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Platitudes Are Murdering Your Marketing and You Probably Don’t Even Realize It

In case you weren’t aware, Papa John’s Pizza has better ingredients, and therefore better pizza. And I’m sure the first time you ever saw or heard that slogan, you immediately wised up to all that crummy pizza you had been buying from the likes of Pizza Hut, Dominoes, or the local pizza joint and switched to Papa John’s. After all, if Papa John’s says their pizza is better, it must be true. Right?

In the late 1990s, Pizza Hut certainly didn’t think so. At the time, their virtual monopoly in the pizza world had been decaying for several years, and they decided to fight back the American way—by suing their rivals. In the crosshairs was (relative) upstart Papa John’s and their misleading, blatantly FALSE slogan.

Much of the case revolved around the difference in the way the two chains prepare their sauce. A scientist was brought in as an expert witness by Pizza Hut to testify that both sauces in fact tasted identical. It was proven that neither product was actually fresh—they both sat around for weeks before being deployed onto a pizza. After weeks of trial and millions of dollars in legal fees, the judge ordered an injunction against Papa John’s entire “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” campaign.

Papa John’s immediately appealed on the grounds that the judge had simply gotten the law wrong. They argued that “truth in advertising” laws hinged on a definition of “puffery” and “puffing.” According to these laws, they were free to PUFF all they wanted, which is the act of making statements so vague, ridiculous, outrageous, or opinionated that they could not possibly be taken serious by customers. Otherwise, BMW would have to empirically prove that their automobile was indeed THE ultimate driving machine. American Airlines would have to prove that they indeed understand why each and every one of their customer’s flies.

Or in other words, nobody believes platitudes anyway, so go ahead and use them all you want.

The appeals court agreed, and green-lighted Papa John’s to puff away. A final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was made by Pizza Hut, but they declined to hear the case, instead opting to agree with the appellate court’s decision. And with that it became legally official: Platitudes are disregarded by the buying public as throwaway statements that mean nothing, prove nada, and influence nobody.

And yet they are littered about in your marketing. Oops.

When you say “high quality” or “best service” or “largest inventory” in your marketing, those things have a deep, rich meaning to you. Your life’s work has probably gone into delivering the highest quality or the best service or the largest inventory. But to the advertising listening public, they’re just empty phrases—they’re platitudes.

Would you ever expect a company to advertise anything OTHER than they have the lowest prices or best service or whatever? Of course not! But you know what, if you look at marketing and advertising—including, probably, YOUR marketing and advertising, you’ll see that it’s absolutely LOADED DOWN with platitudes.

Platitudes, by definition, are words and phrases that are drearily commonplace and predictable that lack power to evoke interest through overuse and repletion, that are nevertheless stated as if they were original and significant.

Evaluation #1: Well, I Would Hope So!

When you make a claim in your marketing, don’t think about it in terms of coming out of your mouth, think of it in terms of it entering your prospect’s ears. Then you’ll realize how ridiculous most platitudes sound. Whenever you say something, ask yourself if the prospect will immediately respond with: “Well, I would hope so!”

A huge printing company listed their number one reason to choose them over the other sixteen zillion other printers: “We help the non-professional print buyer understand the various options available.” Well I would hope so! You’re a printer! Isn’t that what you do? See, it’s a platitude, drearily commonplace. Lacks power to evoke interest through overuse or repetition.

Or try this one from a management training company: “Our training leads to change! And it will increase productivity, performance, and profit.” Does anyone hire a management consultant for any other reason than to do those things? Finish the following statement… Well I ______ ______ _____ !!! That’s a platitude if I ever heard one!

Or what about an auto mechanic that says, “We’re honest. We fix your car right the first time.” Well I would hope so. Is it believable? Does it tell you anything about the company’s inside reality? What else would you expect the guy to say? “Hey, we’re lousy. We’ll fix things that aren’t broken, and make sure the original problem goes unsolved so you’ll bring it back so we can fix it and charge you again.”

These platitudes are about like the haircutter telling you that your hair will be shorter after it’s cut, or the gas station telling you you’ll have more gas after you fill the tank. You can take this test right now as you listen to this program.

Answer this simple question: Why would anyone choose you over your competitors? Then honestly evaluate it against the “Well, I would hope so!” evaluation. Yes, this is a real exercise. Go ahead and answer the question right now.

