It can take time, effort and expertise to craft a compelling marketing message. In fact, it’s all too easy to imagine the minute hand whirring around the clock—and the associated expenses climbing—as entire days are spent creating brand archetype word clouds, devising virulent hashtags and debating whether a flashy new subheading should call out “premium” or “superior” (“What if we go with ‘supremium’?”, says the fresh-faced copywriting intern).
And yet it can all be for nothing when the building blocks of language are left as an afterthought. Those stray commas and absent apostrophes are not just an eyesore for grammar sticklers like me: they have the potential to shatter the illusion of your million-dollar message, stamping “AMATEUR HOUR” in big red letters across your otherwise-immaculate collateral.
The very real cost of typos
Of course, it’s impossible to quantify exactly how many sales or conversions are lost due to problematic punctuation, but we have an idea: this much-cited 2013 study from Global Lingo suggests that 59% of Britons would not use a company that had obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or in its marketing material. And when you consider that 74% of respondents in the same survey said they would notice the quality of grammar or spelling, you can conclude that language gaffes are almost always detrimental if they’re noticed. That’s significant.
But it doesn’t happen to the big boys, right? Well, yes, of course, it does. A more recent Acrolinx study found that an astonishing 69% of the 340 companies surveyed—all of which have $250 million or more in annual revenue—are serving up content that fails to make the grade. And the effect is quantitative as well as qualitative: the lowest scorers saw their Alexa website traffic rankings decrease by 9%, while the top scorers saw theirs increase by 22%. None of the main offenders is named (boo!), but Kohl’s, Caterpillar and European mobile carrier EE are singled out for praise.
The grammar hall of shame
So we know that it’s happening, and we know that it matters. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more notable examples of big brands making big blunders—and know that such misdemeanours against the English language may well have done unspecified damage to each company’s bottom line.
Every noun counts
Costing $166,666 per second, it’s fair to say that Super Bowl commercials are not cheap. In fact, that rate suggests that SodaStream spent something like $5.3 million on their 2014 ad starring Scarlett Johansson just for the airtime alone—so you’d be forgiven for thinking they could spare a few dollars for a script editor. But it seems they didn’t, and pedants all over the world will forever remember the ghastly “Less sugar, less bottles” line for all the wrong reasons. (Clue: “bottle” is a count noun, so it should be “fewer”, not “less”.)
Why is “their” there?
Education brands have to pay particularly close attention to their punctuation. After all, nothing can erode confidence faster than a comma splice from those supposedly in the know. In fairness to Creative Kids Software, they retail rather than develop educational programs—but there’s still no excuse for their unintentionally hilarious in-store signage: “So Fun, They Won’t Even Know Their Learning”. Honourable mention for this gem from the 2008 U.S. presidential election: “Student’s for McCain”.
Social media is grammar’s Wild West, where nary a tweet nor caption is foible-free. But when Forbes Contributor Jayson DeMers counsels brands to “speak your audience’s language”, he doesn’t necessarily mean you should embrace the chaos and throw apostrophes around with abandon: he means you should feel free to use the vernacular to help you forge meaningful connections, but not to the extent that you can no longer be taken seriously. So full marks to Scope mouthwash for “RT if your planning a fresh NYE kiss”, but points deducted for the grammar gaffe—and a stern look of disapproval for it happening in a Promoted Tweet.
Trending is usually regarded as a good thing—just look at all those impressions!—but the conversation can get out of hand in a hurry. See how #McDstories became a magnet for complaints about McDonalds; how DiGiorno frozen pizzas mistakenly latched on to #WhyIStayed, a hashtag for survivors of domestic abuse; how Kenneth Cole peddled their new collection on the back of the unfolding Egyptian revolution.
But our favourite examples are about parsing—or a lack thereof. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how #nowthatcherisdead can be both “Now Thatcher is dead” (intended) and “Now that Cher is dead” (unintended), and how Susan Boyle’s PR company thought #susanalbumparty would be a good hashtag to celebrate the launch of her latest album. Poor Susan.
Go with the flow—to an extent
Of course, language is continually changing, and there’s little room for prescriptivism in digital—particularly digital marketing, which moves at breakneck speed. Some classroom teachings have fallen by the wayside, and we won’t mourn their loss, but that doesn’t release brands from their obligations to grammar. After all, they might not care about or even notice the comma splice in that multi-million-dollar ad campaign—but their target audience will.
David Welsh is DAC’s senior copywriter. He enjoys English breakfast tea with an espresso chaser and a Newcastle United game. To learn more about ways to strengthen your company’s messaging, please get in touch with DAC.