Mike Fromowitz
Oct 17, 2016

Euphemania: The art of not saying what you mean

Euphemisms are endemic—in product descriptions, job descriptions and industry jargon. Mike Fromowitz makes an argument for simplicity and clarity.

Euphemania: The art of not saying what you mean

Thanks to marketing, we now express ourselves with euphemisms: words or expressions that are substituted in order to make a blunt or unpleasant truth seem less harsh.

Putting a good spin on things, verbally, has become a habit with consumers, the marketing and advertising world and the online world. In fact, different cultures internationally deploy it. Euphemism is used across cultures and situations, but at its heart it's about getting away with something, and employing sleight of hand. We decide, for good or bad, that there are things that we don't want to think about.

Here’s just a few examples used in online content:

  • 'Passed away' instead of 'died'
  • 'Correctional facility' instead of 'jail'
  • 'Relocation centre' instead of 'prison camp'
  • 'Collateral damage' instead of 'accidental deaths'
  • 'On the streets' instead of 'homeless'
  • 'Adult entertainment' instead of 'pornography'
  • 'Vertically challenged' instead of 'short'
  • 'Au naturel' instead of 'naked'
  • 'Portly' instead of 'heavy' or 'overweight'. 

For some time now, the marketing industry has been using the soft language of euphemism to overcome expressions that may offend consumers or suggest something unpleasant. Euphemisms are employed to avoid saying anything controversial, taboo, or indiscreet, and can be really witty and out-and-out comical at times. What's more, euphemisms can make your dialogues more poetic, add certain amount of sophistication to them and make them sound more proper and right. Any word or phrase that gives us pause is a candidate for euphemizing.

But most often, euphemisms take the life out of good and honest copywriting. The following examples demonstrate my point.

Somewhere over the years...

  • 'Toilet paper' became 'bathroom tissue'
  • 'Sneakers' became 'running shoes'
  • 'Underwear' become 'unmentionables'
  • 'Wrinkles' became 'character lines'
  • 'Beer' or 'liquor' became 'adult beverages'
  • 'Lazy' became 'unmotivated'
  • 'Gambling' became 'gaming'
  • 'Used cars' became 'pre-owned vehicles'
  • 'Constipation' became 'occasional irregularity'
  • 'Unemployed' became 'between jobs'
  • 'Firing' someone became 'letting someone go'
  • Being 'broke' became having a 'negative cashflow position'
  • The 'bathroom' became the 'restroom'. 

The euphemism treadmill is neither new, nor does it churn faster than it once did. When you ask someone "Where’s the men’s?", you are replacing the word “restroom”, which can bring up notions of an under-sanitized room in the back of a fast-food restaurant. Yet the very idea of it being a "rest" room was an attempt to dispel associations with the word “toilet” or “lavatory”, a euphemism first used in 1864. “Men’s room” came into fashion in the 1920s.

How not to say what you mean

The marketing industry has invented euphemisms to help corporations and governments conceal their sins. When corporations fire people, we’re told that they have become “redundant members of the workforce”. And of course, governments don’t lie, they just “engage in disinformation”. 

Thanks to the marketing industry...

  • We have no more deaf people. They’re hearing impaired.
  • We have no more blind people. They’re visually impaired.
  • We have no more old people. We have senior citizens.
  • We have no more emotional problems. We have issues.
  • Men have gone from impotent to experiencing erectile dysfunction.
  • Politicians don't commit crimes, they make mistakes.
  • People don't fart, they pass wind.
  • Married people don't cheat, they commit adultery. 

A product like Pepto-Bismol, which used to market itself as a general cure-all for “nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea”, now markets these afflictions as “stomach trouble”. Just imagine being a guest at a party and delicately asking the host for “Pepto-Bismol and a bathroom because of tummy trouble”. You used a graceful euphemism instead of saying, "I am about to have a session of diarrhea like you wouldn't believe because of your crappy food!”

Euphemisms: New and improved

The language of marketing is awash with euphemisms that promise the most wonderful outcomes: whiter whites, sex appeal, adventure, nature is calling, excitement, a whole new you, have it your way, the real thing. Whether or not a new credit card or an iPhone can really transform our lives, the euphemisms in the guise of slogans or catchphrases briefly make us think they can. In reality, euphemisms are the highest form of doublespeak. Consumers will no doubt continue to witness these marketing euphemisms as new ones are being created daily.

