Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Idiocies of ad writing

I am often annoyed at the way advertisements and other texts intended for selling (and other kinds of convincing) are written—as if the authors had read a guide on writing quality non-literary texts, and then decided to do the exact opposite. Unfortunately, I fear that those of us who try to write well (not always successfully) run into the ironic problem of their texts being frowned upon by decision makers, who prefer texts full of advertising language, NLP tricks, and similar.

To illustrate, consider the following text:

The XXX excels through innovative technology and extraordinary ease of use. Learn to use this compact flyweight effortlessly and in no time, and discover the digital world to an unbeatably advantageous price. The XXX is ideally suited for the whole family and accompanies you into a new era of mobile technology.


Side-note:

This is a slightly modified translation of a German text. Due to the strong use of idiomatic phrases in the original, the translation may look a little odd; further it does not quite catch the absurd formulations of the original. Unfortunately, I could not find an original English text matching the low German standards on short notice.


Let us look at this text from one single perspective (other perspectives would find different issues)—use of appropriate words:

The XXX excelsThis is a subjective statement that needs supporting proof.
through innovative technology Ditto; further, this was an ad for a computer, making the statement border-line tautological; further, innovative does not imply good, new, or rare.
and extraordinaryThis extraordinary [sic!] claim is almost certainly false
ease of use.Everyone claims ease of use; it is almost never true. The statement, further, needs proof.
Learn to use Use of imperative in adverts is an unethical trick.
this compactIs sufficiently obviously true in context to be allowed; however, it is also redundant.
flyweightCheap rhetoric; a more descriptive word should be found
effortlesslyAlmost certainly a lie.
and in no time,Definitely a lie...
and discoverImperative again
the digital worldThe entire phrase following “and” is a cheap and pointless cliche
to an unbeatablyDefinitely a lie...
advantageous price.Dubious. Needs proof.
The XXX is ideallyLogical impossibility and cliche.
suited for the whole familyHighly dubious, would need proof, and is a cliche.
and accompanies you into a new era of mobile technology.Same problem as for “digital world”.

Now let us try a version that considers the above. Some other changes are made to compensate for the destruction that would be caused by a blind use of the advice. Some speculation has been necessary, e.g. in that I assume that ease of use was a priority during development (else the text would need adaption). Further, it is assumed that no verification of the related intents is needed.

The XXX was developed using modern technologies with an eye on ease of use and speedy familiarization. It is an unusually cheap mobile computer. The XXX is intended to be suited to all family members.

The word “unusually” may be going to far, but without this word the entire sentence becomes so lacking in content that it should be cut it out entirely (“cheap mobile computer” was already known from context)—and the overall text would be too short. The claim “using modern technologies” is true, but also pointless and unnecessary, and could arguably be cut too. Also note that the last clause of the original text was reduced to the word “mobile” and moved to a different place in the text.

To bring the text down to its actual statement:

The XXX is intended to be easy to use and learn, and suited to all family members.

This provides an excellent illustration of advertising language—when the cliches that could be used for any related product and the unnecessary fill-words are thrown out, the text can be reduced to more or less nothing. In fact, the remainders of the above text are based on speculation and, considering that the claims are very common, possibly untrue or redundant—which would make the final text disappear altogether... The simple truth is that most advertising texts have very little, or even no, actual content. Unfortunately, the space available is seldom used to bring additional information to the users, but is instead filled with disguised nothing.

Of course, if I were a consultant hired to replace the text, I would have simply thrown the original out entirely, and written something better from scratch—patching a poor job is often a worse idea than starting over.