Do you ever notice that curious thing that happens when you really think about a word?
You may sit there thinking what a strange collection of sounds and noises to mean something so specific, so nuanced. There’s so much meaning from seemingly so little. Isn’t language fascinating? How do we make complex associations from what are effectively refined grunts? Maybe our brains are magical.
Then poof. The meaning fades. You ask yourself why a ‘lamp’ is really called a ‘lamp’. How strange it all sounds. Who decided it should be called that? What’s the etymology? Does it even make sense?
Yes, I regularly consider that I may be losing my marbles – but this time it’s not just me.
I know that because I Googled it. In fact, go ahead and Google ‘what’s that effect called when words are so overused they seem to lose meaning?’ Google will tell you it’s called ‘semantic satiation’.
‘Semantic satiation is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds. Extended inspection or analysis (staring at the word or phrase for a lengthy period of time) in place of repetition also produces the same effect.’ [Verbal Conditioning and Behaviour – 2014 – by JP Das].
Now, if you’re a copywriter and you’re reading this, you’re likely very familiar with exactly how this effect feels. A lot of the job is poring over words, finding the ones that work just right. Taking them apart, putting them back together again. Going way below the surface. Probably putting some real pressure on the servers over at thesaurus.com.
If you’re a copywriter working in marketing, advertising, brand, or sustainability especially, you may be having another realisation right now. This effect isn’t just in your head. It’s all around you.
There are collections of words that have been used so much, so flippantly, with so little love and care – that we’ve lost them. They’ve been absorbed in that insidious beige ooze that is ‘corporate marketing cliché-filled buzzword jargon’. They used to be words, now they’re empty shells. Semantic satiation – industry-wide.
We’ve lost nouns: Innovation, digital, insight, strategy, sustainability, synergy, solutions, journey, communities, progress.
We’ve lost verbs: Empower, collaborate, commit, aim to, explore, discover, leverage, join the community.
And we’ve lost adjectives: Together, committed, sustainable, empowered, data-driven, insight-led, ground-breaking, actionable, disruptive.
As far as I can tell, we’re losing our words most severely in two places. Corporate mission/vision statements (and by extension, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and political speeches, etc.) and digital calls to action.
The majority of ‘corporate talk’ is an exercise in pleonasm and commitment avoiding. There’s an art in saying words but not actually saying anything at all. Most corporate statements read something like this:
“We, the business, are [insert nonspecific platitude, eg. ‘committed to’] [insert unmeasurable and vague goal that business can’t be called up on] because of [insert vague problem that can’t be directly linked to business eg. sustainability, a journey, communities] for [vague group such as ‘future generations’/’minorities’ that we can’t measure against].”
Instances of corporate statements that actually say something are increasingly rare. Writing ‘marketing Teflon’ (nothing sticks to it) is now a skill in itself.
The other place we find semantic abuses is in digital CTAs. Here, we bump into toothpaste, car brands, banks, or B2B digital solutions providers that all ask us to do exactly the same vague meaningless thing. ‘Click to learn more.’ ‘Join the conversation.’ ‘Follow the rest of the story online.’
Have you ever? Has anyone?! I just don’t think so.
The problem we face is that this satiation leaves us a little numb. But it’s not all doom and gloom – in crisis lies opportunity, and this one is a good one. From what I can see – there are two things we can do:
- Call it out. Corporations need to be held to account for the fact their ‘commitments’ are almost entirely meaningless. In marketing we know it, people are starting to realise it, the lawyers certainly know it. If not held to account this lack of commitment will continue. It’s our responsibility to force them to put the proof in the pudding. Actions speak louder.
- Exploit this self-inflicted Achilles heel. Corporate fluffery has created its own problem — it’s made good copy, good words, proper statements, and real human language a shining differentiator. ‘Not bullshitting’ has become a competitive advantage. Who’d have thought it? What a time to be alive.
It’s been a difficult couple of years, but as we start to rebuild, there’s a good chance to rebuild better. Marketing pros can build a renaissance into our recovery. Provided marketers are brave enough to see what’s real and say what’s true.
All in all, 2021 may prove a good year to be a copywriter.