The death of discovery – the irreparable damage to our over-used words

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Professionally speaking, the coexistence of a copywriter and their words is a horribly abusive relationship. Treacherously professing to be champions of language and its enduring power to persuade, there is not an ink-fingered scoundrel in the job today that has not frequently, wilfully and maliciously thrashed a particular word to death.

Since the pulsating alien egg of marketing burst open and flung grabby little fiends into the faces and minds of ‘the consumer’, many a word has been sucked utterly dry. Take the word ‘Love’. Whatever it could or should mean from a cultural or metaphysical point of view, in the world of marketing it blithely expresses an assumed and artificial affection for everything from sports shoes to oven cleaner.

The latest word I have seen time and again crumpled and weeping in a wheelie bin, is ‘Discover’. From a new kind of coffee bean to a different way to mow your lawn, brands are desperate for us to ‘discover’ the latest innovation designed to pluck money from our grasped fists.

It’s a deplorable situation borne from an understandable place. The copywriter’s challenge and purpose is all wrapped tightly around the need to present and persuade. To present we must show something as worthy of attention. To persuade we must demonstrate how the continued absence of this ‘thing’ from your life makes existence less simple and/or satisfying.

Both of these indisputable copywriting tenets point aggressively to the word ‘discover’. Discover, with its hard-earned connotations of invention and imagination, embodies precisely the anticipation and desire a copywriter is tasked to produce. And if our role is to find the right word for the job, then who could argue that ‘Discover’ is the lazy choice?

Some of the clumsiest and least compelling copy you’ll ever read is where the writer has consciously tossed away all the most obvious and expected terms. In doing so, they have often discarded what feels appropriate and familiar and have created something that, in aiming for the territory of ‘unique’, has landed instead, awkwardly and apologetically, in the neighbourhood of ‘uncomfortable’.

And that is where we find the gloomy, self-perpetuation of a given word’s diminishing potency. Discover is a meaningful, aspirational word, but the profligacy of its use is visibly gnawing away at its worth and influence. Now, a writer with a subject that genuinely merits an appeal to ‘discover’, goes as unnoticed as a new way of cooking chicken or a different flavour of crisps.

In an ideal world, a brand would have to apply for approval before they can employ the ‘D word’. ‘A pair swimming pants that repels jelly fish attacks with tiny lasers? Approved! A slightly greyer kind of mushroom soup? Sorry, no.’ A Society for the Protection and Preservation of Endangered Words would no doubt make most copywriters’ lives a little harder, but it could also make the wider marketing arena a richer and more fertile environment.

This is, not untypically for this column, a futile argument. There isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a policing of words. But what there can definitely be is a sense of responsibility and guardianship amongst our own ragged band of alphabet shufflers. A quiet movement of resistance to help preserve and conserve our best words for our greatest messages will, ultimately, contribute to better work and a less droopy-eyed readership. Otherwise, in a world where every biscuit or bus ticket is a ‘discovery’, what treasure is there left to bury?

Follow Andrew on Twitter. You will discover nothing

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