The infants have taken over the asylum

Why are people working in media and advertising choosing to discard centuries of understanding in an attempt to get with the kids, asks Route’s James Whitmore

I’m surprised about how laissez-faire we are with the words we use. If you lose the battle for language, you’re unlikely to win a war for understanding.

By way of illustration; “Brexit” is a bright and breezy term, seemingly inconsequential. What about “EU-icide”? A vote to leave requires courage and it is irrevocable. It causes pain to you as well as to those you leave behind. In many ways, EU-icide is more apt. Would a majority vote for the same thing by another name?

The proven media have long ceded the battle for language. See what I did there? “Proven”, not “old” or “traditional”. It is difficult to think of a parallel when a new technology resulted in a wholesale change to the terminology for the existing world. Moon rockets did not lead to talk of “traditional transport”. Typewriters were made obsolete by personal computers but they were allowed to keep their name.

Oddly, for advertising, a gentle waft of new technology and all sense was lost. The media fell over themselves to apologise for their long-established brilliance and effectiveness. “Yes, call us old hat”, appeared to be the consensus.

Some even chose to discard centuries of understanding in an attempt to get with the kids.

I can read a newspaper in my hands, peering over someone’s shoulder on the tube, on my phone or my computer. I am now asked to read a “news brand” in my hands, peering over someone’s shoulder on the tube, on my phone or my computer and er, …that’s it. The nature of what newspapers can do has changed but normally you’d expect people’s understanding of the word, “newspaper”, to evolve in line with their experience. Airplanes were once made of string and bits of wood; they eventually went on to be supersonic. They were always known as airplanes. Do you need to chuck away a universally understood meaning just to be able to show a few videos on your website?

The people who pay my wages are at it too. There were posters at Pompeii and they have remained in vogue for the 2,000 years since, presumably because they work so well. Now we call them “classic OOH”. Yes, that was my grandfather’s habitual reaction to the Benny Hill Show. It’s also how the sector refers to the formats that are not screen-based – posters. Here too, the suggestion is that we rip it up and start again.

I also understand that TV is about to change and there’s shortly to be a switchover to linear. I just hope I shan’t need to buy a new telly.

How do you win the battle for language? I recently saw a presentation from a pen pal website. This quote is typical of the form of words, “we can no longer rely on cookies but must engage in people-based measurement solutions”. There are two things going on here. The first is to appropriate the emollient sounds of childhood to make something that is obscure and opaque come across as desirable and soothing. The second is to take an existing concept and cloak it in tortured verbiage so that it sounds novel, something encountered for the very first time.

Let’s take “cookie” first. Summoning the assuredness of the proponents of techno media, I’ll impose my own definition, limited though it is by my own worldview. Let’s say it is an “electronic pulse of uncertain origin”. A little wrangling and I have the acronym, “e-poo”. It evokes childhood. But would you feel happier that your targeting is based on cookies that enumerate page visits or that your marketing investment is governed by a pile of e-poo?

What about “people-based measurement systems”? This is not clear. Is it actually people-based measurement systems, by which we mean audience research, or is it the tracking of user activity? The latter is not the same thing and it is not necessarily linked to people – there might be multiple users of a single account. What we are left with is the opacity of gobbledygook.

In truth there is little new in online media. We have TV programmes; newspapers, magazines and pamphlets; home videos; film rental; blue movies; advertorials; loo and bus-stop graffiti and much more besides – all recognisable stuff. Now each comes with a swinging new name.

If you look at the most popular forms of online marketing technique, they too are the same as they have ever been – directories, catalogue shopping, direct mail and sales promotions. Heaven forefend that you should use such outmoded language.

I imagine that if someone had attempted to use the existing nomenclature, they’d be rebuked as “not getting digital”. It is the binary discourse of the playground but it set a level to which everyone was happy to sink. The high ground has gone; it has been lost.

It is laudable that the media are sufficiently open-minded to rename established functions in a second language. On the other hand, it is obvious that many things do not readily translate and the result can be a loss of plausibility. The advantage in debating in your first language is lost.

It also matters as advertisers are pushed into being bi-lingual. They are asked to consider one set of words for what they knew and another for what is new. In essence the question is very simple and the language ought to aid rather than obscure. What is the best way to communicate the idea?

This article was originally produced for Mediatel newsline

Image credit: Fashion Dads Instagram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *