Why Do We Believe This Stuff?

I often think about the power that language has over us. The words in our lexicon shape our thoughts and beliefs, which shape our actions, which shape our world. The fewer words your mind can come up with, the shallower the thoughts it can entertain. But don’t get your hackles up because you think I called Uncle Earl stupid. So what if he’s an idiot. I would never suggest we take away his right to vote because he knows only three phrases: “gimme a beer,” “I’ll have the chili,” and “fuckin’ liberal media.”

That’s not even close to what I wanted to talk about today. I’m interested in something very primal in what shapes our beliefs, the truths we hold be self-evident. And what I think is that people will readily accept as true anything that can be spoken with a catchy rhythm and/or rhyme. In other words, simple poetry.

Let’s look at a few “old sayings,” for example.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most people don’t even know what this means until they’re at least 30. It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have a precisely repeated rhythm pattern, emphasis on “hand” and “bush.” It ends on an emphatic syllable. It sounds clear and magically true. But is it? Is it better to have one thing than merely the potential of having two? It says, “be happy with what you have. Don’t dream.” But we don’t question its wisdom because it sounds good.

“A stitch in time saves nine.” A pleasant rhyme, a little pause after “time,” and two emphatic syllables at the end. Who wouldn’t believe what this says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (no rhyme but solid rhythm and great opposition of “ounce” and “pound” that appeals to the supposed virtue of frugality.

“Hell no, we won’t go.” If it’s the sixties, and you’re in an anti Vietnam war march, you need a catchy slogan to chant as you march. After all, wars have them, why not anti-wars, right? It’s a cadence. Its rhyme and five all-emphasized syllables are powerful and good for shouting. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Another rhyming Vietnam era marching chant. You can almost dance to it.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have repeated meter and repeats “penny,” as well as having the strong syllables at the end of each half of the equation. Aha, and it is an equation isn’t it? It has perfect balance. Does the effort of saving a penny really equate to having earned it? I don’t know. What if you found the penny, put in a drawer and just forgot to spend it? Did you earn it?

Political campaigners know that catchy slogans are at least as much about sound than they are about sense — maybe more. A few famous ones are:

A Chicken in Every Pot. A car in every garage. — 1928 Republican presidential campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover.
All the way with LBJ —1964 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Lyndon Johnson.
Drill, baby, Drill!
– 2008 US presidential campaign slogan of John McCain, used by his Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This phrase was often chanted as a call for America to consume domestic oil reserves. The phrase was originally coined by Michael Steele at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
I like Ike
– 1952 U.S presidential campaign slogan of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Yes We Can
– Barack Obama, 2008.
Read my lips: no new taxes – George H. W. Bush during the 1988 U.S. presidential election.

George Orwell published his novel 1984 in 1948. The Party, the ruling entity in the world the novel creates, knows that language controls thought, so when they want to make an idea disappear, they simply make the words disappear. And they have a marvelous slogan to justify a never-ending, fabricated war with a different geopolitical entity: “War is Peace.” Aha! A Slogan with a paradox. What could be better? I won’t go into Orwell’s point here at length. He’s making more than one. The main idea, though, is that The Party knows it’s possible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – and believe both. People are that easily manipulated. Put that in a slogan with three one-syllable words, and you’ve got mind control magic.

Advertising is, of course, no stranger to the power of language. One of my favorite little numbers was in an ad campaign by the U.S. Army. “Be All You Can Be.” Nice! It’s got the same existential word front and back, all one-syllable words, “you” right in the middle (ego), and the comprehensiveness of “all.” Who wouldn’t want to be all they can be? It has a nice appeal to low self-esteem, too. I haven’t heard of any medical schools using this slogan.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the what of this issue, but none on the why.  Why do rhyme, cadence, repetition, and other elements of language that one might think were just the clothes ideas are dressed in have such an impact? Is it because the nursery rhymes most small children hear cause certain neural pathways to be created in the brain or cause the release of endorphins, the residual memory of which we somehow retain as adults? Hell, I don’t have a clue. I never got to be all I can be and with luck never will. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cheat you out of an answer. But I promise to spend more time researching this someday.

