How to use weasel words to bend the truth

by Tom Albrighton 25 January 2010 Copywriting

Weasel words are used to plant an idea in readers’ minds that is bigger than the actual claim being made. Working from vague, indeterminate facts (or no facts at all), you can generate perceptions that may be completely at odds with reality, without making a definite, absolute or concrete claim that could be open to challenge.

But should you do it? I’ve already made clear my own views on honesty in marketing. But needs must when the devil dances. Whether you use these techniques is up to you!

‘Help to’

In conjunction with ‘can’ (see below), ‘help to’ positions your product or service as part of the solution to a problem without taking sole credit. For example:

Crunchaflakes can help to reduce weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet

Of course they can. Any food can. With the calorie-controlled approach, it’s simply a question of adding up the calories and keeping below a set target. The claim is very carefully delineated and hedged about, and is neither distinctive nor remarkable. But it lodges the idea of weight loss in the reader’s mind.

‘Can’ and ‘could’

Use ‘can’ and ‘could’ for indefinite claims that you want to sound definite. For example:

While traditional fan heaters have an average lifetime of 10–15 years, the RoomHeater 32 can keep on pumping out heat for decades.

Indeed it can, if used relatively sparingly. If used incessantly, its lifetime would be much shorter. Caveat emptor!

Hundreds and thousands

Look again at the example above. What period does ‘decades’ actually denote? Dunno, but it sounds like ages – just as words like ‘dozens’, ‘hundreds’ and ‘thousands’ sound like big quantities.

Strictly speaking, 101 is ‘hundreds’ – it’s 1.01 hundreds, which is more than one and therefore plural. If you’re uncomfortable with that, stick to 200 and above, which is definitely more than one hundred. ‘Hundreds’ sounds bigger than ‘217’.

Willy was weary of being regarded as devious, purely on the basis of his species

Willy was weary of being regarded as devious, purely on the basis of his species

Fractions

Closely related is the word ‘fraction’, as in ‘now available at a fraction of the original price’. 99/100ths is a fraction, but your audience will think of the ones they learned at school, like 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4, which will make them think you’re offering a huge discount.

Relative improvement

Whiter teeth. Improved search engine rankings. Increased sales. Shinier hair. Whatever it is you’re offering to do, make it relative and unquantified, not absolute and specific. That way, even the tiniest improvement fulfils the promise.

Yes, of course my copywriting will increase your sales. I guarantee it. By up to 50%.

‘Up to’

‘Up to’ or ‘as much as’ are used when you want to quote a numerical or statistical claim, but can only substantiate it within a certain range.

For example, you might be marketing a service that gets people tax rebates. Let’s say that on average, people get rebates of around 10% of their bills, but some have received 50%. Instead of quoting the average, or the range, you can say ‘customers have received rebates of up to 50%’.

All you’re really saying is that the rebate is in the range 0%–50%, but it’s the upper number that will stick in people’s minds. Very few will infer the corollary, which is ‘some customers got nothing’.

Note that the ‘up to’ number must be honest: it may be unusual or exceptional, but it must be achievable.

‘Over’ and ‘more than’

Closely related to ‘up to’, ‘over’ and ‘more than’ make numbers sound larger than they are. For example, ‘over 50%’ sounds bigger than ‘51%’. When given a vague numerical range, people tend to overestimate. (If you want them to underestimate, use ‘under’ or ‘less than’.)

Watch out for using both ‘up to’ and ‘more’ together, which results in nonsense:

Save up to £50 or more!

Here, the £50 is neither a minimum or a maximum, just an arbitrary point in a completely undefined range. Although the audience may latch on to the £50, blurring the meaning twice means more confusion rather than more impact.

‘As much as’ and ‘as little as’

For a rhetorical twist, use ‘as much as’ or ‘as little as’ to imply that the figure you’re quoting is particularly high or low. For example:

The iPhone is now available for as little as £35 per month.

This suggests that £35 is low, but with no frame of reference to substantiate the claim.

Reported beliefs

Tom Albrighton is now regarded as the best copywriter in the UK.

Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But who’s doing the regarding? Dave Trott, or my mum?

The use of the passive case, which omits the subject of the verb, allows you to say something is being done without specifying who’s doing it. With verbs such as ‘thought’ or ‘believed’, you can put out a claim that may be completely unsubstantiated, simply by saying that someone thinks it’s true.

You can also use abstract nouns such as ‘concerns’ (usually ‘growing’), ‘speculation’ (often ‘intense’ due to being ‘fuelled’) or ‘allegation’ (probably ‘fresh’) to generate a sense that something’s cooking without naming the chef.

This ploy is very commonly used in political journalism, often to report an ‘off the record’ sentiment from a genuine source. A typical sentence might begin ‘Critics of the Prime Minister now believe…’.

