There has been a lot of talk of “weasel words” lately. A weasel word is a meaningless modifier that softens or negates whatever claim that follows. Very common in marketing, politics and corporate communication, the term was inspired by the eating habits of weasels. A weasel will discretely suck out the inside of an egg, leaving it looking in tact. Upon closer examination, however, anyone can see the egg is hollow and empty.
Weasel words are used to make hollow claims sound substantial; for example, “virtually spotless”.
We all know that spotless means “perfectly clean, but when you add “virtually” to spotless, it doesn’t mean “almost perfectly clean”; it means nothing. Sometimes this is done to avoid having to take responsibility (legal or otherwise), but often it’s an attempt to make consumers think they’ve heard something that hasn’t actually been said and believe things that have only been implied.
In his recent book, “Would They Lie to You? How to Spin Friends and Manipulate People”, journalist Robert Hutton gives some wonderful examples of weasel expressions, which he calls “uncommunication” – the fine art of steering a truck through the gap between a lie and the simple truth. This gap is as common for estate agents as it is for marketers.
The weasel ad of the week!
Below, is a marvellous ad where every single line contains a wonderful weasel. Reading it line by line makes entertaining reading, but also serves as a sort of road map for weasels:
“Can reduce cholesterol by up to 80%.”
…in a parallel universe where food chemistry magically changes. Anything is possible.
“Farm ‘fresh’ eggs”
As far as I know, all eggs come from farms, both fresh ones and not so fresh ones.
Yesterday? Two weeks ago? Just before the World Cup?
Those eggs have been lying around for months and we finally got around to collecting them yesterday. Aren’t you impressed?
“100% organic and natural”
What eggs are not natural? Am I missing something? And I didn’t know there was a difference between 87% organic and 100% organic…
The moral of the story
As communications specialists, we have a shared responsibility with our marketing partners to weed out the weasel words and foster honesty and simplicity. Mind you, simplicity doesn’t mean dumbing things down. On the contrary, it takes hard work and discipline to be simple. To quote Mark Twain “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Simplicity forces us to define boundaries and set priorities to get things done quickly and honestly.