Here are a few more common examples: 

  • When an unsolicited telephone call arrives, its representative often identifies the intrusion as a "courtesy call." The individual receiving this call would define it quite differently.
  • The "genuine imitation leather" you just purchased tends to be low-grade vinyl.
  • The widespread use of the word “affordable” often describes something that is not affordable at all. Real estate marketers assure us that $1 million houses are affordable; that $60,000 cars are affordable. Affordable for whom?
  • “New and improved” is one euphemism that won’t go away. It is often applied to washing detergents to gain a momentary lead over a competitor's product, which is really the same old inefficient product it was a year ago.

Some marketers and advertisers have to be cleverer still—for they sell products inherently connected with unpleasant topics. For example, several pharmaceutical products that are marketed to relieve pain and suffering also come along with inconveniences that cause continual trouble or distress to the human body. However, these products keep a large industry in profit, and an equally large number of marketing copywriters busy talking around them.

Feminine products are another example that market themselves with an extra dose of euphemism. In visual form, “feminine napkins” actually means a product made for absorption and are shown in TV commercials soaking up a pale blue liquid, and women riding horses or doing yoga. With euphemisms, writers skirt around the problem with a more desired outcome: “freshness”, “protection”, “security”. Some of this is just good psychology: focus on the solution, and don't dwell on the problem.

Euphemisms in job descriptions

As the scope of marketing has evolved over the years, so too have the responsibilities and job descriptions of those who work in the industry. Today, the marketing industry is all abuzz with its own set of euphemisms. It continues to invent new ones in an effort to put a new spin on its service offerings so as to appear different than competitors. People assume that taking a wheel from one bike and a wheel from another enables them to create a new bike and ride away on it.

While I understand that part of marketing a product or service is putting it in the most favourable light, taking such extraordinary effort to distract and dazzle with new and conjured-up euphemisms seems to betray a lack of confidence that thinking, writing, and designing have value without fancier titles.

In this new epoch, we’ve seen online marketing brew some new euphemisms for job positions at otherwise very admirable and respected ad agencies. Has the world of advertising gone mad from the confusion? Perhaps the following examples of these ridiculous advertising job titles reveals an outbreak of lunacy in our industry. (And before you ask, yes, they’re real.)

The absurd descriptions I feature below are just a small raft of euphemistic job titles dreamt up by modern managers desperate to attract a higher calibre of candidates. But they do offer very little insight into the position on offer: 

  • Interactive Evangelist: This isn’t the word of God you’d be preaching.
  • Social Media Ninja: If we can see you, you must be a pretty terrible ninja.
  • Innovator-at-Large: Overcompensating for something?
  • Brand Champion: You have to win something to call yourself a “champion,” right?
  • Chief Blogging Officer: Odd, since you have to report to a “Junior Copywriter.”
  • Brand Strategy Guru: A person who sits in a lotus position doling out insights that barely make sense.
  • Web Alchemist: This person has to make pixels and HTML turn into gold.
  • Digital Marketing Genie: If you rub your lamp a marketing campaign will emerge. 

Conjuring clarity or chaos?

The following job titles make adland sound a lot more magical than it really is. I view the trend toward wacky, overblown, melodramatic titles as a play by the industry to recapture some of the drama, excitement, and "magic" it's lost since its Mad Men heyday. Consider the following euphemisms and what they really mean: 

  • Behavioural marketing agency = advertising agency
  • Customer experience design = web design
  • User experience architect = web designer
  • Content strategy = thinking about which words and images to use on a website
  • Business intelligence = research
  • Empowered consumers = the people we are trying to sell things to
  • Forge connections = get people to click on things
  • Engage consumers = get people to click on things
  • Offline experiences = the real world (sans electronic gadgets)
  • Chief Visionary Officer = the "vision" is 20/20 when the campaign starts and blind as a bat when it tanks
  • Chief Marketing Guru = someone who has reached spiritual enlightenment. 

New and Improved Euphemisms? You be the judge.

• Native ads

Used to be that “Native Ads” were ads targeted to indigenous peoples. You know, when you were trying to niche target the Dayak of Borneo, the Rapanui of Easter Island, the Mandinka of West Africa, or the Bontoc on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Today, “Native Ads” are a whole different thing. Native Advertising is a euphemism that manifests as either an article or video, produced to look like editorial content in the media it’s used in. It’s similar in concept to an advertorial, which is a paid placement attempting to look like an article. The advertiser's intent is to make the paid advertising feel less intrusive and thus increase the likelihood users will click on it.

• The integrated agency

Used to be that an “Integrated” agency was one with a diverse staff, people of different ethnic persuasions: British, French, Chinese, German, Indian, Italian, Singaporean, African, and so on. Today, an “integrated” agency is defined as an agency that uses a holistic approach that includes all general communication disciplines including branding, advertising, design, digital and communications, all combined to produce better, and typically, more efficient results for their clients, with a focus on solution versus service delivery.

