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The Anatomy of Hype

by Marcia Yudkin

On a copywriting board I frequent, someone expressed bafflement that several respected marketers criticized the tone of a page he wrote.  "Why did they apologize to their subscribers while linking to my pitch? This approach sells," he said.

Hype was the problem.  If you use the following tactics, many educated shoppers cringe and go elsewhere:

  • Overblown claims.  "If You Can Write Your Name, You Can Write a Book in 30 Days - Guaranteed!"

  • Overexcited tone.  Lots of exclamation points, phrases in bold capital letters with underlining and a drumbeat of emphasis. "Programmers poured out their TOP-SECRET strategies that you, too, can use to earn a GATES-LIKE FORTUNE in the software business!!"  "Take out your credit card and order RIGHT NOW!"

  • Unsupported and extreme superlatives.  "The most important new product launch, ever."

  • Adjectives and adverbs you would not encounter from Exxon or IBM.  "Mind-blowing" "Exclusive" "Huge" "Incredible" "Wildly" "Literally" (necessary to distinguish truth from hoopla).

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  • Exaggerations.  "They've made millions under the radar."  (When most haven't made that sum and the "secrecy" is just not having been asked.)

  • Sounds impressive but untrue.  Calling someone a best selling author who has not appeared on a recognized best seller list.

  • Lack of qualifiers.  Statements that should include a bit of backpedaling but don't.  It's really not "all," "only," "never," "sure-fire" or "will."

Marketers who favor a style full of hype argue that the numbers prove these techniques succeed, whatever the audience.  When they tone down the pitch, sales drop.  When they toss decorum to the winds and reinsert that hammering excitement and the fervid embellishments, sales return to previous levels.  Case closed, they say.

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Assuming their numbers are valid, this argument does have a point, but one of limited relevance to many situations.  Hype may sell, but it may also undercut other business goals, in these ways:

  • Reputation.  In whose eyes do you want credibility?  Use this tone and you can expect snickering rather than respect from established journalists, academics, Fortune 500 companies, most people with postgraduate degrees and colleagues who use any of those groups as their benchmark of respectability.

  • Partnerships and opportunities.  If you're aiming at joint ventures with banks, universities, community organizations, trade associations and the like, hype counts very heavily against you.  You may also endanger your chances of getting a contract from a major publisher if that's among your goals.

  • Trust.  Are you aiming at a one-time sale or a long-term customer?  Hype works better in the former situation, especially where a buyer believes they can obtain a refund if the purchase doesn't live up to the promises.  

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  • Staying out of legal trouble.  Some of the techniques listed above either flirt with deception or cross the line to lies.  The other day I read through a Federal Trade Commission judgment against an Internet marketer for deceptive marketing and believe me, this is wrath you do not want to bring down upon yourself!  Make sure you have a nitpicky lawyer to vet your copy if you favor a hyped style. 

Please note that it's possible to use a hard-hitting, dramatic direct marketing style with descriptive bullet points, calls to action and so on in connection with entirely truthful and completely respectable copy.

Hype does sell.  But that's far from settling the issue of whether or not you should use it.

Copyright 2009 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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