July 20, 2011

Germs for Sale

A devoted reader of The Awkward Adverb informed us that her neighborhood Walgreens is infamous for its unintentionally funny signs on display throughout the store. She sent us a batch of photos that include:

  • Odd syntax and grammatical mistakes


  • Nonsensical or head-scratching messages

  • Incorrect or confusing math



Although The Awkward Adverb got a good laugh from these signs, we aren't here to make fun of them (or not only to make fun of them). As advocates of good communication, we must also honestly ask whether the signs' poor quality really matters.These signs were put up to boost sales. Do they succeed despite their mistakes?

We would argue that they actually harm sales. Most shoppers, when confronted with a sign saying "Yucky
Germs?", would choose not to buy that product. Even without the possibility of infection, these signs leave shoppers puzzled, and confusing marketing messages do not tend to encourage purchases.

How do these signs impact the Walgreens brand? They generate concern from the top. When we wrote an e-mail asking for comment to customer service through the Walgreens website, we were surprised to get a personal call early the next morning from someone pressing for details. However, we declined to provide any and didn't pursue the matter further. In a world of airtight, top-down branding, we preferred to let this store's individual quirks fly under the radar.



Contribute Your Comments

Do you think signs like these hurt a store's sales?

May 10, 2011

Follow the Leader




When you read marketing materials, you find that many companies claim to be "leading providers" of something or other. This phrase spans all industries. Here's a quick sampling gathered from the Internet:

  • "MetLife is a leading provider of insurance and other financial services to millions of individual and institutional customers."
  • "Targus Group - Leading Provider of Laptop Cases, Bags and Accessories"
  • "DaVita, Inc., a Fortune 500 company, is a leading provider of kidney care in the United States."

Most often companies claim to be a leading provider, not the leading provider. After all, a company purporting to be the leading provider of a market would need to support the assertion with factual data, such as the highest sales numbers.

Even true leaders seem to trot out this lazy claim without a second thought. There are 24 million Google results for "leading provider." With all those leaders, who's following?

More importantly, do consumers ever respond do this stuffy wording? Does anyone consciously or unconsciously gravitate to the products or services of self-appointed leading providers? It's not likely.

In the first example, if MetLife were looking for a quick solution for getting around the phrase, it could replace "is a leading provider of" with the word "provides" all by itself:
  • "MetLife provides insurance and other financial services to millions of individual and institutional customers."
By making the change, the company would:

  • Replace a weak linking verb ("is") with a strong active verb ("provides")
  • Improve concision by eliminating four words
  • Avoid tired phrasing that doesn't resonate
  • Communicate more directly

Now that sounds more like a leader.

March 17, 2011

Real Fakes

Pioneered by Amazon, product reviews have become an essential part of e-commerce, and sites dedicated solely to reviews have sprung up, from Yelp to Epinions to TripAdvisor. Not surprisingly, efforts to game online reviews have also emerged.

Ordinary consumers with no conflicts of interest supposedly author reviews, but sometimes companies plant glowing fake reviews among legitimate ones. It can be hard to spot the fakes, especially when casually browsing. But certain characteristics can help identify them, and writing styles offer a number of clues:
  1. Too effusive – "This coffee maker is the best thing ever invented! I would buy it again and again, and I recommend it to everyone alive!"
  2. Too specific – "Acme's aerodynamic coffee drip mechanism creates the ideal brewing environment for beans prepared with Acme's 345G coffee grinding system."
  3. Horrible, irrelevant writing (so five stars can be given) – "i luv coffee & this coffee maker makes the best coffeee in da wurld LOL!!!!"
  4. Marketing-speak – "This coffee maker is GENIUS! No more moving, disconnecting cables, and spilling out water and coffee. I love waking up in the morning and finding a perfectly hot cup of coffee thanks to the programmable timer. I RECOMMEND THIS LOVELY PRODUCT!"
Why so much about coffee? Well, the last example is actually a "real" fake review posted on Amazon by someone working for the company DeLonghi. Other well-known companies caught in the fake review game include Belkin and Carbonite, not to mention many smaller firms.

With care, the writing could be finessed to avoid detection. On the other the hand, companies could redirect efforts into running marketing campaigns that don't involve deception.


January 19, 2011

Results-Oriented Problem Solvers

At the end of 2010, the business social networking site LinkedIn released the top "overused buzzwords" found in users' profiles that year. For the U.S., they are:
  1. Extensive experience
  2. Innovative
  3. Motivated
  4. Results-oriented
  5. Dynamic
  6. Proven track record
  7. Team player
  8. Fast-paced
  9. Problem solver
  10. Entrepreneurial
Is there a problem with using these buzzwords? If everyone professes to be "innovative" and "motivated," the terms lose their impact. People combing through profiles will gloss over excessively used phrases while seeking traits that stand out from the pack.

The worth of these words can be rescued often if they're followed by evidence that shows they're not empty placeholders. "Problem solvers" could point to problems they have solved, and the "results-oriented" could discuss
results achieved.

So on behalf of all the
motivated and results-oriented team players out there with extensive entrepreneurial experience and proven track records, let's be innovative problem solvers in this dynamic and fast-paced world.

(Just seeing if I could fit them all into one sentence.)


November 23, 2010

Misplaced Missiles

Lockheed Martin no doubt means its slogan, "We never forget who we're working for," to be reassuring. But here at The Awkward Adverb, we find it cryptic and disconcerting.




As a manufacturer of fighter jets and missiles, Lockheed has sizable contracts with the U.S. military. So does it consider the Pentagon to be the principal entity to please? Or perhaps Lockheed believes it's working for the American public in general? Company shareholders, maybe? The slogan raises a question it doesn't answer. Lockheed's management may know the company's priorities, but the rest of us are left in the dark.

And the slogan raises a disturbing possibility. Does Lockheed have a habit of forgetting who ordered its products? We certainly hope not. We wouldn’t want the company to forget that it was the United States who commissioned that F-16, and not Iran or North Korea.

Lastly, the slogan's grammar is incorrect. The ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition issue is no big deal, but the slogan should be "We never forget whom we're working for." Granted, many consider the use of whom too stuffy for everyday English, but Lockheed isn't going after a happy-hour crowd. The company manufactures dangerous products that demand precision. Since the slogan doesn't reflect care in either meaning or mechanics, it should have been left on the drawing board.

Contribute Your Comments

Are there any slogans you think are badly written? What are they?

October 12, 2010

Gotcha Journalism

A September post on the New York Times' small business blog ran with this title:




Eagle-eyed readers, however, noticed that the URL said, "Social Media Is Easier Than You Think."


Which is correct? "Social media are...," or Social media is...?"

There are two linguistic schools of thought on such matters. One would say that the correct form would be "Social media are...," because media is the Latin-derived plural for medium. Plural words, of course, take "are."

The other side prefers to accept language as it's actually used and believes native speakers are the ultimate authority on what's correct. Since "Social media is..." sounds more natural to many people's ears, it's fine, even preferable. People often speak of media as a singular entity (like government), Latin origins be damned.

Here at The Awkward Adverb, we're not going to come firmly down on one side or the other. We will, however, fault The New York Times for inconsistency. Whatever version its editors deem correct, the publication should stick with it.

This error may be minor in the grand scheme of things, but it's always fun to say "Gotcha" to an august institution like The New York Times.

Contribute Your Comments

Do you think "media" should be considered singular or plural? Can you think of other examples of English usage in which the "correct" version might seem awkward?