• Storytelling

Used to be that “Storytelling” was a craft that creative people used to get people hooked on a TV or radio commercial, or a print ad they liked so they would want to watch over and over again. When the story was highly relevant to the needs and interests of an audience, it was a powerful and persuasive way to convey information.

Today, marketers throw the euphemism of “storytelling” around like it’s a new idea whose time has come—but very few really understand how we have evolved this craft. Now, in our digital world, we have the ability to offer interactive storytelling allowing people to engage with brands across new channels: social media, online video and mobile.

Today’s storytelling isn't about telling anyone anything. It's about story-making (another euphemism), where a brand taps into the stories consumers are creating and sharing with each other. Storytelling was the epitome of the old one-way, broadcast mindset that so many of us in marketing are trying to leave behind. Story-making today, by contrast, is far more fulfilling, and exactly what will matter to the people all of our brands are trying to reach.

• Ad banners

Used to be that an “ad banner” was a commercially produced advertisement printed on plastic, vinyl or fabric material. Banners could be found plastered behind a window screen, as billboards, atop skyscrapers, or towed by airplanes.

Today, the euphemism “ad banners” refers to those highly-annoying forms of online advertising where an ad or message is embedded into a web page. The advertisement is known as a "clickthrough”. When a web user has visited the advertiser's site and clicks on a banner ad, the advertiser sends the content provider some small amount of money to pay for the Internet access and to supply the content in the first place. Why are these little suckers so annoying? Many web surfers regard these advertisements as highly annoying because they distract from a web page's actual content and waste bandwidth. Thankfully, newer web browsers often include options to disable pop-ups or block images from selected websites. Another way of avoiding banners is to use Adblock Plus. 

• Mobile ads

Used to be that a “mobile ad” was an ad you saw on the side of a truck, on taxi tops or the side of a bus as it passed by your home, office or while you were speeding along the highway. Mobile ads gave you the ability to reach people when they were on the move and receptive to advertising. Your message would be seen by thousands of people every day.

Today’s mobile ads are on cell phones. If you ask most consumers they will tell you that they do not appreciate being bombarded with advertising on their cell phones. Advertising to a desktop browser is a relatively standardized experience, and you can assume the user has a full range of actions available at any given time to see your ad, to click, or to buy. On mobile devices, these assumptions fly out the window. The problem with mobile ads is that our phones are a very personal thing that we take with us everywhere we go and interact with constantly.

For marketers, the mobile phone allows us to geo-target users with nearby offers every time they search or check-in somewhere. They intrude on our physical space. They are worse than an unsolicited door-to-door sales call. They’re like having that salesman follow you around all day.

• Social networking

Social networking used to refer to social and business connections among former pupils in schools and to the network of social and business connections among the chief executives of various prestigious corporations. The familiar term 'It's not what you know, it's who you know' is associated with this tradition. The “old school” style of social networking was a great way to meet, get to know people, create relationships, expand your business contacts and combine business with pleasure.

Today, the euphemism we call “social networking” is the practice of expanding the number of one's business and/or social contacts by making connections through individuals via the Internet. Now any two people on the planet could make contact through a chain of intermediaries—social networking establishes communities or personal networks that help people make contacts that would be good for them to know, but that they would be unlikely to have met otherwise.

What’s annoying about social networking is that everyone wants a piece of the action. Users want to be where the cool people are and feel part of a community. Businesses want to make money off of it. Most people use it so they can create or enhance their businesses. Our friendships and professional connections have moved online.

Euphemania: An obsession with euphemisms

I think that marketers and writers can surely communicate more effectively if they focus on clarity and simplicity—distilling things to their essence rather than constructing obstacles to decipher. In other words, let’s get rid of the bullshit and make our organization, products, or services easier to understand.

The business of marketing was a bit more "magical," back in the days when copywriters didn’t know how to spell ROI, campaigns were sold through over drinks in the boardroom or at the Ritz Carlton. Advertising folks and clients fared well with utilitarian descriptors like art director, copywriter and media buyer. Alas, the old ways are gone. And it'll take one heck of a “change architect” to bring them back.

As a profession, we should be less concerned with coining opaque jargon and more concerned with creating effective communication. 

Mike Fromowitz., a longtime Asia-Pacific ad man, is now partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising in Toronto. He is also the author of the one of the most consistently popular articles on this website, a 2013 post entitled, "Cultural blunders: Brands gone wrong".


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