Tom Goodwin: Seven advertising words that should be banned

By Tom Goodwin

October 24, 2014 | 6 min read

Advertising hasn’t always liked being clear. We’ve enjoyed being behind a curtain of smoke and mirrors, we’ve found mystery in margin and created a shared language to separate ourselves from our clients and make people need us.

Marketing can stay, but content marketing is in trouble

The only problem is it’s stopped meaning anything. As we’ve embraced new technologies, leveraged new behaviours and adopted new platforms, we’ve taken old tactics and bolted on new names, plastered our entire industry with buzzwords and created an enormous mess that few dare to admit they don’t understand.

Many new words don't need to be defined; they need to be banned. Most don't mean anything or are loose new blanket terms for more useful tactics now meaninglessly bundled together under a new groovier layer.

Here are my seven top words that we need to stop using right now – they are vital concepts for marketing made meaningless. Let’s kill these words and be more precise instead.

Content marketing

Let’s be clear here, 'content' is merely stuff, and marketing is pretty much everything in the entire world done between business and consumers. So when we say content marketing, we mean doing stuff to make something happen. This isn’t particularly useful, yet since we all separately conjure up what it is in our own heads, it feels like something of meaning.

Instead let’s break it down into the separate tactics that are specific and meaningful and that we just happen to have used for decades. We can talk about long form advertorials, advertiser funded programing, branded apps, brand publishing, branded funded games, the list goes on.


With remarkably few exemptions, everything we now make is digital so I think the entire word should be removed from advertising. We don’t talk about electrical ads and digital is no more specific or useful. We’ve carved up job titles, agencies, departments around something so pervasive and powerful, it’s damaging to isolate it. Instead digital has become synonymous with 'new' , not anything more useful.

A 'traditional' TV ad moved onto YouTube as a pre-roll changes nothing, a print ad in Wired's iPad edition is still, for all intents, a print ad. Is a radio ad on Spotify digital? None of this matters at all and is a distraction. We should refer instead to whether it’s interactive, if it’s connected to the web, how it’s placed, does it move... these are the things that matter. Let’s talk about interactive video ads, or social print etc.

Social media

I don’t think there is any value in taking a disparate array of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, where people behave very differently and then lumping them together.

The true value of Facebook is no longer that it’s social – if you actually look at most brand content, for most brands, at best, we see a handful of shares. What the real value of Facebook will soon be is that it allows super-accurate targeting of ads in the place where people are spending a lot of time.

This doesn’t make it social media, this just makes it a very good media for interactive, richly targeted ads for advertising. It would be more useful to think of social media as two things – an advertising platform for bought media and a CRM tool, neither of which the term social media adequately describes.

Native advertising

Nobody really knows what this is. Some think it’s about ads that are crafted specifically for that site – one-off custom builds, a bit like we see in the outdoor ad world; others think they are about ads hiding as content, that get clicks by adding value. These end up as similar things but the implications are totally different. One is about added value from specificity, the other is about trickery and content as added value.

Here’s what we should do.

Take ads that are about content masquerading as editorial and call them 'advertorials', you know, that word that worked perfectly for over 60 years.

Take ads that are about bought media, that are custom built for that situation, be it online or offline, and call them 'custom ads'. Because that is what matters: that they are built entirely for that context.


Do you think anyone in the real world would ever call an advert storytelling?

Advertising people are the most creative, charismatic sales people in the world, and in this case we’ve bought our own nonsense. Advertising may be about seduction, about narratives, about building connections to change behaviour, but let’s not lose ourselves up our own asses.

Are sales people racontuers? Are people in call centers minstrels? Nescafe over a few decades told a story – the man from Del Monte is a character in some sort of (boring) story. But turn on the TV and you see what we should be about: selling.

Growth hacking

I’d ban this because nobody ever has been able to explain this term without simply giving one the three examples of it ever existing. “Growth hacking is, errr, you know, like what Hotmail did or Airbnb did with Craigslist”. If you can’t explain it, we shouldn’t use it. I’m not saying the spirit of hacking is misplaced in our industry, I merely believe that as a 'technique' it suffers. As an attitude it’s profound.

Real-time marketing

“We now live in a real-time world” was one of my favorite highly tweeted comments from Advertising Week. It got me wondering at what speed time passed before the dot com age?

I like the idea of real-time marketing, but it’s rarely real-time. It’s a whole range of tactics form newsjacking to immediate Twitter posting to rapid reputation management to tactical response advertising. Why don’t we just call it those things?

Tom Goodwin is the founder of Tomorrow. You can find him on Twitter @tomfgoodwin


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