Sex & Violence: Are Your Words Making You A Worse Marketer?

“We’ve researched our target audience for this campaign  - now we need to execute on a deadline.”

Did the above sentence offend you?

Did it make you feel uneasy?

Probably not.  You’re also probably not surprised to see it’s riddled with words that have a military past.

How about “We want to create captivating, seductive experiences.”

Oooh, juicy. Seductive is a sex-addled word in today’s society. So are the words “provocative, alluring, tempting, irresistible, arousing..” and yet, again, you’ll find them both in the bedroom and the boardroom, and people hardly blush.

We hear these kinds of phrases all the time in business realms, to the point that they’re common jargon.

But – are they making you a worse marketer?

In his post on Ahrefs, “Beware of the Aggressive Language of Marketing“, Tad Chef (a talented writer I usually really enjoy) makes a well-intentioned argument that marketers ought to stop using words like “target” and “strategy” given their roots in a military past.

It’s a great argument for being conscious about the words that we use every day and their impact on the ways they impact our actions. “Words create thoughts”, says Tad, and I agree with that statement.

And yet, I couldn’t disagree more – and here’s why.

Language is alive.

Language is a living thing; it evolves over time. Words take on new meanings in different contexts, and it is context that colours our interactions.

Tad takes particular exception with the word “Target”. He borrows the definition as “A person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack.” – and he’s right, that’s one definition.

But there’s another:

“An objective or result toward which efforts are directed.”

Hmm… that’s decidedly non-violent. In fact, there’s virtually nothing aggressive about that definition at all.

Tad is also quick to cherry-pick the military definition of strategy:

“A comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat of actual force.” – and that’s  certainly what strategy means in a warzone. And yet, strategy ALSO means:

“A careful plan of achieving a particular goal, usually over a long period of time.” or  “The skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal”. 

Neither one of those definitions, which are every bit as valid as the first, has ANY kind of malicious intent or wartime connotation. It’s completely absurd to avoid using the word strategy because someone, somewhere uses it in a wartime context – in the same way you can “execute” a script or an enemy soldier.

One does not colour the other; they are completely independent of each other when used in differing contexts to the point that NOBODY who is a native speaker would ever infer that you are putting your coding to death.

So if “execute” can be separated linguistically from “death”, “target” can be linguistically separated from pointing a gun at someone or even an intent to cause them harm.

As an example:

“We exceeded all of our targets for this quarter.”
“My target weight is 180 pounds.”
“We’ve got a target date of October 31st.”
and, for sake of argument “The audience this content is targeted at is people bored enough to read a semantic argument between writers.”

Every single one of those sentences leverages an alternative definition of “target” that has no aggressive intention whatsoever.

I also take issue that he thinks that native speakers don’t “consciously” use words like someone who is new to the language. A new learner may be more aware of its origins (I agree!), but unquestionably, a native speaker is more aware of slang, jargon and modern usages of words beyond their limited histories.

Substitutes don’t always mean the same thing.

Instead of “targeting” an audience, Tad suggests you “help” them. Except those words don’t mean the same thing. At all.

“Target”, in this context, refers to a defining set of characteristics that make up the body of people you want to reach with your marketing efforts.
“Help” is an implied outcome – it doesn’t even begin to cover who you are helping or what defines them.

The words are not interchangeable.

Instead of “Strategy”, he suggests “Planning”.

But strategy comes with a richer definition than planning. A plan can be executed WITH a strategy – they are not the same thing. Strategy infers that there are processes and well-thought-out guidelines for executing on a plan.

Your statement would lose meaning without choosing to use the right word; in business, we ought to use the best words for the job, the words that best describe our intent, our goals and our actions. Military words have been adopted, dropping their violent histories – and now, they better describe business actions than softer, friendlier words that only hint at the depth of their meaning.

Bias influences interpretation.

“Even though I don’t live in the US where firearms are widely spread, I visualize someone shooting at people the moment I see the word combinations targeting people.”

Therein lies the REAL issue here: Tad envisions something when he sees the word based on his own experiences and interpretations. He grew up in Poland, where war has ravaged the country many times. Given that tough history, I understand his angle.

But subjective opinion does not equal fact, nor can you extrapolate your interpretation to the rest of the world.

As I opened this piece with, we use this language (consciously and intentionally) all the time without intending any malice towards those we’re speaking about.

I think most of the people who consciously use war metaphors never have been to a war.”

He’s right here. But I’d take it one step further: Most people rarely, if ever, question where the majority of their current vernacular came from – they operate using a current definition relevant to the context they’re in, because that’s exactly how language works.

We see this in language all. the. TIME.

“Mortgage” comes from a French expression meaning “Death pledge”.
“Villain” was a derisive slang word for the poor.
“Captivating” comes from a word rooted in slavery and incarceration.
“Loophole” (or “murder hole” !!!) originally referred to slits in castle walls where archers would shoot their arrows through.
“Hazard” comes from an Arabic word for “Dice”, which later evolved when games of dice were associated with gambling.
“Disaster” comes from a Greek word for “bad” and “aster”, meaning star – blaming calamities on sinister planetary alignments.

And hey, even “Nice” comes from a Latin word meaning “ignorant”.

But nobody thinks about any of that, because – well, it mostly doesn’t matter, so long as the word is used in a commonly understood context. If you want to avoid using any words with a dark, violent or military connotation, be prepared to also clean out the words “Sideburns”, “Bikini”, “Campaign”, “Deadlines” and more.

The author also makes a false association between “Targeting” and “Traditional advertising”, as though the fact that you’re “Targeting” an audience with something inherently implies you are annoying them, disrupting them or subverting their desires.

But this is, again, his own extrapolation. He is inferring intent based on his experience and letting it taint his definition.

You can “Target” an audience with a “Strategy” intended to help them. You can “Target” a piece of content at an audience because you know it will be useful to them.

The two definitions can be completely unrelated based on context and intent.

Where I agree:

That said, I do see a point in Tad’s argument – though not the way he intended. I am a big proponent of being very careful about how you refer to the people you’re trying to attract in business – because unlike “target” in a verb sense, “target” as a noun” IS something to be careful of when applied to living, breathing, nuanced human beings in a business context.

I would never call my audience “targets”, as this subverts their humanity. In the same way that there’s a big difference between calling someone a “user” and calling someone a “customer”. One underpins a far greater value and consideration, while the other is mechanical and distant.

Could you get around using “target” by saying “The audience we’re aiming to reach”? Sure. But you’re still aiming. And what are you aiming? Well that depends on whether or not you think “Aim” is inherently violent.

Could you say “The audience we’re directing our efforts at based on their characteristics?” – sure, but that’s a mouthful – and there’s a single word for that.


“Business and sales are not about war.”

True as that might be, no matter how rosy a picture we want to paint of business and sales, they ARE about a conflict: A quest to ultimately overcome obstacles and earn a sale. For as fluffy and friendly as marketing is today, the underlying motive for any business is always, ALWAYS to generate more business – otherwise, it’s self-defeating.

Being helpful is NOT, as Tad says, “perfectly enough”. Being helpful is a marketing tactic; a means of endearing yourself to a customer and building a relationship. If that sounds antagonistic – it’s not; it’s perfectly possible to be helpful, friendly and useful while at the same time trying to change perceptions and influence purchaser behavior.

So by all means: keep targeting audiences, hitting deadlines, crushing campaigns and killin’ it out there.

Just don’t forget your customer in the process.

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