Top Habits of Irritating Marketers

Charlie Hankers | December 7th 2016

To celebrate the fact that we’ve got Christmas all wrapped up, we’ve got the purrrrfect (sorry!) offer for cat lovers. A super-compact disc of cats, with a combined age of 275 human years, at up to 50% off the RRP. Now you can enjoy cat CDs for the price of a Nissan Micra. And we’re not yolking!

It’s not easy being in marketing, but it was never meant to be easy. It’s a discipline that rewards those who channel the bravery, the imagination and the nerdiness into their projects, and weeds out the me-toos, the also-rans and the ones with a tin ear for a marketing message.

But worse than the barely considered low-hanging marketing tropes there are real crimes being committed. There is institutionalised lying, sleight of hand and misinformation, there are lazy lines that reverberate through the ages, and there are concepts that insult the intelligence of the customer so gravely that it’s a wonder they don’t launch a class action lawsuit for defamation. Oh, and over my copywriting career I’ve probably used all of them. Sometimes I was just obeying orders. Take a look.

1. Up to 75% off!

evereadyThe ubiquitous up-to. Sigh. A Boeing 747 can fly at up to 45,000 feet. That makes sense – it can fly at 23,000 feet, 3,000 feet and 2 feet off the ground, which is great news for anyone hoping to make it to 45,000. But beyond 45,000 feet something bad will happen, so let’s not go there.

We all understand what “up to” means. It’s a sliding scale, a list of endless possibilities between (presumably) zero and the stated maximum. So when a store advertises a sale with signs bearing a massive “75% off” preceded by a not-so-massive “up to”, it becomes problematic. They are literally saying the goods can have any discount below 75%, including zero. I’ve even seen ads saying stuff like “up to 50% off and more”, which makes me wonder why even bother mentioning the 50% at all.

And sure enough, when you go into the store or visit the website, there’s never anything that’s 75% cheaper than its RRP. But there’s nothing you can do about it.

2. Combined 185 years’ experience

Companies, and let’s face it, it’s normally the smaller ones, will often reassure customers of their internal skill sets by adding up all the years’ experience in a certain discipline. Sadly, it’s virtually meaningless. Do they all know the same things or do they all know different things? If it’s the same things then the combined experience doesn’t count for much, and if it’s different things then it shouldn’t really be combined.

If a company is trying to win your custom by delivering a cumulative experience statement, stop them and ask what the average is.

3. Apologising when you make a joke

The urge to make terrible jokes is too much for many a writer, and when you have a little carte-blanche or are under orders to be funny and chatty, temptation gives way to weakness. So you make the joke. And apologise. Problem is, it’s worse than saying “geddit?”, “no pun intended!” or “did you see what I did there?” after your joke. It’s instructing those who haven’t got the joke on first read to go back and have another go, and another, until they laugh.

Jokes are sometimes best left as little gems that only a small proportion of your readers will appreciate. If they have sledgehammer subtlety, either leave them out or let them remain unapologetically in place.

4. Bad puns

I’m not talking about the groan-inducing puns so beloved of newspaper headline-writers. It doesn’t matter how naff a pun is as long as it gets the reaction it wants. I’m sure most punning headlines are knowingly written, in many cases as a dare to see if they will get published because they are so cringeworthy.

But “bad puns” doesn’t mean cheesy puns. It means puns that think they are puns but really aren’t.

A fire normally needs three ingredients to work: fuel, oxygen and heat. It’s called the fire triangle. Take one away and it’s no longer a fire – all means of fire extinguishment do just that.

But there is also a pun triangle, and without the three vital ingredients, the pun is extinguished. It’s just a pn (because it lacks a sense of U-more).

  • First you need the base phrase – a title, a person’s name, a saying, an idiomatic phrase – something that will sound strangely familiar yet obviously different when the p-bomb is inserted.
  • Second, you need to replace a word or phrase with another, usually because it rhymes but possibly an alliteration or something that just sounds similar.
  • Third, to complete the triangle, the pun has to actually make sense in the context in which it’s being used. THIS where many a pun’s potential is extinguished.

Think of all those wonderful hair salons with names like Curl up and Dye, Headonism, From Hair to Eternity and (my favourite) Hairodynamics. Yes, they’re dreadful, but they work, and that’s why they are great.

Simply ramming a seemingly appropriate word into a phrase doesn’t cut it. The pun has to be eased into place, reworked, reworded and teased until it fits. Alice Jones spotted this abomination (about the Dr Foster story):

5. “To celebrate the release of …”

Oh, come on. You’re not celebrating anything. Official partners of movies, books, sporting events and games are of course going to use the name to help their own marketing effort – that’s the whole point. It’s the actual phrase “To celebrate the release of …” that is frayed around the edges. Just think of something else. “To get a return on our investment in …” would be refreshing.

