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January 28, 2010
Houston, We Might Could Have a Problem

Why are some brands and companies committed to being non-committal?

I once worked with a client who used an interesting phrase when he was non-committal: “might could.” As in, “we might could do this project later this year” or “we might could use that photograph.” As a colloquialism, “might could” is a stand-in for “maybe.” But whenever we heard it, we interpreted it as “probably not,” or more realistically, “don’t hold your breath.”

These days, it seems like lots of advertising suffers from a case of the might coulds. In other words, we’re losing the ability to promise anything definite, or offer anything concrete.

As an industry, we’ve become much more concerned with how people feel about a product or brand (or how the product makes them feel) than what they’ll actually get out of buying the product. That shift in strategy has been in place for a long time, and it brings a softer-sell approach which does indeed work well for many products.

But heaven help you if you’ve ever worked on a service industry client or some type of business-to-business account where you’re often told to position whatever it is you’re selling as some sort of amorphous “solution” that carries no guarantees or tangible benefits—only a few might coulds. Spend a lot of time in that corner of the ad world and it’s really jarring to see a product, at least not in an direct response infomercial, that so blatantly makes promises.

I recently saw a shampoo commercial that used the tagline, “7 benefits, 1 bottle.” They said it outright, which to my copywriter ears sounded a little disconcerting, like it was directly pulled from the client’s mouth or the creative brief. In that 30-second spot, they didn’t mention what the 7 benefits were. But sure enough, when I went to the product website, they list the benefits, quickly, simply, and definitively. No might could talk there. So blatant, it was almost refreshing.

Quite often, it’s a question of what “legal” will let an ad say. Many a campaign has been born around a specific product benefit or claim, only to be killed at the last minute because a client’s legal department won’t allow it. Perhaps it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, but few clients risk their necks for that principle.

So when we can’t make a definitive promise about our client or their product, we’re forced into the corner of possiblys and maybes. And incorporating that type of wording waters down the message into a soggy mess incapable of persuading anyone to do anything.

I confess I fall into that trap too. Because whenever I write something on this column that sounds definitive, even when it’s only my opinion, someone will accuse me of generalizing too much. But that’s what advertising is. We’re a business built on generalizations. That why we group consumers into categories and assume we know how they’re likely to respond.

Businesses today don’t have the luxury of resorting to the world of might could. Sales, short-term profits and immediate ROI are more important than ever. So now we’re inundated by ads where the pitch to buy comes fast and furious, but the reasons to buy don’t.

Now, I’m not suggesting that more brands go out and promise what they can’t deliver. Simply pay a visit to vintageadbrowser.com and you’ll see decades of advertising offering consumers a view of the world through rose-colored glasses. Most people stopped believing definitive claims in ads a long time ago.

But many clients still believe they need to make a claim—even when it’s half-assed. Perhaps there’s a way we can persuade more clients to define themselves and their products in more concrete terms. And accept that some customers will believe and buy, and some simply won’t. That’s the most rational argument you can make for a brand that lives more by rational messaging rather than emotional appeal.

Who knows, we might could change the way lots of businesses communicate. And that would definitely be a change for the better.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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