Semantic noise: the copywriter’s curse

“Semantic noise” is the term communication professors use to describe what happens when words mean different things to different people.

Here’s one notorious example. A copywriter wrote the following slogan for a cough syrup company:

“Try our cough syrup. You will never get any better.”

You can see what the poor copywriter meant to say, but his slogan can be understood in two ways. It creates major semantic noise and you are left wondering why anyone would buy a product that promises to NOT work.

Here are other examples of semantic noise caused by writers from around the world.

Sign in Norwegian cocktail lounge: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.”

Detour sign in Japan: “Stop. Drive Sideways.”

Hotel in Vienna: “In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.”

Elevator in Germany: “Do not enter the lift backwards, and only when lit up.”

Dry cleaner window in Bangkok: “Drop your pants here for best results.”

And my favorite from a Japanese hotel: “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.”

These are all extreme examples, of course. But they show what can happen when you mean to say one thing and your words are understood to mean something else.

Even something as simple as writing “soda” when your audience would normally say “pop” can stop a reader long enough to derail your sales pitch.

The solution? Well, I have three simple suggestions:

1. Look for semantic noise in your copy. Just being aware of the possibility of confusion, and that words do not carry set meaning, can help you avoid this sort of copywriting catastrophe.

2. Don’t write in a rush. I always try to build “cooling off” time into every project. I write, set aside the copy for a day or two, then come back to it with fresh eyes. This always helps you see things you didn’t see in the heat of writing.

3. Show your copy to other people. A client, proofreader, friend, anyone. Fresh, objective eyes can quiet semantic noise in a hurry.

I’ve never created a major piece of semantic noise, but I did once title an article “How to cut down traffic on your Web site.” It was intended to be a snarky look at what not to do if you want more Web traffic. My intended meaning for “cut down” was “reduce.” But the publication editor pointed out that “cut down traffic” made it sound like I wanted to “slay” or “kill” people on a Web site.

Semantic noise happens to all of us. So keep your ears open.

Subscribe to FREE Newsletter / Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail


6 Responses to “Semantic noise: the copywriter’s curse”

  1. Ted Grigg on April 1st, 2009 1:27 pm

    Nice job Dean. This one made me laugh. Where do you get all this good stuff?

    You wrote one blog some time back with some famous sayings that I saved for future reference.

    You are so correct about letting others look over your copy. Look for their eye movements when they read it and see where they stop or slow down. That part of the copy could probably use some refinement.

  2. Dean Rieck on April 1st, 2009 1:41 pm

    My wife was reading a book on communications and ran across the cough syrup example. That got the ball rolling.

  3. Anna Schibrowsky on April 2nd, 2009 11:30 am

    Great examples, Dean. Reading aloud helps catch these too.

  4. S.Smith on April 2nd, 2009 11:51 am

    One could use it well (I like Dry cleaner window in Bangkok: “Drop your pants here for best results.”) and purposefully to offer those double messages.

    In any event, it’s fun article and a good thing to be aware of…

  5. neville on April 2nd, 2009 12:41 pm

    Great post. Never thought about something like this. I like the 2. suggestion and will use with the 3. one ;)

  6. The Direct Marketing Voice Links 4-20-2009 | The Direct Marketing Voice on April 20th, 2009 1:07 pm

    [...] Semantic noise: the copywriter’s curse [...]

FREE Newsletter
Get my monthly newsletter and a FREE 16-page Report: 99 Easy Ways to Boost Your Direct Mail Response!
Enter your main e-mail:
Past issues and more info.
Your privacy is guaranteed.