The Penalty for Word Murder

Words express meaning. Images evoke emotion. By combining both, with intention and care, something truly magical happens: storytelling.

As marketers, we create stories to present client services, successes, and aspirations in order to inspire customer actions and deepen their relationships with companies and brands. We do this by applying our core values, our smarts, and our facility with language to present clear, understandable messaging that engages, provokes, and ultimately inspires desirable actions. We are blessed to undertake this work; being entrusted with someone’s brand is stewardship we take seriously and treasure among our greatest professional gifts.

Which is why word murder really pisses us off.

We see it all the time, and surely you’ve seen it as well… those ads, billboards, commercials that just don’t work because they DON’T – MAKE – SENSE! They don’t make sense because they’re muddled and not because they don’t take into account the perspective of the viewer (rather than just the client).

A simple litmus test is this: If you need to give an ad the benefit of the doubt in order to understand it, it’s word murder. An ad, a positioning statement, or any marketing piece should be understood on its own terms, otherwise it’s missing an opportunity to be successful.

I’m sure the good people behind this ad had the best of intentions, and I cannot claim that this ad failed to raise the money or awareness that it set out to achieve —I have no data, so I really don’t know. But I do know it lacks clarity in about ten different ways because of an over-reliance on being over-clever and a lack of thoughtful follow-through.

The intent of the ad is to say that this cancer center will be so excellent at curing cancer that it literally will cross the word “cancer” from our sight. And while curing cancer is among the most laudable pursuits I can think of, there’s no excuse for word murder.

By crossing out “Cancer” at the top, it leaves “you don’t have a chance!” bold and bright as day. And since it’s designed specifically to catch the eye of people affected by cancer, is that really the idea they want floating in their head? That even after we remove cancer, you still don’t have a chance? How messed up is that!? Same with the bottom of the ad – removing the word “cancer” from “MD Anderson Cancer Center” simply makes it the “MD Anderson Center.” Which immediately begs the questions “What does the MD Anderson Center do? Oh, it’s a cancer center — or maybe it was a cancer center and now it’s not? Did these guys cure cancer? What is happening??”

Maybe the ad is trying to say something about “we’ll get rid of cancer so bad that we won’t even be relevant anymore,” but… is that a great fundraising pitch? Give us money so we won’t be relevant anymore? No, give us money so CANCER won’t be relevant anymore — that’s the pitch.

And who is this face in the ad – is he the one who doesn’t have a chance? That’s bleak. Or is this guy telling me that I don’t have a chance? Of course, neither is the intention of the ad — it’s presumably that this guy is telling cancer that cancer doesn’t have a chance, but… let’s check, where is cancer even in the story… oh right, crossed out.

Given the benefit of the doubt, sure, the ad is fine. These guys are gonna fight cancer, hard. But ads, your ads, your website, your emails, shouldn’t require interpretation from the reader to guess and eventually get at your intention. Tell your story clearly and you’ll get the best possible results. Rely on other people to translate what you “mean”…  and it’s anybody’s guess.

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