Weasel Words

I just got through reading Richard Lederer’s latest column in his syndicated “Lederer on Language” series titled “Weasel words suck out the truth and tell it like it isn’t” and he’s dead on. All too often those of us in marketing fall back on hyperbole in promotion when the honest truth would probably better serve the product over the long haul.

As Lederer points out, the word “help” is often used because it allows the promoter to tie a product to an unsubstantiated but potentially powerful claim. Quoting one of his examples:

Richard LedererHacktabs help fight the symptoms of a cold. Note again that no claim is asserted that Hacktabs actually cure colds, only that they help fight cold symptoms. Well, heck, even water can be said to help fight the symptoms of a cold.

A real danger in using weasel words is they can create unobtainable expectations on the part of the consumer. When the product doesn’t deliver as perceived it should, brand confidence can be destroyed and it’s pretty tough to get back. The weasel words “up to” are especially easy to abuse and at the same time, really annoy your customer.

A pet weasel phrase of mine is the ubiquitous “compare to” as in “compare our generic product to the well-known Brand X product.” The claimant never actually says their product is the same but it strongly suggests to the consumer that it is. It’s also a sneaky way of working the other manufacturer’s trademark into your own ad copy. Of course it’s all just a way of getting around trademarks and FTC regulations on product claims. Whether it’s perfume (compare our Odor De Jour to Ralph Lauren Polo) or sunscreen (compare our TropicalGoo to Coppertone Water BABIES), they ain’t identical. But heck, all the maker did was ask YOU to “compare.”

Your first mission as an ethical marketer should be to figure out ways to promote and educate the consumer about the real benefits of your product. The survivability of your brand may depend on it.

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