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One Word Can Make or Break Your Brand (Science Says So)


In 1974, researcher Elizabeth Loftus set out to answer an important question for the legal system: Could an eyewitness’ memory be tainted by a lawyer who has the gift of gab?

She had a hunch that humans are far more gullible than they imagine themselves to be, so she organized an experiment in which she asked participants to watch a series of car accidents from the Seattle Police Department. After each video, the viewers were asked to estimate how fast the cars were moving before the accident. The participants saw the same video, but the question was framed in a few different ways.

Some participants were asked to estimate how fast the cars were going when they hit each other. Others were asked how fast the cars were going when they collided, bumped, smashed, or contacted each other.

As it turned out, these seemingly insignificant word choices drastically impacted how the viewers perceived the videos. Loftus found a direct correlation between sensationalized descriptions and average estimated speed. The cars seemed to travel much faster when they “smashed” or “collided” rather than when they “contacted” each other.

Here’s the official breakdown:

But the drama doesn’t stop there. A similar study demonstrated that people are prone to imagining things that didn’t even happen when event descriptions are sensationalized. A group of college students watched a video of two cars colliding—some were told the cars “smashed” while others were told they “hit one another.” When the students were asked to recall how much broken glass they saw following the accident (there was no glass), almost none from the “hit” group recalled seeing glass. But among those who were told the cars “smashed,” one out of every three fabricated a memory of seeing broken glass.

Okay, enough social psychology for today. What the hell does this have to do with marketing? If any of my copywriting comrades are reading this, you know that words matter. A lot. Outsiders might not realize it, but one word can be the difference between stopping thumbs and being ruthlessly ignored. It can take hours, days, or even months to string three words together. But as Loftus’ study demonstrated, you can literally change the way people perceive you if you play your cards (words?) correctly.

Consider the canned water startup, Liquid Death. Their tagline, “Murder Your Thirst,” generates a far more visceral reaction than “Quench Your Thirst” or even “Kill Your Thirst.” In the book publishing industry, there’s Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***. Imagine that dude trying to hit bestseller lists if he settled for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Crap.

“Language is like fire: Depending on how you use it, it can either heat your house or burn it to the ground,” says Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

Obviously, you’ve got to be able to deliver on your sensationalized slogans, titles, and headlines. But if you can’t get a foot in the door, nothing else matters.

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