Consider the following quote from this Guardian story, which brings all the techniques together in one sentence:

The disclosures will fuel growing concern that the prince is continuing to interfere in political matters when many believe he should remain neutral if he wishes to become king.

Who is concerned, and why will the disclosures fuel their concerns? Who are the ‘many’ who believe Charles should remain neutral? What is the factual basis for saying that he might not succeed to the throne, or that his succession is conditional on his behaviour? What, actually, is being said here?

Nothing. But it sounds good.

Rhetorical reinforcement

Use words such as ‘clearly’, ‘surely’, ‘self-evidently’ to make a premise sound like a conclusion. These rhetorical words add weight to a statement that may have no basis in fact.

Surely the recession is now drawing to a close?

It may be, or it may not – you haven’t actually said either way, but readers will think you have.

Unprovable superlatives

The CDs entitled ‘The best rock album in the world… ever!’ and similar highlighted the useful fact that superlatives are unprovable.

Suppose you start describing your firm as a ‘leading local widget maker’. Are you including firms who make other things as well as widgets? Or just widget specialists? Or just local widget specialists?

What’s more, how do you define ‘leading’? Do you sell most widgets? Make most money from widgets? Or just make the best widgets? Or are you just one of the best at making widgets? It really doesn’t matter, because the only thing readers will remember is ‘leading’. They won’t be querying your definition.

If you’re still unsure about your claim, dilute it with ‘regarded as’ or something similar, or position yourself as ‘one of the leading…’. Does that mean one of the top 10? The top 100? The top 1000?

Or you could copy Carlsberg, whose addition of ‘probably’ to ‘the best lager in the world’ allowed them to float the most outrageous marketing claim of all (‘best in world’) without actually making it.

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  • http://benlocker.co.uk Ben Locker

    It’s frightening how many of those techniques quickly become second nature!

  • http://www.roberthempsall.co.uk Robert Hempsall

    Great article Tom.

    A question for you and Ben though. Do you think that Joe Public is becoming wiser to these kind of nuances?

    I find myself treating them with the scrutiny that, in many cases, they merit but I suspect that might be down to my naturally cynical nature. There seems to be dribbles of government action to make companies at least quantify these kind of claims and I just wonder if it makes people ask a few more questions.

    Keep up the good work.

    Robert

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Hi Robert

    It’s an interesting question. My own answer is that many consumers are still convinced by the claims they hear. Look at TV ads created by brands owned by Procter & Gamble, who really don’t mess about when it comes to understanding the consumer. When marketing products such as shampoo, they’ll use loads of ‘science bits’, stats, surveys and claims that, to me, seem utterly flimsy. But we have to assume they’re doing the business for the advertiser.

    As this piece shows, unsubstantiated claims won’t stand up to close analysis. But many of them are being made through media that aren’t closely examined, or to audiences who aren’t paying full attention. We’re all busy and we don’t have time to weigh every marketing message that comes our way. All else being equal, it could be enough just to plant the idea of worth in the reader’s mind, even unconsciously. When the ‘moment of truth’ arrives, that perception or memory could be enough to swing them towards your client’s product. Do you always know why you buy?

    Tom

  • http://www.turnerink.co.uk Sarah Turner

    The one I hate is when I’m asked to include the word ‘leading’ as in Biggins annd Bloggs are a leading marketing agency. Leading what exactly?
    Great post Tom.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Leading the customer up the garden path of course!

    Thanks for the kind words.

  • http://www.nosloppycopy.co.uk Howard Smith

    Some of these words are quite legitimate. For example, there is very little alternative to the ‘up to’ claim where the performance of a product depends on how the customer uses it (hands up all those who drive at a constant 56mph and achieve 70mpg). That said, I try to avoid weasel words in B2B writing – and especially in press releases. That way you end up with forceful, unequivocal copy with the emphasis on what IS and a subtle hint of what CAN BE.

  • http://www.unmemorabletitle.co.uk Andrew Nattan

    Well Tom, this could be one of the best articles I’ve read this week.

    I do agree with Howard though. Some times you need to use the weasel words. Especially if you’re lumbered with writing about a product or service that just isn’t that impressive.

  • http://www.writecombination.com Andrew Knowles

    I used to work for a software company which constantly pumped out new products that no one bought.

    Part of the problem was that no one wanted to be the first customer. So they added a passing comment in their sales presentations, affirming that there had been a ‘number’ of sales of a particular product. The number was, of course, zero. But it’s a number, nevertheless!

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  • http://rowwrites.blog.co.uk Rowena

    Ooh, you are evil ;)
    .-= Rowena´s last blog ..Bellys gonna get ya =-.

  • http://reidhunt.co.nz missingglove

    Effortlessly, mindlessly, guilty! Of every single one.

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