I just want to say that whenever you hear a phrase that you think makes great sense, ask yourself if it’s because of what it really says or because it “sounds” good.

While not about how sound affects beliefs, read Orwell’s 1984 anyway. If you have already read it, read it again.

And also read about the the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Which is the basic premise behind what Orwell wrote.

What do you think?

“Happy People Are Broken”

Church signs just ain't what they used to be.

“Happy People Are Broken.” That’s what the lit-up sign outside the massive Second Baptist Church on Woodway Road in Houston said yesterday. I went back this morning to get a photo, but they had changed it to something more administrative. Since I can’t presume that the belief expressed in that sentence is part of official Baptist theology, I have to think something else is going on. And what that is seems pretty obvious.

It’s a teaser. It’s designed to get people asking “WTF?” (Baptists may express this using some other acronym.) The point, I presume, is to get you to come in on Sunday and find out what that sign actually meant, which was surely not what it says. Thus, dear friends, it’s a marketing ploy. Not a new one, mind you. It smacks a bit of the old bait-and-switch, doesn’t it?

So I had two reactions. My first was horror. How could anyone say that? Why would anyone say that? It’s awful. Let’s get these folks back on their meds before they hurt someone. I wanted to run in and find the pastor and ask him what was so wrong in his life that he would allow such a sign on his big megabucks church. Then I had the “aha!” moment, the one where you realize how stupid you are. If I went looking for the pastor, I’d get a cheerful pat on the back and a loving look and be told to return Sunday for the true meaning, which, no doubt, would include the rest of the sentence. Something like “Happy people are broken unless their happiness comes through Jesus” – or something like that.

That’s when I had my second reaction kicked in. What about this sort of marketing? You communicate something clearly offensive in the hope to lure in curious passers-by.  It reminds me a little (just a little, really) of the tactic often used by furniture stores, appliance stores, and car dealerships on tv ads: be so loud and annoying that people remember your name. OK, it’s not really the same thing, but I was reminded of the technique – a technique I never liked, no matter how much the cash registers may ring.

My respect for mega-churches has never been very high, since they seem more like big business than anything else. But this church has perhaps achieved a new low. I have more respect for the little church with the sign in the picture above than for this one; at least they’re honest.

My questions:

1) Is what the Second Baptist Church did ethical?
2) Is it good (i.e., effective) marketing?
3) If it’s not ethical, but it doesn’t really hurt anyone, and it is effective, is it wrong?

My answers: No, No, and Yes. Anyone else want to chime in?

P.S. The signs outside religious institutions have taken on a social and political role of their own of late. What do you think about that?



The Black Cow: Better Than Baking Soda in the Fridge

Every so often a truly great marketing coup comes along that stands out from all the rest. When Arm & Hammer told us to put boxes of baking soda in the refrigerator, nearly every fridge in America got one as a gift. The onions no longer fought with the fish and the leftover pizza. And just in case you missed that part of the campaign, part two reminded you it was time to change the box of baking soda. So if you didn’t have one there already, you ran out and bought one. Yet another great scam perpetrated on “Boobus Americanus” (see H.L. Mencken). It doesn’t really matter whether or not the baking soda works (it probably does); what matters is how effectively they marketed it to solve a problem that most people didn’t have. If your refrigerator stank, the usual solution was to throw out the spoiled food that caused the odor. Or just accept the fact that you’re gross.

But the ad agency that did Arm & Hammer had nothing on whomever the American Angus Association brought in to convince Boobus that black cows taste better than brown ones, white ones, brown and white ones, and all the other possible colors of cow. And we bought it big time. Hundreds of restaurants now have the word “Angus” in their names. McDonalds and Arby’s proudly offer “Angus” beef products at a premium price. Supermarkets let you know which ground beef and steaks on their shelves came from a black cow.

After all, what do we really know about Angus cattle other than their black color? Have you ever read of a national taste test comparing prime aged and well prepared steaks from different colors of cow? No, neither have I.

This could be the greatest marketing coup, dollar for dollar, yet.

