Just a quick note: I will be updating this site more frequently from now on (because, you know, I have all the time in the world). I’ve changed the look slightly and I may tinker some more (I’d like to make the posts wider). I’ve also noticed that it’s been a bit of a downer here with the last couple of posts being negative reviews. But I have some reviews coming up of stuff I liked! And then I’ll have some other stuff I didn’t. I’ll also writing some shorter posts, in addition to my usual long-winded, time-consuming ramblings. See you in the future!
Everyone loves verbs, or so you would be led to believe by writing guides. Zack Rutherford, a professional freelance copywriter, posted an article on .eduGuru about how to write better marketing copy. In it he says:
Verbs work better than adjectives. A product can be quick, easy, and powerful. But it’s a bit more impressive if the product speeds through tasks, relieves stress, and produces results. Adjectives describe, while verbs do. People want a product or service that does. So make sure you provide them with one. [Emphasis his – JM]
If you’re a copy writer or marketer, chances are that you’ve heard this piece of advice. It sort of makes sense, right? Well as a linguist who studies marketing (and a former copy writer who was given this advice), I want to explain to you why it is misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst. These days it is very easy to check whether verbs actually work better than adjectives in copy. You simply take many pieces of copy (texts) and use computer programs to tag each word for the part of speech it is. Then you can see whether the better, i.e. more successful, pieces of copy use more verbs than adjectives. This type of analysis is what I’m writing my PhD on (marketers and copy writers, you should get in touch).
Don’t heed your own advice
So being the corpus linguist that I am, I decided to check whether Mr. Rutherford follows his own advice. His article has the following frequencies of usage for nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs:
|% of all words||23.01%||17.41%||11.30%||7.53%|
Hooray! He uses more verbs than adjectives. The only thing is that those frequencies don’t tell the whole story. They would if all verbs are equal, but those of us who study language know that some verbs are more equal than others. Look at Mr. Rutherford’s advice again. He singles out the verbs speeds through, relieves, and produces as being better than the adjectives quick, easy, and powerful. Disregarding the fact that the first verb in there is a phrasal verb, what his examples have in common is that the verbs are all -s forms of lexical verbs (gives, takes, etc.) and the adjectives are all general adjectives (according to CLAWS, the part-of-speech tagger I used). This is important because a good copy writer would obviously want to say that their product produces results and not that it produced results. Or as Mr. Rutherford says “People want a product or service that does” and not presumably one that did. So what do the numbers look like if we compare his use of -s form lexical verbs to general adjectives?
|-s form of lexical verbs||General adjectives|
|% of all words||2.01%||11.30%|
Uh oh. Things aren’t looking so good. Those frequencies exclude all forms of the verbs BE, HAVE, and DO, as well as modals and past tense verbs. So maybe this is being a bit unfair. What would happen if we included the base forms of lexical verbs (relieve, produce), the -ing participles (relieving, producing) and verbs in the infinitive (to relieve, it will produce)? The idea is that there would be positive ways for marketers to write their copy using these forms of the verbs. Here are the frequencies:
|Verbs (base, -ing part.,
Infin., and -s forms)
|% of all words||10.63%||11.30%|
Again, things don’t look so good. The verbs are still less frequent than the general adjectives. So is there something to writing good copy other than just “use verbs instead of adjectives”? I thought you’d never ask.
Some good advice on copy writing
I wrote this post because the empirical research of marketing copy is exactly what I study. I call it Econolinguistics. Using this type of analysis, I have found that using more verbs or more adjectives does not relate to selling more products. Take a look at these numbers.
|Copy text||Performance||Verbs – Adjectives|
These are the frequencies of verbs and adjectives in marketing texts ordered by how well they performed. The ninth text is the worst and the rest are ranked based on how much better they performed than this ninth text. The third column shows the difference between the verb frequency and adjective frequency for each text (verb % minus adjective %). If it looks like a mess, that’s because it is. There is not much to say about using more verbs than adjectives in your copy. You shouldn’t worry about it.
There is, however, something to say about the combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, etc., etc. in your copy. The ways that these kinds of words come together (and the frequencies at which they are used) will spell success or failure for your copy. Trust me. It’s what Econolinguistics was invented for. If you want to know more, I suggest you get in touch with me, especially if you’d like to check your copy before you send it out (email: joseph.mcveigh(at)gmail.com).
In order to really drive the point home, think about this: if you couldn’t use adjectives to describe your product, how would you tell people what color it is? Or how big it is? Or how long it lasts? You need adjectives. Don’t give up on them. They really do matter. And so do all the other words.
Other posts on marketing and linguistics
How Linguistics can Improve your Marketing by Joe McVeigh
Welcome to the new …And Read All Over. The content still sucks, I know, but what do you think of the new look?
The more I snoop around, the more I like WordPress over Blogger. Just sayin’…
Last week, Google unveiled Search plus Your World, their latest attempt to make the Internet shittier. Search plus Your World “helps you find personal results that are relevant to you.” What this means is that (when you are signed into your Google account), Google sorts their search results to more accurately reflect what they think you want to know. Which means is that Google is trying to tell you what you want to hear. Cute, but not helping.
Eli Pariser coined the term “Filter Bubble” to describe the ways that some online designs can overreach and become detrimental to user experience. This is most evident in the ways that Google orders its search results and how Facebook decides which of your friends are important to you. I highly recommend viewing Pariser’s TED talk on Filter Bubbles.
Based on your physical location, Internet history, and now your Google+ friends, your search results in Google will be different from anyone else’s, even if they are sitting right next to you. Facebook, for its part, will do things like remove friends from your news feed if you don’t click on the articles and pictures they post often enough.
