A spade is a spade

During a quick surf of my favourite blogs I noticed that Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts has posted an entry about the power of language.Using Words to Capture a Revolution.

I found the piece to be a little disturbing because KR seemed to be promoting the power of Unspeak as a positive force.

"One of the most compelling examples I know of is the way New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport changed from reporting car ‘accidents‘ to reporting car ‘crashes‘. A single word transformed crushed metal and broken bodies from an unexpected event that was no one’s fault, to a devastating result.


It reminded me of Steven Poole's book Unpeak which I keep close to hand (it's an important little book - buy it before it's baned or burned). While I know Mr Roberts' intentions are good in principle - in practice they reveal a desire to reframe ideas in accordance with an agenda. I am suspicious of that. If Saatchi & Saatchi weren't a global communications business with connections to very large business and governments it might be of less significance.

I also advocate that advertising practitioners avoid developing ornate language that cleverly distorts understanding/meaning. As Volkswagen famously said in their double page spread title d "How to do a Volkswagen ad" (point 4 of 6):"Call a spade a spade. And a suspension a suspension. Not something like "orbital cushioning."

Here's an extensive extract from the Epilogue to Unspeak. It's important.

"Politicians will go on trying their luck with all the rhetorical strategies in their pockets. But we should at the very least expect and demand, that our newspapers, radio and television refuse to replicate and spread the UnSpeak virus. As BBC World presenter Kirsty Lang explains:'it is much easier to take the language that's given to you, and the government knows that full well. So if you keep saying "coalition forces","coalition forces", people will use it. I think people need to be more careful. They do take phrases willy-nilly from the government without thinking, without seriously analysing what they say.' The citizen's plan of action is simple. When the media do this talk back:write and tell them. Possibly the growth of Unspeak cannot be reversed. But that doesn't mean we have to go on swallowing it."

"To resist Unspeak, after all, is not just to quibble about semantics, any more than a jury deciding whether an accused person has committed 'murder' or 'manslaughter' is engaged in an arid linguistic exercise. Words have consequences in the world. To adopt the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' is to be complicit in mass killing. To talk blandly about 'abuse' turns a blind eye to the beating to death of blameless taxi drivers. […]

Unspeak is used simultaneously to advance and disguise the claims of war and corporate interests. The masterpieces of the art are indeed 'ethnic cleansing', 'war on terror','repetitive administration'. Rhetorically, Unspeak is a kind of invasive procedure: it wants to bypass critical thinking an d implant a foreign body of opinion directly into the soft tissue of the brain. Perhaps for this reason, it seems to have a particular affinity with projects of violence.

Unspeak itself does violence : to meaning. It seeks to annihilate distinctions- between 'anti-social' and criminal; 'resources' and human beings; 'cleansing' and killing; 'combatant' and civilian; 'abuse' and torture. Because meaning is socially constructed, the unspeak that skews meaning for political ends can itself be called 'anti-social'. Unspeak finds soothing names for violence so that violence no longer surprises the deadened mind. Unspeak conjures a world where violence is the default activity, encouraging its user to think of everything in terms of violent conflict.[…]

As for accident vs crash. I'm sorry, but I am sure that most car crashes happen by accident. The prevailing idea that 'someone is always to blame' is simply an act of violence against a largely innocent population. Most of us conduct our lives with good intentions and, when accidents happen, deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. The presumption of fault, blame or guilt - at least before you have your day in court - undermines the basis of what makes us civilised.

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