Why clarity may not always be the answer

“We sell logs.”

What could be clearer? If you need logs, you can buy them here. If you don’t need logs, don’t bother visiting!

Clarity achieved in words and working effectively to deliver sales to this company. The copywriter’s dream.

After all, you wouldn’t want the sign to read “It seems we probably sell logs.”

No qualifiers, no jargon

As any copywriter will tell you, qualifiers generally don’t help in advertising. Absolutes are clearer.

We will, rather than we may. All, rather than many. Always, rather than often. And there’s no room for perhaps, essentially or somewhat.

Absolutes bring clarity to writing. Qualifiers bring doubt. And if you don’t know what you mean, how can you expect your reader to?

The University of North Carolina’s take on qualifiers is a handy guide if you’re still a bit confused!

And copywriters will also tell you to get rid of jargon and overly boastful adjectives. Customers have become too savvy for that.

“We sell stunning, original wood, chopped delicately into charming and characterful segments.”

Just say it clearly, honestly and without flannel.

So far so good. Clarity works. Everybody wins. Right?

Government messaging

Yes, clarity must be effective because even the government is using it.

Marketing Communications firm, The MullenLowe Group, has helped the government deliver its latest Covid messaging. And it works. Wash your hands regularly, wear a mask on your face and socially distance. 

In April it was “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.” Again a clear, honest message that accompanied the initial UK lockdown and eventually resulted in effective suppression of the virus.

But when the virus had been (as it turned out) temporarily suppressed in the summer, the message changed to “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save Lives.”

The Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, amongst many others (mostly on Twitter), said this was too vague. And when combined with the clearer, but some said contradictory, branding (“Eat out to help out”) the effect was exactly the opposite of what they were striving for.

More complex conditions had created a more vague, less clear message. It was the log sellers’ version of “We sell stuff.”

Sally Dibb, Professor of Marketing and Society at Coventry University, argues that a more effective umbrella message might have been something like, “We’re in this together.” Then they could have added more layers of detail without ever contradicting the overall message.

She argues this would have provided clarity and consistency which could have kept more people on their side.

So what’s the problem with clarity?

But even if you get your branding right, is there a danger that by striving for clarity, you can actually create more trouble.  Warning, I am about to discuss Brexit. Take cover!

“Take back control”, “Get Brexit done”, “£35O million a week for the NHS.”

Need a lie-down?

You cannot argue that these messages were unclear, however. But did they create more problems than they solved?

The more we search for clarity, the more divisive and divided we become. You are either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. You are pro-national security or you are pro-refugees. Either you are in favour of foreign aid or you want more domestic spending.

But I may like some elements of Brexit while regretting others. I may want to support refugees while still keeping the UK secure. I may think helping the poor in other countries is as equally worthwhile as funding the NHS.

Where has the middle ground gone? Where is the nuance?

It is certainly hard to find on Twitter, the platform that only allows 240 characters to express opinions. This attracts and encourages polarised opinion, simply because there is not enough space to put forward a nuanced argument… and people don’t have time to read it.

Ex-Conservative minister and London Mayoral candidate Rory Stewart has argued all this already, of course.

But he lost, not just in the Tory leadership election but in the Brexit debate too. And when campaigning stopped in the London Mayoral elections, he was not winning!

“We sell logs, if you provide us with money and can transport them yourself.”

A more nuanced message but a ridiculous one for the log sellers.

So, the log sellers know what they are doing.

“We sell logs.”

It works. It’s clear. You can be consistent. You target your potential customers. You can deliver what you say you will. 

But selling logs, with all due respect, is low stakes in terms of world issues. When the stakes are higher, when lives, whole economies and livelihoods are on the line, has our search for clarity led us somewhere more dangerous?

Has a need for clear, simple messages actually served to divide society? And, if so, are we copywriters at all to blame?

What do you think?

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