I can just picture it. It’s about 7 pm at the ad agency office. The 20-somethings are sitting around thinking about who their next client should be. Then somebody says, “cows.” I bet we can convince people that the color of a cow affects its taste. Do you want to do white cows, brown ones, or black? OK, let’s go with black cows. Somebody go check to see if there’s a black cow ranchers’ association or something like that. There is? Great. We’ll call them in the morning and see if they agree that the genus Boobus Americanus is just as stupid or even stupider than the Arm & Hammer guys thought.

Or maybe the black cow ranchers got the idea first. Either way, it’s pure evil genius.

Branding a Color. I Think Periwinkle’s Available.

Did you know Aggie Maroon is actually an official PMS (no, that stands for Pantone Matching System – a printing ink color standard) color? It is. A few days ago I was suggesting to a client that we use the color orange for something or other. He smiled and reminded me that half of all Texans would be offended.

If I hadn’t encountered this before, I would have been truly puzzled. But I did indeed know exactly what he meant. You can divide Texas into two camps: burnt orange and maroon. Maroon for those who go or went to Texas A&M, and burnt orange of the University of Texas. And somehow it’s all tied into football. But that a topic for another post.

Once I prepared a series of campaign postcards for an attorney who was running for local bar association president. She insisted that we use maroon as the main color on one and orange on the other. We didn’t want to leave anyone out.

While I suspect this may be a bigger deal in Texas than anywhere else, I can think of another two-color division that’s gone a bit more viral. Red states and blue states. Thanks to CNN’s election result charts from a few years back, states are now divided into either of two colors. Never before have states been so easily distinguished from one another.

If this red/blue thing had gone away after that election, then fine, it would have been just a way that a news network chose to illustrate election results on-air. But it went viral before the word viral went viral. It had legs. Viral legs. Red and blue are now part of the official vernacular of political analysts, campaign workers, reporters, bloggers, and ordinary wonks everywhere.

Who knew? And what about colored ribbons? I see pink, I think of breast cancer victims, not little girls’ dresses. Yellow ribbons are tied around old oak trees and have been since the 1940s. Ferrari has its own red. Chase bank has been trying to brand a blue by airing commercials that are black and white except for the blue chase card. More and more companies are using this trick now that they decided it’s cool. Target stores has tried to brand the color red.

Some people want their presence on earth to be immortalized in the name of a newly discovered star, planet, or moon in a far-away galaxy.

Not me. I want a color, a particular shade of something or other. I like orange and use it on my Morninglight Marketing web site. (It’s not burnt orange). But I don’t want orange as my personal brand color.

Hmmm. Maybe something akin to periwinkle blue. I like periwinkle because it’s an odd color. periwinkle is to blue what salmon is to pink – just a bit off-center. I have a friend who had a “salmon” sofa once. He’s a bit off-center, too (meant in a very good way). So if there were a color called “Peter,” what would it be. Ferrari red, A&M maroon, periwinkle peter. Works for me.

“What Kind of Guru Are You Anyway?”

guruToday I received an email from Network Solutions offering special pricing on the hottest new domain name in the domain name domain: “.guru.” At first I was intrigued, and I checked to see what domains might be available. I tried my name.guru, and that was available. I tried marketing.guru, but that was taken. Damn. So I tried various others, and most of them were open. I even tried guru.guru, just in case I wanted to be known as the guru of gurus. Bingo. Available!

But then the angel on my shoulder said, “Whoa there, swami, do you really want people to think that you think you’re a guru? A little pretentious, don’t you think, especially for a guy that doesn’t look remotely Indian. So I passed on the .guru domain. Even if it were free, I couldn’t bring myself to use it except for maybe a comedy blog about a guy who goes to India to seek enlightenment but ends up managing a sweatshop where eight-year-olds sew silk ties for a famous Italian designer.

I got to thinking, though (unusual for me before my morning shower), about what happens to words, as I often do. When I first ran into the word “guru,” it was way back in another century – the latter middle part of that century in fact. People went to India to seek a guru who would take them on as students and teach them the meaning of life. Some of them were serious. Others simply had too much money and time on their hands. The Beatles and other celebrities adopted the Swami Satchidinanda as their mascot. And George Harrison, the most spiritual Beatle, even learned to play sitar. Frank Zappa, my personal teenage musical idol (not guru) made fun of the whole idea in his song “Cosmik Debris.” The guru craze Zappa made fun of may have been a little creepy, but back then at least we knew what a guru was supposed to be: an Indian spiritual guide and teacher.

