Mind Your Language: What Message do the Words in Your Ads Send?

The title of the study by University of Michigan researchers Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz says it all: If It's Difficult to Pronounce, It Must Be Risky--Fluency, Familiarity, and Risk Perception. They base their conclusion, that the harder it is to pronounce something, the less familiar it seems and, therefore, the greater the risk it presents, on three studies. In Studies 1 and 2, food additives were rated as more harmful when their names were difficult to pronounce than when their names were easy to pronounce. Analyses of the data indicated that this was due to the perceived novelty of the substance. In Study 3, amusement-park rides were rated as more likely to make one sick (an undesirable risk) and also as more exciting and adventurous (a desirable risk) when their names were difficult to pronounce than when their names were easy to pronounce.

Here is how the research was done: Subjects were asked to rate words from 1-7 based on their perceived riskiness. For example, they asked about a food additive called Hnegripitrom. It is not real, but it was rated very high for riskiness. But then, so was N-acetyl-p-aminophenol. That one is real, known to most folks as Acetaminophen or by its brand name, Tylenol. The fact is that the subjects were not experts in chemistry, they had no clue what these chemicals were, but they were making decisions and basing those decisions on something. It turns out that the subjects were basing their assessment on how comfortable they were with the word itself. The experiment with the roller coaster used the same methodology and had the same outcome.

This has implications for how people make decisions regarding products. If something is described in odd, unfamiliar terms, then it is perceived as risky. On the other hand, if the language used is familiar and easy to pronounce, people feel far safer with the product.

Hard to pronounce = unfamiliar = risky

Easy to pronounce = familiar = safe

Which of these are more likely to enhance your sales? By going the “safe” route, you will develop more of a rapport with your audience through your marketing and advertising than you would by using more “risky” language. Remember, people tend to underestimate the risk involved with familiar things and to exaggerate the danger associated with unfamiliar things. So, ask yourself this question the next time you are putting together an ad or new marketing collateral: Am I showing my audience something that is “safe?”

In these uncertain times, there is more than simply price on the minds of many consumers. They want to feel safe and well served in the businesses they frequent and this is a fine start to establishing those feelings. Try it. Your bottom line will thank you.