Now look at your answer. Is it a platitude? Is it a word or phrase that is drearily commonplace and predictable that lacks power to evoke interest through overuse or repetition that you have nevertheless stated as though it were original or significant? Does your inside reality shine through? Next, check out all of your printed advertising and marketing materials. Do they pass the “Well I would hope so!” evaluation? Or are they full of platitudes? If not, then you need to make changes. Or you had at least better hope and pray that one of your competitors doesn’t hire us to do their marketing! Okay, on to the second platitude evaluation, which is:

Evaluation #2: Who Else Can Say That!?!

This is similar to evaluation #1 and is also a product of the era of the brand builders. Pay close attention to this one; the question is not who else can do what you do. The question is who else can say what you say. The answer is usually anybody and everybody.

The Time I Almost Got Punched In The Face During A Consultation

One time we consulted with an auto repair facility that was by FAR the most awesome business of its kind we’ve ever seen. They had sixty-three bays, eleven mechanics who were fully ASE certified in all eight areas of specialization, twice as much hi-tech equipment as any dealership, and floors so clean you could eat off of them. They turned out 95% of all jobs in less than twenty-four hours, and unconditionally guaranteed all repairs. If you ever called in to check the status of your car, they would patch you directly through to the TECHNICIAN working on your car via cordless phone and he’d tell you personally how things were going. They had a waiting room that included a play area for your kids, free drinks and snacks, magazines that were actually current, and bathrooms cleaner than you’ll find in your house. Their inside reality was literally second to none.

But they had a big marketing problem: Even though nobody could even come close to performing at their level, their advertising looked virtually identical to all of their less-competent competitors. Their yellow pages ad, for instance, used the same generalities and platitudes as everybody else: “ASE certified mechanics. Foreign and Domestic Cars Serviced.” And then a long laundry list of services performed, ranging from air conditioners to brakes to transmissions…and get this…they accept Visa and MasterCard. Holy smokes. If you were paying attention a minute a go, you’ll already recognize that it fails the, “Well I would hope so!” test. But then ask this question: “Who else can say that?”

We asked the owner and the service manager that very question, and the service manager started to get really upset with us. “There’s nobody else that can even touch us. The dealerships bring cars to us that THEY can’t fix. Our mechanics are far and away the best in the state. Nobody and I mean nobody can say what we say.” I was a little nervous, the guy was all bent out of shape. He was screaming and flailing around; snot was flying out of the guy’s nose he was so mad. It’s about the closest we’ve ever come to getting in a fistfight during a consultation!

So finally, to try to prove the point in a civil way, I told the owner to pull out the Yellow Pages and see what all of his competitors were saying. Let’s just say, his jaw hung open for about two minutes before he pointed at the page and said to the service manager “Look. I know this guy. He’s terrible. His ad says the exact same thing that ours does. In fact, I think he copied our layout and verbiage word for word.” He looked at the page and saw that all of the ads were virtually identical to his. There was no way to deny it, not when you’re staring at the evidence. Remember, it’s not who can do what you do, it’s who can SAY what you are saying.

Guess What Industry This Is: “Experienced staff; company in business thirty-five years. Research & Development of new technology. Customer service always available. I’m always available to client after the sale.” Any clue as to their inside reality? This could be any company, any industry. These remarks are all drearily commonplace and lack power to evoke interest through overuse or repetition.

Evaluation #3: The Scratch Out, Write In Test

Here’s the last quick platitude detection evaluation, then we need to move on: it’s called the scratch out, write in test. Look at your brochure or advertisement. Now scratch your name out and write in your competitor’s name. If the ad is still valid, if there wouldn’t need to be any additional changes, then you’ve failed the test. Now, get your competitor’s ad and scratch out their name and write in yours. Does this exercise after reading this article it could be very revealing. I think you’ll find that you run pretty high on the platitude meter. I think your identity, excellent as it may be, is nowhere to be found, lost in a mucky swamp of platitudes, and never revealed.

What Does Charlie Brown’s Mother Have to Do With All Of This?

Do you remember watching those Peanuts cartoon specials on TV back in the ‘70s with Charlie Brown and Snoopy? Remember what would happen in those cartoons whenever one of the kids would talk to an adult? Whenever the adults would speak, you wouldn’t actually hear the words they were saying; instead, all you would hear was that “wa, wa, wa” sound. Remember that? That’s exactly what this ad sounds like and any ad that’s full of platitudes.

Is this making sense to you? Is it evident that this might be a problem for you now, a tremendous competitive advantage if you could figure out how to fix it? You’ve got to find ways to communicate your TRUE IDENTITY with power, precision, and passion.
How do you do that? Well that’s a topic for another day. For now, choose your words wisely!

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