“And I said ‘Look here brother
Who you jiving with that cosmik debris?
Now what kind of a guru are you, anyway?
Look here brother, don’t waste your time on me'”
(from Zappa – Cosmik Debris)

Swami with Beatles

Now, an220px-Sikh_Gurus_with_Bhai_Bala_and_Bhai_Mardanayone who knows more than the average bear about something can bill himself or herself as a guru. Marketing gurus are everywhere. SEO gurus. Lean Six Sigma gurus. Among the many guru options available today, only the Lean Six Sigma gurus seem to actually promise spiritual enlightenment. Because I can be a bit of an ass sometimes, whenever someone introduces me to a “guru,” I like to ask what part of India they’re from. Some people think it’s funny; most just think it’s in bad taste.

You can look up “guru ” and find all sorts of history. You will find this guy, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru (15th century), and your more contemporary gurus of course.

Who are today’s gurus?

The Guru Girls promote condoms.
Want to see the Guru of Spores?
You got your used car gurus.
This guru is a cat.
Here’s the trade show guru.
We got your quality gurus right here.

You get the point.

Words evolve. Original meanings get lost. I get that. But we have an interesting case here. If lots of people adopt the .guru domain name, thus claiming that they are the spiritual leaders of trade shows or toxic torts or permanent nose hair removal, then nobody can be recognized as an actual guru ever again. The word will have killed the species. Extinction by etymology. And if nobody can be an actual guru anymore, then who will the rock stars of the future turn to for spiritual growth?

Just sayin’. . .

Common Sense?

I was half-listening to an NPR news story about hearings related to the ongoing issue of water drinkability in West Virginia a month after a chemical spill fouled drinking water for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. None of the testifying experts would use the word “safe.” They all hedged. Fudged. Avoided the word like the plague. But I’m not writing about the word “safe.” I recall one person testifying who said. NPR’s Brian Naylor reported Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito saying about the EPA that she doesn’t support no regulation, but rather “common sense” regulation. And that got me to thinking. What the hell is “common sense”?

Is common sense (aka, the patently obvious to any reasonable person) the same fro a room full of Ph.D. environmental engineers as it is for a room full of haberdashers, historians or hairdressers? Or even Republican v. Democratic legislators? Nope.

Common sense clearly should be defined as one individual’s assumption that every other reasonable person would agree with them on any particular topic.

Really Annoying Words & Phrases

My list of truly annoying words and phrases is long. I won’t disturb your day with all of that, Best Beloved (an homage to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories). But I will highlight a couple that have been bugging me lately.


B2B Tag Lines: A Little Ho, a Little Hum . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Recently, I was thinking about a tag line for a client. The more I thought about the good tag lines I’ve seen and heard, and that others cite as some of the best, the more I realized that nearly all of them were business-to-consumer (B2C). Businesses whose products/services are marketed to other businesses (B2B) have a harder time coming up with effective tag lines. The fact is that most of them out there are just plain boring and pointless.

OK, let’s go straight to law firms.  Let’s say you’re a high-end firm (not looking for 18-wheeler wreck personal injury claims, traffic tickets, or divorce work), and your target audience is General Counsel at mid-size to large corporations. What are you going to say in a tag line that will make this fact-driven, no-form-of advertising-has-any effect-on-me, audience of attorneys sit up and take notice and even believe your law firm may be different from the dozens of other firms that pitch them for business all the time?

Yes, you can take the good advice of those who tell us to test, test, test those tag lines. But really, you can try stuff out only on your best clients – the ones who like you well enough to respond to an inquiry or participate in a study. But they already know something about you and probably like you, making them less than the ideal participants in a study. Any mass query of GCs who don’t know you will get very little response.

Here’s a list of some.

Except for one, They’re nearly all meaningless junk. That one says, “We keep our clients out of jail.” I like that one; it’s direct and meaningful. I suspect, though, that the audience likely influenced by that tag line is an audience for whom the tag line doesn’t always prove true.

