Why Being Politically Correct Could be the Kiss of Death in Copy

Last week we chatted about “skunked words.” Some of these words are ones your reader might misinterpret … words like “bimonthly.” This word has evolved (devolved) to mean both every two months and twice a month.

If you use it in your copy, your reader will be confused … unless you explain what you mean. That wastes space, so you don’t want to use this word. It’s skunked.

We also talked about another class of skunked words – words that might cause offense to your reader. Words like “oriental,” which some people find offensive.

But, what about being politically correct? Does that have a place in copy? I’ll tell you the answer in just a minute. But first, let me tell you about a program I gave to my Rotary Club meeting …

It, too, was on skunked words, and, in general, the program was well-received. But, it started a heated discussion. (We never argue in my club. Well, usually we don’t.) One member protested I was urging people to be “politically correct.” This is a member who could never be accused of that!

The mere fact this member accused me of being politically correct told me I was going in the right direction, even if that wasn’t my original intention.

The Will Newman Rule of Political Correctness …

I have a personal rule about being politically correct …

 … political correctness has no place in copywriting!

A bold statement, I know. Let me explain.

When you write copy, you’re beholding to two very important people. The first is your client. You write according to his desires, his needs, and his direction.

The other person you answer to is your reader. So, regardless of your own political sensibilities, you have to write copy that matches his beliefs.

Let me give you an example. Agora Inc., arguably the country’s largest and most successful newsletter publisher, used to publish a newsletter called Bull. Its prospects were men 50 years old and up. It took a straight-ahead, macho stance in all its articles. Someone might even say it was chauvinistic. It was one of the most politically incorrect newsletters I’ve ever read.

But that was the focus, charm, and attraction of Bull.

If you wanted to succeed as a promotional copywriter for Bull, you had to be politically incorrect to satisfy both your client and your prospect.

Fail to do that and you’re out of a job.

What’s sauce for the gander could be poison for the goose …

But, let’s say you’re writing for a (fictitious) newsletter called Women Up Rising. Its prospects are women who take a strong stance on women’s equality in the workplace and on other similar issues.

You’d never adopt the same voice and perspective you’d use writing for Bull. You’d never dream of using certain words in Women Up Rising you could safely use in Bull (and vice versa). You wouldn’t use them, because they would alienate your reader … and your client.

Some vague notion of political correctness has nothing to do with it. It’s all about good marketing and writing successful copy.

What if you had trouble using words and ideas required for writing about Bull? This means one thing. You should not write for it. And, not because you’re taking a “moral stance.”

You couldn’t write for it – at least not successfully – for one reason only. You cannot identify with the prospect. As hard as you’d try to write strong copy, you wouldn’t be able to.

If a word might smell, it does …

In my previous article, I referred to a word that caused uproar in 1999. The offending word’s dictionary definition is “grudgingly mean about spending.” This word has no racially based roots, but it’s easily mistaken for a very offensive word.

I think it’s a perfectly good word. There’s a corner in the “love of words box” in my mind that wants to use it and rehabilitate it.

But, I will never use it in any writing I do. It’s simply not worth possibly offending my reader. If I did use it – or one of the other skunked words like it – then one of my readers could legitimately ask me why I would use it when I knew it might offend, even for the wrong reason.

It’s not about some vague idea of political correctness. It’s not worth taking the chance of losing a sale, a reader … or a client.

As a copywriter, always use words to persuade and entice.

But never use words that might offend the only person who really matters in this business: Your prospect.

I’d love to hear your feelings on today’s topic. Please let me know in the comment section below what you’re thinking.

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Published: October 19, 2015

12 Responses to “Why Being Politically Correct Could be the Kiss of Death in Copy”

  1. Thanks for the insight.Really I have had a lot offensive words in my mind,which when used in my copy would have meant disaster in my carrier. Once more,THANKs


  2. I look at words that are becoming lost to us (skunked or politically incorrect) similar to endangered species. I, too, want to save them, to bring them back into use. However, it is definitely not worth offending someone because of my passion for words. The fun thing about it is the added challenge for us writers to use other, and often better because they are not overused, words to get our meaning across. Meeting such a challenge is a great opportunity for learning and growth, so bring it on!

    Linda Verde in London Ontario

  3. Will,

    Thank you for sharing this information. I feel that it simplifies and make good sense of an area that at sometime we all wish would go away-not sure, it would be as interesting, if we thought the same, felt the same and had the same opinions. I am encouraged by your information.

    Guest (Kathy)

  4. It's unfortunate that Americans have fallen victim to a degrading, decaying, increasingly useless public education system run by politicians and political-correctness fanatics to the point that the students produced are literally illiterate.

    They don't even know what illiterate means! Good teachers are prevented from teaching.

    Political correctness is an invention of cowards who have no defensible principles, so they most destroy the principles others live by.

    Guest (Clarke Echols)

  5. I seriously, honestly do not understand why "grudgingly mean about spending" could even be remotely offensive..? Please explain..?
    I do agree that politically correctness has no business--actually--anywhere. I am avowed to being UNpolitically correct.
    Unfortunately, the way this world is going...our choice of words are becoming limited so as not to "offend." Sadly, the past incisive but moral and honest craft of communicating has been adulterated as "racism," and "hate," and "extreme." I almost wish to give up writing; but I shall not because of my faith in GOD is my song. Peace.


  6. Wow, really!? I wrote a comment earlier this morning, 10-25-15 @1015am. It would seem you have Unapproved it and deleted it..? My question is why!?
    Did you judge me "offensive" because I was not politically correct..because I mentioned that I have faith in GOD??! Delete this one while you're at it, too!


  7. Thank you, Will.
    Now then..
    may you please explain to me a response to my initial question in my first comment?..that seemed to have been deleted, but am content that it was not.
    Either way, I shall choose to not be terribly disappointed. Either way, every experience is an afflatus for me...some way or another.
    Peace. ; )


  8. To Guest, Clarke Echols:

    I understand what you are relating, verily. I earlier declared that available words are becoming limited due to my assertion that political correctness is pretty much what is screwing with our choices. But that is not the case. I, you, others, as individual writers, have access to a mysterious variegation beyond any curve, that any crafty idealism can and is swaying the witless. It is what it is. Peace.


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