Find your center, focus your mind and do whatever else you need to do to prepare yourself for the following task:
First I’d like you to picture a bachelor.
Now, I’d like you to picture a spinster.
I’m not suggesting you’re some sort of predictable dullard (although if I’m right about the next bit…), but I’ll put money on your line of thinking being something along the following lines. If I’m wrong, be sure to leave a comment below about how much smarter you are than me.
- Suave, sophisticated ladykiller
- Lives in a bachelor pad (appropriately) that is always spotlessly clean
- Spends most of his time playing Dave Brubeck on his expensive stereo and drinking even more expensive whiskey
- Essentially, Don Draper
- Miserable, haggard – an archetypal crazy cat lady
- Lives in a decaying, run-down bungalow filled with stacks of newspapers, unwashed plates and various relics to aforementioned cats
- Spends most of her time looking suspiciously through a gap in her curtains
- Basically Mrs Havisham
What you’re probably thinking (other than “wow, he was completely right, what a predictable dullard I am”) is “…and the point is?”
Well, allow me to pull out one of the dustiest, tired, hackneyed writing tropes going and quote the dictionary:
Bachelor – noun – “a man who has never been married” (also, apparently “a knight of the lowest order”)
Spinster – noun – ” a woman who has never been married”
The technical definition of the words is the same. However, years of societal pressures and what have you have meant one term has been semantically loaded in a very positive way and the other in an extremely negative way.
The point of all this is that every single word counts, and even when using one that makes perfect sense from a literal standpoint can be inadvertently disastrous.
However, the point of this post isn’t senseless scaremongering. There are actionable ways that you can use semantics to your advantage.
Background – Don Draper’s “It’s Toasted” principle
If you’ve spent any time reading other copywriting posts – or if you’ve watched the first season of the superlative Mad Men – you’ll no doubt be familiar with the “It’s Toasted” principle (which Copyhackers have covered superbly here).
In short, Don takes a standard feature found across the entire cigarette industry – the fact that the tobacco is toasted during production – and makes it a differentiator. Don does this because of growing restrictions around cigarette advertising in the 1960s; gone were the good old days when you could basically make up any old bollocks about how magical and medicinal they were.
A lesser explored avenue around this principle is the why; not why he chose to do this, but why zeroed in on the “toasted” aspect.
Without wanting to come off like an advocate of the tobacco industry, calling a cigarette “toasted” plays on numerous reasons why people may smoke – and also goes some way to combatting reasons why they might stop:
- Being toasted implies care and attention in the manufacturing process, and we naturally associate human involvement during production with a lower chance of the product being bag for us.
- On a slightly tenuous level, some people smoke because their parents did, and their parents before them. Something being toasted conjures up images of rural scenes of old folks puffing away by a riverbank as the sun sets – essentially, it heightens the nostalgic connection to the past.
- Something that’s been toasted just sounds cool – and plenty of people first started smoking precisely to look cool.
- I have conducted some rigorous A/B testing which has proven that the toasting of bread improves its chances of converting (read: being eaten) by 128%. People like toast, so they probably like their ciggies toasted, too.
Just as the cigarette business was entering a crisis period in the 1960s, one problem that many Western businesses have encountered, particularly during the last two decades, has been the backlash they’ve faced due to moving production abroad.
Globalisation and innovations stuff like the internet has meant that for many, the temptation to build their wares halfway around the globe and then ship them for a fraction of the cost of producing them domestically has proved too much. However, what they’ve gained in margins, in some cases they’ve conceded in terms of customer satisfaction.
The generally held perception – not without some justification – is that a luxury car made in far flung factory in Shanghai doesn’t boast the same quality as something that’s just rolled off a production line in Detroit having been lovingly tended to by a series of men named either “Bruce” or “Chuck”.
With the proportion of vocal internet users on sites like Reddit and Facebook that are from the US, it’s not a massive surprise that two of the industries on the receiving end of considerable ire both have a rich history of production in the US but are now commonly sourced abroad; fashion and clothing such as jeans.
With the ever-growing awareness of the issues surrounding the number of Western brands now importing basically everything they make – not just harrowing stories of inhumane sweatshops, but the ramifications it has on the domestic job market, as well as quality control – more consumers are telling brands where to get off when it comes to foreign-produced goods.
Some brands simply bury the fact that their goods, but this only works so long as the customer remains in the dark. If they think they’re buying one of Bruce and Chuck’s labors of love and then find that they’re actually buying a car that’s been sat in a container ship can for months on the high seas, they have every right to feel somewhat miffed.
The imported vs. foreign-made paradigm
Let’s repeat the exercise we started with, shall we? (I’ll try not to insult your intelligence and call you a dullard this time).
Compare the semantics of “imported” with “foreign-made” and see if we’re on the same page:
- Worth having – after all, if someone’s gone to the effort of importing it, it must be better than what’s available nearby
- Products I’d naturally associate with being imported would include wine and expensive cooking ingredients – in essence, things where you would associate production in certain locations with higher quality
- Cheap – both in terms of quality and what it costs the producer, making mark-ups seem all the more exorbitant
- Morally questionable
- Mass production that is anything but exclusive
- A general degradation of a brand’s prestige
You get the idea. As with “bachelor” and “spinster”, “imported” and “foreign-made” have virtually the same definition, but years of societal and cultural prodding and poking has made one a nail in the coffin of a product while the other can elevate one and even be, like Draper’s “It’s toasted” maxim, the much-vaunted differentiator.
Obviously, this is one of the darker examples of using semantics. I’m not advocating duping your readers or customers, but the point stands – you’re putting too much stock in what you’re saying and not how you’re saying it.
Once you’ve got your basic message nailed down, think very carefully about the exact wording you use and the order of the words – it can make all the difference.
Photos courtesy of Pexels, US Magazine, BBC