Consider these:

  • Leadership. Creativity. Results
  • Counsel to market leaders
  • Legal counsel to great companies
  • The advantage of focus

Law Firm Tag Line

Here’s a great one. “Experience Innovation.” What on earth does that mean? These lawyers do things in ways that other lawyers don’t know about and have never tried? Really?

I’m sorry, I dozed off for a minute. Give me a break! What law firm couldn’t or wouldn’t say the same things? Guys, get the 25-lawyer committee together and try again. Just kidding, don’t bother. Your marketing guy has a delete key – allow him to use it.

What I really suspect is that an all-purpose tag line for this audience is a waste of time. Don’t bother putting this stuff on your web site unless you just have space to fill and nothing interesting to fill it with. Don’t put it on your letterhead, your invoices, or anywhere else. But if you’re doing something like developing a campaign targeting a very a specific market — say architectural firms for example — then it should be very possible to develop an effective branding tagline for that market for use in that campaign.

Where does the “only” go?

One of the most frequent edits I find myself making when editing other people’s writing is moving the modifier “only” to its rightful spot close to the word or phrase it modifies. What does this sentence mean: “I only drive to work and back”? Does it mean that’s the only place to which you drive your car, or does it mean you never take the bus to work? It’s hard to tell what you intend. Move the “only” to just before the word “to,”and it’s clear that you mean that you don’t drive the car anyplace else. Leave it where it is, and it really means you don’t use any other form of transport to work. If the latter is what you mean, a less potentially confusing choice would be to say, “I drive my car to work because the bus is always late.”

Just something to think about when your fingers are flying across the keys.

The Words We’ve Come to Love: We May Be In Trouble

What are the two hot words for 2011? I’m voting for “social” and “app.”

Let’s start with “social.” With the ubiquity of “social media” these days — everyone and their Uncle Earl is on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogging away through the night — the catch-all generic term for these activities has become so mainstream that advertisers wanting to reach into the wallets of this cyber-savvy crowd to sell them, well, anything from bras to patio furniture, has decided to play off of “social media” and build the “social” concept into their pitch. I’m not talking about companies advertising on social media platforms; that’s been going on for quite a while and isn’t even interesting any more.

I’m talking about the word “social” itself, and I’m interested in it from a language perspective. Why? Because our language shapes our thought. I’d go a step further and say our language determines our thought – what we can and do think, and what we simply can’t think at all. If there are no words for something in the language(s) we know, no detailed thought about it is possible. OK, enough about that.

What does the “viral” (a term for another day) use of “social” mean for what the word itself will come to mean? If social becomes the buzz word for anything and everything (e.g., a sale on towels at Target Stores as a way to become more “social”), then the word itself will ultimately lose the meaning it has traditionally had of people interacting with other people.

It’s really interesting that we can point to computer applications (apps) as the source of a change in the meaning of “social.” We already know, of course, that computers have now so insinuated themselves into our social lives that The Borg of Star Trek fame may have to leave the realm of science fiction. We now locate our soulmates via computer, along with our homes, jobs, cars, pets, linens, shoes, and all of our entertainment. So the computer, via language as well as technology, has become as much of a social force in our lives as Uncle Earl himself. Actually, a great deal more.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’m a marketing guy by trade, and if throwing the word “social” around mercilessly will help buy my client (and thus perhaps me) a 60-foot sailboat or a photo safari in Kenya, I’m there. I have been accused of wanting to hold the line on language evolution, like the French Academy. That’s not actually true. It’s the dumbing down I’m worried about. When words become meaningless, thought becomes blurry and amorphous, and when that happens. Well, let’s just hope that all nuclear weapons are destroyed before we start watering our crops with Gatorade because they have “electrolytes.”

I was going to add the word “app” to this random musing on the hot words of the year, but really, the only thing interesting is that it’s short for “application,” and I bet half the people who use the word “app” as they download assorted stuff to their iPads, iPhones, Droids, and other devices don’t know that. So eventually the word “application” will disappear entirely. I don’t think I like the sound of “One app of this ointment on your scalp will make you smarter.”

Sidenote: It’s interesting that Microsoft is opposing Apple’s trademark of the phrase “App Store.”