Obfuscate injures communicate

I think we’ve all seen them – those subscription offers from various magazines that promise $1 million dollars (or more) – and perhaps even a visit from Ed McMahon

I actually had an aunt and uncle, who received a ‘you may already be a winner’ envelope and called up their relatives to say that their ship had come in (not in those words, of course, they were prairie folk). I didn’t have the heart to burst their bubble and they found out the truth soon enough.

I recently got a note from a publisher which thanked me for subscribing by sending three ‘Treasurer’s Entry Cheques’. The first one for $500,000 and the second for $60,000 both had a stamped note saying ‘payment guaranteed to winner’. The third one for $31,000 was even more forceful: ‘imminent payment’, it proclaimed.

Now, I know better, but still I was enticed.

Even worse was the wording used in the oh so personal cover letter:
‘The fact that you are now in possession of the enclosed documents is proof that your chance of becoming a prize winner is all but confirmed.

Notice the words in bold: fact; now in possession; proof; becoming a prize winner; confirmed. They’re working hard to persuade you that you’ve already won. However, now look at the disclaimers in italic: your chance; all but. These words are almost hidden behind the screaming bolds, yet it’s the strong, quieter ones that really tell the truth about the offer.

I have to admit that part of me enjoyed reading the sentence for its wordplay. But, the other part was angry at how language is being used to obfuscate, not communicate.

This type of spin was de rigeur in many PR circles and one of the things that gave our industry its bad reputation. I think we can all look back on our careers and pick out a few examples we’re not so proud of.

Fortunately, the rules of social media have altered the playing field (writing field?). We now have to speak honestly, credibly and, yes creatively too. We can no longer hide behind a slick turn of the phrase.

The best PR people will let this filter into all aspects of the practice. And that will only be good for the profession (and gullible aunts and uncles everywhere).

About Martin Waxman

Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for over 25+ years. Martin is a LinkedIn Learning and Lynda.com author, teaches digital strategy and social media at University of Toronto SCS and Seneca College, and is a past-chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

2 thoughts on “Obfuscate injures communicate

  1. Hear hear. My peeve is the still-common “the first ‘most bestest product in the world’ from X beauty company.” So manipulative. I get that sometimes there are legal issues, but it still makes me crazy.

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