Both of these things suck. Here’s why: Think about when you ask someone a question. Would you rather they gave you an honest answer, or would you rather they told you what they thought you wanted to hear? It’s the Smithers Predicament. Google could give equal value to their results, but they choose not to. When you’re shopping for shoes, it’s harmless. When you want information about the world, it’s ridiculous. Pariser, in his TED talk, shows screen caps from two friends’ search results on Egypt. The more left-leaning friend got results about the Arab Spring. The more right-leaning friend got results about travel and accommodations. Why? Because Google would rather be Waylon Smithers than Professor Frink.
The Federal Trade Commission has added Google to an antitrust investigation to see whether Google is unfairly promoting its services since results now feature Google+ hits more prominently. I’m not sufficiently versed in antitrust law to speak to that, but I can say that Google’s actions have made me seek out new ways to find information on the Internet. I used to think of Google as the index to an encyclopedia and I’m pretty sure most people feel that way. Now I realize it’s just a Yes Man.
There are ways to get out of the Filter Bubble, but it’s not easy. Pariser offers some tips, while Duck Duck Go is a whole search engine dedicated to not tracking or bubbling you. Their take on the Filter Bubble and its problems is much cooler than this article (check it).
The Internet is one of the single greatest human accomplishments and Google helps millions of people every day. But a bit of skepticism still goes a long way.
So… don’t be evil, just greedy?
There are a few things to do, besides what I mentioned earlier in this post. You could close your Google account. Also, if you rad ass blog is on Blogger, like mine is, you could move it to another host, like WordPress or DreamHost or any other one that isn’t out there sucking at not being evil.
[Update #2 – Jan. 26, 2011] Just to be sure, I was wrong when I said Google would rather be like Smithers. It’s pretty clear they are aspiring to be Monty Burns. Also, that’s it for Simpsons references. Promise.
Those against SOPA and PIPA make a pretty strong case of why the acts will cripple the Internet. On the other hand, members of Congress have long made a pretty compelling case of why they’re incompetent assholes.
It’s a tough call, but be on the safe side and tell your Congress member what a shithead you think they are for listening to the music and movie industry. Never listen to someone trying to sell you Linkin Park albums and Dane Cook movies, Senator. That just represents poor judgment.
Here’s where you can go to learn more and write Congress. And here are two videos that explain things better:
*Because I’m afraid of the dark.
On a recent Joe Rogan podcast, guest and film director Kevin Smith said that only good can come from encouraging artists, while discouraging an artist can only be a bad thing. This seems like a simple statement, but it raises a few interesting points. I’ll address them in order of abstractness, from least to most. (To hear it in action, go here and scroll to 1:12:20)
First, as Joe Rogan countered right away, sometimes discouragement can be its own motivator for the aspiring artist. It’s the “I’ll show them” idea. While Rogan said he doesn’t use that ideology, he also said he knows many professional fighters who do (Rogan is a martial artist and an MMA commentator). Smith agreed that professional fighting might be an area where feeding on that negative motivation is necessary, just because of the severe physical and mental strain that fighters must place on themselves. But this question of encouragement and motivation goes deeper.
Tim Burton raised a very similar point when he was a guest on Charlie Rose . Burton was interviewed around the time he had an exhibition at MOMA and was asked about his art, which is both very good and very Tim Burton. Burton responded that he can never understand when adults tell children (or when children tell themselves) that they can’t draw. It’s a profound insight. Burton himself “can’t draw” in the classical sense and he himself recognizes this. But as he said, that never stopped him from drawing. And now the man has had an exhibit at MOMA. (Again, go here but this time scroll to 14:20)
Third, and most abstractly, is the question of who decides what art is – the artist or the audience? The most obvious and honest answer here is the artist, although it usually doesn’t usually seem like their on the jury. Smith, Rogan, and Burton are three artists who could be very easily mocked by traditional critics (I suppose they would call it “critiquing”). But they are also three very successful artists with very loyal fans. Smith was able to circumvent the entire Hollywood industry in producing and releasing his latest full-length film, mainly because of how he can connect to his fan base through podcasts and Twitter.
So I suppose a better question would be, who decides what art is good art? The most obvious and honest answer is each audience member because each piece of art affects each of us differently (let’s not forget that critics are just professional audience members). We have all experienced a piece of art that we were told was great, only to find out it was shit*. So rather than see pieces of art as lying on a spectrum of good and bad, we should see everyone as having a personal spectrum of good art and bad art. We should also see these spectrums as independent of each other, even though they may overlap when comparing two or more people.
Finally, I want to make a point about the fashion industry because I was talking with my wife tonight about how I don’t think I will ever understand it. We agreed that people in fashion (the ones on the television at least) take themselves so seriously and yet what they do looks so frivolous. On the other hand, it’s an art form. As my wife said, it’s creative people doing creative things. And she’s right. I don’t have to understand it. My belief that it’s a bunch of phonies keeping up a charade isn’t going to change it. It’s art that doesn’t have a place on my spectrum.
*For me it’s Kafka. Seriously, I want my time spent reading that back. OK, for me it’s also T.S. Eliot.
Spelling of this post aside, I’m taking a more serious approach to this blog. Future articles will focus much more on academic articles and critiques. I’m not sure why I’m telling (warning?) you about this, but there it is.
I will still post book reviews and the occasional satirical article. Up next in book reviews are: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach, Stardust by Niel Gaiman, and The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. Up next in the satirical department is something seriously messed up. Be warned.