What ever happened to straight talking?

By Simon Derungs, 19 June 2023 | 4 mins read

I heard an interesting thing recently. In response to a politician’s speech, a media commentator said that “it’s lacking a bit of Ronseal”.

Of course, he was referencing the brilliant Ronseal tagline “It does exactly what it says on the tin”, a statement that’s now so much a part of the English lexicon that a whole generation use it whilst having no idea that it’s as much an ad line as “Simples” or “Have a break”.

The enduring power of the Ronseal line is that it says it straight, a skill that’s often missing from modern marketing and advertising. It’s about being down-to-earth, speaking openly and honestly, even if it exposes possible weaknesses. It’s the secret behind most of the best advertising throughout history. “Think small”. “We try harder”. “When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight”.  “Ariston, and on, and on”. And so on.

The problem, I suspect, is driven by four factors:

1. People want to appear clever, which seems to equate to using ten words when two may do. As Al Ries & Jack Trout say in their brilliant book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, “Consider this: The Lord’s Prayer contains 56 words, the Gettysburg Address, 266; the Ten Commandments, 297; the Declaration of Independence, 300; and a recent U.S. government order setting the price of cabbage, 26,911”.

2. In the digital world, everyone is a creator and likes to have a crack at writing, forgetting (or failing to realise) that often the craft of brilliant writing is knowing what not to write. As Robert Fleege said, “An ad is finished only when you no longer can find a single element to remove”.

3. There’s an ocean of difference between talking about talking straight, and talking straight. I’ve seen hundreds of brand books and tone of voice guides over the years, and they regularly fall into the same trap – presenting lists of words that should guide the writer. Here’s an example from my days at BT: “Dedicated, bold, ingenious, warm, down to earth”. The problem with these is that people usually nod politely, and then go right back to confusing the hell out of people.

4. I suspect that many marketers forget about their audience. They write for themselves, wrapped in their brand bubble, and forget that in the real world no one really gives a damn about your product so you’d better get to the point if you’re to have any chance of grabbing their attention, let alone influencing their behaviour.  It may give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but really?!

Take these examples from recent advertising campaigns:

  • “Alive in every drop” (tea brand)
  • “Turn on your creativity” (kitchen appliances)
  • “Bold isn’t a destination, it’s a journey” (for a smart toilet, whatever that is)

These make me squirm, and remind me of that great Hugh MacLeod quote, “If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face”.

Possibly the best advice was in a memo from Winston Churchill to War Cabinet members, at the height of the Battle of Britain, on making reports shorter and to the point, to save time and aid clearer thinking.

The memo, titled “BREVITY”, is a powerful lesson in a skill too often forgotten or ignored by advertisers. In a world where time-poor consumers are hit with over 3,000 marketing messages every day, surely there’s everything to be gained by just getting to the point.