The Awesomeness of Hyperbole

Hyperbole is literally the worst thing in the history of the Universe.

Here’s an audio version of this episode for your dining & dancing pleasure.

Okay, so the reality is that there are probably hundreds of thousands of things that are worse than hyperbole – starting with the first season of Dexter: New Blood, but you get the idea. But if the irony of that first line was lost on you, pull up a chair, because we have some things to discuss.

I used to work with a traffic reporter for whom the slightest inconvenience on the road was punctuated on the air with phrases like, “a dreadful drive”, “a horrendous backup” or my personal favorite, “an apocalyptic commute”. One day he asked me if there was anything he could do that’d make him a better reporter, and I told him to go read The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In response to the quizzical look that followed, I said, “You had a fender-bender today that caused about a 2-minute delay, and you described it as ‘a massive headache’. What adjectives are left over for you to capture the scene when a tanker truck rolls over and explodes?”

It’s the same conversation that led me to bemoan the devolution to meaninglessness of words like “epic”, “awesome”, “horrific” and so on. When someone sees a TikTok video of a guy doing an ill-fated skateboard stunt who crumples to the ground after slamming his man-parts into a stair railing and they considers that “majestic”, you know the language is in trouble.

Yet businesses gleefully use these kinds of words in their advertising all the time without so much as a thought.

I was in the car yesterday and heard a commercial for “the biggest sale ever” with “the lowest prices in our history” and wondered: If I were to bring in a hundred of your most loyal long-term customers – all of whom have eidetic memories – would a single one of them be able to remember an item that ever sold for cheaper? My guess is they would. Why? Because we both know this isn’t really the biggest sale ever, and they’re not really the lowest prices in your history. You’re picking the low-hanging fruit because the dog days of the post-holiday season are here and your competitor is eating your lunch.

The trouble with hyperbole as a mission statement is that it becomes difficult to sustain. I remember when I was a teenager, my parents and I had a running joke about how Sears had yet another sale running. I’d grab the latest flyer that came with the newspaper and pretend to be excited to get to the mall, because if Sears was having a sale, it must be a big deal. Sears, of all places! Having a sale! Imagine that!

Of course, we all know how that strategy ultimately worked out for Sears.

In fact, if memory serves, there was a case back in the 1970s or 80s where the Government stepped in and told a retailer they weren’t allowed to advertise a specific sale, because the items had never actually been available for purchase at the regular price. Many jurisdictions now have laws on the books that prevent businesses from advertising shady discounts and non-existent price cuts.

In a similar vein, I was working on the campaign of a person who was running for elected office, and we were talking about the various things that made this particular candidate special. There was plenty of that; he was truly unique in that I would watch him engage with the voters, and instead of being finished with the conversation as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next disposable hand to shake and meaningless baby to kiss, he’d give them contact information for his assistant; then he would get back to his desk, jot down notes about each person he met by name, and actually try to come up with a way to address the concerns they’d raised in the conversation. When the person would call, they’d be met with familiarity, and updated on the actual action steps that had already been taken in their name.

The idea was raised that we should talk about how much the candidate cares. Because from what his office staff told me, what I witnessed would happen multiple times a day. He’s one of those rare birds who gets into politics because he actually has a deep drive to help people, and has it in his DNA to try and make the world a better place. (Something in our current political discourse that is quite literally alarming in its scarcity.) So the idea was expressed that we should focus on that as the candidate’s Unique Selling Proposition.

Here’s the weakness in that strategy: Every politician says they care. Every. Single. One. What has become clear, though, is that when a politician says they care, it’s prudent – and maybe even necessary, given recent events – to ask them to clarify what it is they care about. Often, we find out after the fact that the thing they care about is simply re-election. Or maintaining or amassing power. Or, perhaps most commonly, the stated and unstated positions of their political party. They act not our voices in the halls of Government, they’re the voice of the party in our neighborhoods and communities. They’re giving press conferences and late-night interviews on national TV far more often than they’re talking to the reporters from the local paper. They don’t represent their constituents to the leaders, it’s the other way around. So hearing a politician say they care has come to mean nothing, because they all say it, and almost none of them do it. It’s just another version of the hyperbolic “biggest sale of the season”, and it’s unfortunate because when people in my industry stumble across a business who really is putting on their lowest prices ever, or a candidate who really does care, you find that the phrases have been so misused that people inherently don’t trust them.

There have even been cases where stores were slapped on the wrist by regulators for having giant signs in the window advertising a “Going Out For Business” sale. Going out for business instead of going out of business. The idea was that a quick glance at the sign might fool a customer into thinking the store was about to go belly-up and the proprietors were seeking to liquidate the contents at a tiny fraction of the regular price. In other words, the business was comfortable with their very first interaction with you to be based on a lie.

Here’s the thing: If you’re yelling at me in your ads about your big sale because that’s how you’re going to keep pace this month, maybe your advertising isn’t the issue; maybe you need to rethink your business model.

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