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Russell conjugation

We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. Facts and logic are the most important factors in our decision-making process, right? But humans are complicated beasts, susceptible to all sorts of biases and illogic. The famous English philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) is not usually thought of as a source of marketing wisdom, but he articulated an important insight in 1948 when he came up with what’s now called the Russell conjugation (or emotive conjugation).

Connotation is everything

Consider these three statements:

  • I am firm.
  • You are stubborn.
  • He is pigheaded.

As Russell pointed out, each statement has the same objective content, but not the same emotional content. The first is emotionally positive, the second somewhat negative, and the third distinctly negative.

More recently, political pollster Frank Luntz rediscovered the same principle while running focus groups. Different terms describing the same thing (“estate tax” vs. “death tax,” or “illegal aliens” vs. “undocumented immigrants”) could produce opposite responses from the same person. The connotative (emotional) meanings overrode the denotative (literal) meanings.

Political arguments and propaganda are always filled with words carefully chosen for their connotative meanings. The official East German name for the Berlin Wall was the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (“Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”), implying that West Germany was fascist and that the wall was intended to keep people out, not in. Does this non-state armed group consist of “terrorists” or “freedom fighters”? Is this proposal “Medicare for all” or a “government takeover of medicine”? If you’re trying to convince the public to support a new nuclear ICBM, wouldn’t you try to give it a nice name, like “Peacekeeper”?

Connotations can change over time

In Old English, a “stink” could mean any smell, good or bad. It would not have been incorrect or strange to refer to “the stink of a rose.” Eventually the negative connotation prevailed, and other words like “smell” or “odor” were used when a neutral or positive meaning was required. But today, even those words are shifting into having negative connotations. You’d better specify “you smell nice,” because just saying “you smell” is an insult. Today, we use “fragrance” to mean “a good smell,” but at some point in the future, you might need to specify “a good fragrance” to avoid a negative connotation.

In the early 1990s, “cyber” had a cutting-edge connotation, but today seems almost quaint. In the early days of the iPhone, it probably made sense to describe your offering as a “smartphone app,” but now “phone app” or even just “app” would be preferred. In today’s swiftly-changing social media world, terms can go from hip and popular to stale and boring in a matter of months or even weeks. A poor choice of words can cause a company to fall into a “How do you do, fellow kids?” trap of seeming outdated to your potential customers.

Good marketing content is more than “good” or “bad” words

The emotional content of words may not be the same for everyone, and that applies to your potential customers. Is “new” a good word? Sure… sometimes! But while “new features” or “new interface” may sound good to your engineers and even your marketers, your customers might cringe at the thought of additional complexity or having to learn a new way of doing something.

Sometimes, even a word with bad emotional connotations can be the right choice. Back when several RolloutSF principals worked with Mojo Networks, one task was to promote webinars, which had been getting getting only 15-20 viewers. When we entitled a webinar “Your College WiFi Sucks and Now Students are Leaving,” we got 250 viewers!

Creating good marketing content means taking into account all of this, and more. If you’d like this level of expertise applied to your website, contact RolloutSF and let’s talk.

(Thanks to Eric R. Weinstein of Thiel Capital for inspiring this post.)

Jay Cornell is Content Strategist for RolloutSF.com.

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