WFH #9: The Adjective of the Pandemic
I don’t know if cartoons still do this, but when I was a kid, whenever a character ran off a cliff, they hovered in air for a while so you could see their little cartoon face change from, “Woo-hoo!” to “Uh-oh.”
And then gravity would kick in and, whoosh!
Cut to bottom of ravine, where regretful, googly-eyed survivor sits, stunned, in a cloud of stars.
Well, if B2B Marketing was the Wile E. Coyote in this scenario, then, instead of, “Uh-oh”, it would pause in mid-air, look at the camera and say, “In these uncertain times…”.
In these… uncertain times.
Cometh the hour, cometh the adjective
When a whole society goes through something big, we tend to cluster around a handful of words and phrases.
Well, the phrase for these uncertain times is, without a doubt, “these uncertain times”.
“Uncertain” has clearly won the Adjective of the Pandemic award (I’m picturing Mostly Unfairly Ridiculed Gal Gadot opening the envelope, from home).
And it’s a worthy winner. So far, “uncertain” is one of the few words we can all be certain about.
It’s non-committal, non-judgemental and admits, with a shrug, that no one—like, literally no one, as in ZERO One—knows even the first thing about what is actually going on much less what it means, where it will lead and what the heck we’re supposed to DO about it.
In that sense, “Uncertain” also wins the Understatement of the Pandemic Award. (Multi-award-wise, it’s the Meryl Streep of adjectives).
I guess an email from Barclays Bank starting with, “Dear Business Customer, In these FUCKING FUCKED UP times…” might frighten the SMBs.
So “Uncertain” it is.
The trouble is, when every brand starts using the same words and phrases, those words and phrases start losing their power to convey meaning. Or worse, they backfire.
It happens in two stages:
First, the phrase becomes white noise. It turns into “yadda-yadda” (except, “In these yadda-yadda times…” would be a really good opening line right now).
Next, it triggers eye-rolling exasperation. It says to the reader, “This is lazy marketing. Proceed at your peril.”
So “Uncertain” has gone from meaningful to meaningless to harmful in a few strange weeks. (Search your email inbox for “Uncertain” and do a quick count.)
So how do you avoid “In these uncertain times”?
A few alternatives
The easy way to avoid “uncertain” is to just use your dang thesaurus. Here, I did it for you:
Go on, test drive a few.
“In these touch-and-go times…”
Hmmm… too literal. As it happens, in these times, if you touch you really might go.
“In these ambiguous times…”
Nope. It implies there’s a meaning trying to express itself. There isn’t.
“In these ambivalent times…”
Just wrong. There’s nothing ‘in two minds’ about these times.
As it turns out, the thesaurus-aided word-swap is an unreliable way to avoid what Martin Amis refers to as, “…‘shopworn novelties’ like ‘past it’s sell-by date’, ‘no-brainer’, ‘game changer’… anything that makes the reader ‘pause without profit.” [Italics mine, brilliance Martin’s]
So this first chunk of thesaurus-fodder isn’t helping. (The first chunk rarely does. The best stuff tends to live down the page, where nuance blossoms).
Maybe the solution isn’t just swapping out the adjective.
Maybe it’s the whole phrase. “In these uncertain times…”
In fact, maybe the real problem is the whole idea that you can earn instant empathy points simply by dropping a cursory reference to the reader’s presumed macro-context.
Lazy B2B copywriters have been doing this for decades, with intros like, “In these competitive times…” (a banned phrase at the (currently empty) Velocity Towers Campus and Leisure Complex).
Starting an email or an ebook with this kind of thing is a shameless admission that not only do you not understand what the reader is facing right now but that you don’t even care. That you can’t even be bothered to sit and think about it before typing.
COVID-19 has changed many things but it hasn’t changed this: you can’t pass off fake empathy as the real thing and, if you could, it wouldn’t be as easy as an intro that tips its hat to a tired truism.
So instead of just spotting that you’ve just typed (or read, if you’re reviewing marketing copy), “In these uncertain times…” and replacing the adjective or the whole phrase, think about a better way into your story.
Something fresh and intriguing.
Or a bit quirky.
Anything but the old, ‘”This throwaway phrase proves I get what you’re going through. Now buy my stuff,” opening.
I’ll step aside for Martin Amis again:
“The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who cares about words.”
Be one of those.
Especially, in these head-whacking, arm-flailing, silent-screaming, omni-shambolic, WTFAF and oh-so-very-far-from-certain times.
And here, in case you missed it, is a bonus video by someone who actually calls himself Microsoft Sam, titled “Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same”: