60 discount

You Can’t Fool Me! Meaningless Marketing

Picture this. You’re walking past a store with a huge sign screaming “up to 60% off!” Woah – that’s a big discount.

Well, sort of. While it sounds like the store is having an unbelievable sale, the sign doesn’t promise much of anything. Most of the merchandise may not be on sale at all, and even the discounted items may be only slightly reduced. But somehow, the sign reels you in.

As a consumer and as a business owner, it’s important to be aware of meaningless words that sound impressive, but actually mean nothing. Although it can be tempting to throw these phrases into your marketing campaigns, it’s smart to weed them out as much as possible. Today’s buyers are already cynical and jaded, and using meaningless marketing can irreparably damage your authenticity.

Keep an eye out for these terms in ads, on labels, and perhaps even in your own company’s marketing.


Words That Mean Nothing

The most obvious form of meaningless marketing is words that mean absolutely nothing at all.

Words like unique, best, or special primarily convey, “we couldn’t think of anything else to say about our product.” Some words that up the stakes a bit, like luxury, revolutionary, or legendary. While these sound more dramatic, they say nothing about the quality of the product they’re describing. The same goes for exclusive, gourmet, or select.

Then there’s the ubiquitous “new.” New products usually cost more, but it’s worth it, right? It’s worth thinking for a second about what “new” actually means. New products haven’t stood the test of time; often have undiscovered flaws, kinks, or bugs; frequently pose compatibility issues with existing equipment; and many times end up less effective than their tried-and-true counterparts.


Words That Are Obviously Obvious

My favorite are the laughable words that seem catchy — but on second thought, don’t really make any sense. Here are a few fun examples to consider:

  • Baked fresh – Do other bakeries bake their cookies when they’re a week old?
  • Picked ripe – Is everyone else picking theirs after they’re already spoiled?
  • Line-caught fish – How else would you catch them?
  • Hand crafted – Would it otherwise be crafted with the artist’s feet?
  • Italian pizza – Is there any pizza that didn’t originate in Italy?
  • Trail rated – Guess who rates all trail-rated jeeps? That’s right, Jeep does.


Of course, marketing means choosing descriptive words that pack a punch. But these words add no information at all. In your marketing efforts, toss these “obvious” lines and replace them with real information about your product or service.

Fancy-Delancey Words

Sometimes ad copywriters will dangle high-class words before you to bump up your perception of the product’s quality. Think of words like drizzled, infused, and enrobed on a restaurant menu. Or consider the word “artisanal,” used to describe anything from chocolate to pickles. With the notable exception of certain breads and cheeses, almost nothing that is described as artisanal is actually the work of a skilled craftsperson.

Or how about the black angus burger, common on many restaurant menus nowadays? What is a black angus burger, anyway? Look it up, and you’ll find out that the black angus is the most common breed of cattle used in meat production. So a black angus burger is simply a burger made from, well, plain old cow.

Hidden Meanings

A fascinating form of meaningless marketing is where words that sound positive actually carry hidden meanings. If you go beyond the superficial, you’ll learn that marketing words often convey quite a bit — just not what you’d think.

A famous example was publicized by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their best-selling book Freakonomics, where he authors uncover the secret language of real estate listings.

Real estate ads seem to be uniformly packed with adoring descriptions of the houses they’re promoting. “Lovely, well-maintained 3BR Victorian with gleaming hardwood floors…”  

But as it turns out, the glowing terms used by realtors are not at all equal.

State-of-the-art, granite, or maple express real, positive attributes. These tangible descriptions mean the realtor is sharing something truly valuable about the property.

But fantastic, spacious, or charming are all  empty words for homes that lack specific attributes. These terms can mean the realtor couldn’t think of anything good to say about an unimpressive property.

Even an innocuous phrase like great neighborhood may hint that the houses nearby are nice – but this one isn’t all that great.

Finally, the over-the-top exclamation point (charming! must see!) is always a red flag; the false enthusiasm is an attempt to compensate for a lack of quality.

Real estate isn’t the only field where innocent-looking terms mask alternative meanings. In the motel industry, rustic might be dirty or dingy. In the clothing industry, vintage could mean secondhand. And when it comes to food, an aged slab of beef could just as easily be called old or left in the fridge for too long. (For the record, some aging is essential for beef to be tender, but aging beef for months is far longer than experts advise.)


As a consumer, be smart. When you see an ad, package, flyer, online ad, or webpage, stop and ask yourself, “What is this really saying?”

As a business owner, hone in on the most important aspects of your product. Today’s buyers are hardened to the avalanche of meaningless clichés, and describing real qualities is a way to stand out from the crowd. Going beyond platitudes and promoting benefits takes some thought — and that’s exactly why it distinguishes you from everyone else.

This is the second in the “You Can’t Fool Me!” series, which reveals marketing sleight-of-hand that’s happening before your eyes. Read the rest of the articles in the series here.