6. Outdated Superlatives

We really need to start giving things names that genuinely reflect their measurable qualities and trust consumers to find out whether the thing they’re looking for is good or not, fast or slow, big or small. We’ve become lazy giving things names and we’ve run out of superlatives to describe concepts, products and services.

Look at the compact disc, which holds roughly 700 MB of data or, at a push, 20 songs. You can now get a 512 GB Micro SD card and lie it comfortably in the spool hole of a CD. You’d need 700 CDs to fit the same amount of data on it. But we’re stuck with the seedy name compact disc.

Governments and news broadcasters like to talk about “super-fast broadband”, which sounds super impressive (or maybe just impressive), but the description has been bandied around for so long that the super-fast broadband of ten years ago (say 2Mbps) is a fraction of modern super-fast broadband (say 1Gbps, or a CD every 0.05 seconds). Of course, giving it a number doesn’t sound half as impressive, especially since it will be outdated once it’s been rolled out.

See also high definition TV, high speed rail.

7. We’ve got Christmas all wrapped up

Google it.

8. Purrfect

Every fluffy article mentioning our feline friends must, by law, contain at least one mention of the word “purrfect”. If you are lucky enough not to have been born when The Darling Buds of May was being aired, you’ll have been spared purrfect’s bastard sibling which the press picked up, ran with and disappeared down a cesspool at every paparazzi snap of Catherine Zeta Jones looking flawless. And purrfect is worse even than that.

9. For the price of a coffee/pint

Sometimes I’ll be offered a product or service, usually on some sort of eternal subscription or hire purchase deal, that costs somewhere in the £2 to £5 range. But just to make sure I understand, they go on to tell me about something else that costs the same amount, and it’s usually a coffee or a beer.

It’s the sinister undertone that gets me. They’re essentially telling me not to have the coffee or the beer, and to buy their product. If not, why bring the coffee or the beer into the conversation? Why remind me of their existence? They think their product is either worth replacing the coffee or the beer with, or they think that because an individual coffee or beer is relatively cheap, I can buy limitless supplies of them (or their monetary equivalents) without it making a dent in my bank balance. It makes me think they don’t understand money. So whatever it is they’re selling me, I choose to give up the chance of owning it and go and buy a coffee. Or a beer. They must hate me.

10. Latching on to any and every event

There’s a thing called newsjacking which, when done well, is a brilliant and funny way to get a bit of publicity on social media. But then there’s the dreary, soul-filching way that brands will make offers based on events that have literally nothing to do with their line of business. It’s Easter, you say? Well that’s why we’ve got 5% off spanners at Spanner Superstore. It’s a royal wedding, you say? Well that’s why we’ve got 5% off spanners at Spanner Superstore. The World Cup is on, you say? Well that’s why we’ve got 5% off spanners at Spanner Superstore. And as for those hilarious national days, well it’s like Groundhog Day.

11. Fauxcitement

We’re excited to announce that we’ve reached number 11 on our list. Excited. Literally having to run on the spot to dissipate our excitement. Hmmm. “Excited” is used to signify enthusiasm, which is fine, but when it’s used all the time it begins to lose its impact, and it has entered the vernacular of self-promotion. Half the time the excitement is inspired by just doing your job properly, but most importantly, not a single person believes you’re excited.

Unless you’re this guy.

12 Our Busy Lives

Up until the start of the 20th century, people would start work at age 5, doing 16-hour days and earn just enough to pay for a hovel with a blanket and some scraps of food before settling down to an eternal rest at age 35, crushed and broken by hard manual labour and rearing up to a dozen children with no labour-saving devices to help them. Marketers’ insistence that we lead busy lives when restaurants, gyms, streaming TV services and holiday companies are enjoying great times seems to lack a touch of perspective. Yes, many of us work round the clock to make ends meet, but they’re generally not the ones having expensive labour-saving gadgets and pointless frippery shoved on them.

13 This High-Tech World

typewriterIn this high-tech world in which we live, we need to make sure we stay up to date. Because the high-tech world is completely new, and not staying high-tech will leave us wallowing in a world that six months ago was considered high-tech but which is now low-tech.

It is always a high-tech world. We are always at the forefront of technology, connectivity, and we always have been, from the moment that high-tech chimp realised a bone could be used to bludgeon the low-tech chimps to death.

(Incidentally, there’s an irony in constantly being told that we’re (a) super-busy and (b) living in a dreamworld of technological advancements that will make our lives so much easier. One of these statements must be stretching the truth a bit … or possibly both.)

* * *

So there we have it. I’d love to say I’d avoided all of the above in my professional life, but I, like most other marketers, have probably fallen back on one or two* of them from time to time. And that’s probably why I find them all so irritating.

* Or 13