The Language of Violence

From a business point of view, it’s always smart to avoid using terms and phrases that could offend a portion of your customer base -- regardless of how you feel personally about so-called political correctness.

And the language with the greatest potential to harm your brand? The language of violence.

This was most recently – and most tragically – represented by the alleged murder of Reeva Steenkamp, who was allegedly shot to death by Oscar Pistorius.

One could argue that a Nike advertisement that referred to Pistorius as “the bullet in the gun” was in poor taste initially. The recent shooting of his girlfriend cements the inappropriate nature of that ad. As of this writing, Pistorius has been charged with murder, with a prosecutor indicating that they would be filing a premeditated murder charge.

Yet violent and military terminology is pervasive across a wide range of communications efforts. Media and sports marketing love comparing athletes to warriors in the field of battle. Advertisers love to talk about “winning the war” on (insert statement here: obesity, dirt, aging, bugs… all ‘battles’ that must be ‘fought’ with whatever ‘weapon’ is at one’s disposal!)

Of course, hitching your brand to any spokesperson is always a dicey proposition at the best of times. Sure, as a brand you can benefit from the athlete or performer’s ascendency into the cultural zeitgeist (after all, a rising tide lifts all boats); but you run the risk of that same star serving as an anchor to your brand if things go sour (ask the people who have invested millions in Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and, now, Pistorius). The challenge with hitching your brand’s wagon to someone else is that you lose a significant amount of control.

So when you're dealing with a proposition that's fraught with potential negatives, why compound that risk by using inflammatory language?

There are those out there who will decry that we’re living in an overly politically correct world. And where you stand on that personally is neither here nor there when it comes to your business. Instead, you need to remove the “self” from your content and consider the people who truly matter – your customers.

Especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy, in North America we see how divisive and inflammatory gun rhetoric can be. Knowing that, why run the risk of implicating your brand into that debate? Yes, military and violent metaphors are quick, easy, and pervasive – but they’re also lazy. And while you, personally, may not be offended, there’s a pretty good chance some of your customers might. Why run the risk? Where is the potential reward?

Being sensitive to your customers doesn’t mean you have to be bland in your content. Work to remain brand positive and avoid negative statements– both real and perceived. This post from Quality Logo Products showcases a few ads that, in retrospect, shouldn’t have seen the light of day. While everyone's personal impression of each ad will differ, it’s clear to see that they all have the potential to be divisive at best -- and downright offensive at worst.

The old adage lied: all publicity is not good publicity. A controversial ad can make more people aware of your brand, but you may lose valuable customers over ideology. Is there a trade-off? Will those rubbernecking your brand convert into sales? Will they do so at a rate that compensates for any damage done to your existing client base? It’s not a question of “Can you afford to do that?”; it’s a matter of “Why would you ever want to?”

Your branding doesn’t have to be all about fluffy bunnies, rainbows, and cupcakes – but remember that if you choose to pepper your promotional copy with aggressive wordplay, you run the very real risk of shooting yourself in the foot.

Now it’s over to you – are you offended by certain phrases, ads, or statements? Do you think we’re too politically correct, or not politically correct enough? If you run a business, how much attention do you pay to the metaphors, similes, and analogies that you use? 

Questions Answered

Should I use violent text and images in my ads?

Is creating provocative ads worth it?

Is it true that all publicity is good publicity?

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