lose their value very quickly.

Obviously, in a world that’s getting smaller through the use of social media and the internet, there’s a benefit in having a single message in every territory. But if that message has the potential to damage the brand in particular countries, then the brand needs to be big enough to implement changes.

Because of those radio ads, I now associate Esso’s brand with shoddiness and lack of attention to detail. And if lots of other people feel the same way, then that can only be a bad thing. Especially for an oil company.

Get off the blog occasionally

The general opinion on blogging seems to be that you need to put something out there every one or two days. If you’re not telling the world your opinion about everything from the colour of Kate Moss’s pants to the likelihood of Romney beating Obama to the American presidency every 48 hours, the consensus is that you aren’t a serious blogger. Because you haven’t got much to say.

There’s also a school of thought that says when you do blog, that you should give people value. Not in the quality of what you have to say, but the number of words you write. Again, I’ve seen some bloggers say up to 700 words is OK.

I have a problem with all this. Firstly, because many of the blogs I read (and I do read a lot of them) seem to either repeat themselves or repeat what others have to say.

Then there are the bloggers who follow a formula and try to shoehorn their opinions into it. One common theme is to choose the latest big news story or celebrity and attempt to show how they can teach you and your readers something about your industry/interest/personal bugbear. So you get blogs with titles like ‘What Felix Baumgartner can teach HR professionals’, ‘Superstorm Sandy: a lesson for FMCG’ or ‘Strictly Insurance Assessment – take the right steps’.

Why? Just so they themselves have something to say. Every 48 hours. Like they’ve been told.

Scraping, bottom and barrel are the words that spring to mind.

Now, I have to say there are a lot of very interesting and informative blogs out there that are well worth a read. But there are also a lot that are, quite simply, a waste of space.

Nobody has the time to read every blog out there. So let’s be a bit more selective in what we blog about. And if you are going to blog, try to keep it short and to the point.

And yes, I’ll try to do the same.