10 words to avoid in 2009

36726310 Good friend to the Marketing Minute, Susan Gunelius (author of Harry Potter, the story of a global business phenomenon) has a great article on Entrepreneuer's website.  In the article, Susan reminds us that the normally jaded and wary consumer is even more so after the economic struggles of 2008.

I think her list will surprise you.  It includes works that traditionally have been touted as buying trigger words.  It also includes some copywriting 101 tips that have been passed down for ages.  Let's see what you think.

Here are 5 of Susan's 10 words to avoid in your 2009 marketing efforts.  These are the ones that intrigued me the most and I wondered what you thought.


Ads that include messages about a free product or service promotions can work well during an economic downturn, but consumers need to see the products perform well. E-mail spam filters are tough on messages that include "free" in the subject line. While it might be tempting to use a subject line that says, "Open now to get your free widget," that's an e-mail spam filter red flag that will send your message to most recipients' spam boxes. When the economy is tough, you can't risk having your e-mails not make it to the intended recipients. Replace "free" with "complimentary" or "gratis" to sneak by spam filters without compromising the effectiveness of your message.


Few people believe in guarantees these days. Unless you can prove your guarantee is real, use the valuable real estate space in your ad for a more effective message that consumers are likely to believe and act on.


If you want to waste space in your ads, include "really" in your copy. This word does nothing to help your messages. Instead, it slows consumers down, and they are not likely to wait around for the complete message. Don't risk losing them by loading your copy with useless filler words. Make sure every word in your copy is there for a reason.


Does  a message sound more compelling with "very" in it? Is "When you need very fresh flowers, call ABC Florist," more effective than "When you need fresh flowers, call ABC Florist"? If you answered, yes, reread the last paragraph.


You're not helping anyone when you offer "opportunities" in your copy. Consumers don't want opportunities. They want to feel confident handing over their hard-earned money. They want to know they'll get the results they want and need, not the opportunity to perhaps get those results. Don't let them wonder what they'll get when they pull out their wallets. Tell them.

To see the other five words and read Susan's thoughts on them, check out the article.  But before you go…what do you think?  Is free now a tainted word?  Should we stop offering guarantees?

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23 comments on “10 words to avoid in 2009

  1. Matt Soreco says:

    I couldn’t disagree more about “free.” Were any of these items tested? Every single time we test free in one for or another, it greatly outperforms anything else.

  2. Blog Expert says:

    Why avoid them when they still work?

  3. Karin H. says:

    LOL Drew

    The alternative word ‘gratis’ will get stopped in Dutch spam filters 😉
    Don’t exactly have a problem with free or guarantee, as long as you fully explain (might be hard to do in a small ad) what is really – oops – free or guaranteed.
    Our business ‘scores’ high with our dedicated ‘4-seasons’ guarantee on installations – the title explaining the effect of the 4 seasons can/will have on wooden flooring.

    Karin H. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business)

  4. Justin Brady says:

    Yes! The problem is cultivated from a marketing environment that likes to exploit buzz words. In hospitality we were trained to never use FREE! because it cheapens the product. When complimentary is used, it sounds like something of value is being given!

    After talking with a fellow sales guy today at lunch we both agreed another word at risk is “relationship”. All sales people are trained to sell via relationships, but they sell via deception and dishonesty, I would venture to guess less than 5% have a clue what a relationship really is! Yet another buzz word that is being cheapened.

  5. Drew, I have the utmost respect for you and your knowledge, passion and talent. You know there’s a BUT coming…

    BUT… I absolutely could not disagree more with Ms. Gunelius and those like her. And by that I mean these “experts” (is it me or are there more “experts” than ever before, hell I was watching the Food Channel the other night and they had a Cough Syrup Expert on, I kid you not)… but I digress.

    And by that I mean these “experts” who declare or hand-down these one-size-fits-all advertising copywriting bulls@#T.

    Look, I have nothing against Ms. Gunelius and any friend of Drew’s…

    But MY GOD if I read one more of these types of commandment-esque edicts that everyone should follow devoutly without any thought given to individual needs or scenarios, I am going to REALLY, do some VERY bad damage to my Macbook the first FREE OPPORTUNITY I get, I GUARANTEE it.

    You cannot make these types of blanket decrees, not today, not ever.

    Maybe its because I err on the side of writing conversationally, you know, writing the way people actually speak, not in some tone that implies that we (the writers/advertisers) are smarter than our audience, cause guess what.. we’re not!

    Thanks Drew.. now I’m all fired up!!!

  6. Thanks for writing about my article, Drew! Justin mentions another word, “relationship,” that has definitely been overused and carries less weight than it used to.

    The key with words like “free” and “guarantee” is to prove that you’re really offering something free. So many promotions include free offers with some kind of catch. That’s where the usefulness of these words comes into question. When customers get too many “free” or “guaranteed” offers with a catch attached to them, those words start to carry less meaning in the future.

    Justin makes a good point about “selling via deception.” When words are little more than a bait and switch, they become less useful and more questionable. How many emails get through your spam filter each day with ridiculous free or guaranteed claims? It’s that overuse, regardless of the source, that dilutes the effectiveness of words. It’s a warning every marketer should be aware of and take into consideration when writing copy.

    I think the take-away is this — don’t just settle for words like “free” and “guarantee” that are overused and sometimes questionable unless you can prove them and unless you can’t think of anything better.

  7. Interesting and helpful post, keep em coming, thanks =-)

  8. Interesting comments. I’m glad to see that there is discussion from both sides of the coin. Overall, I thought that the article was interesting and insightful. I’m not an expert in marketing, but I think that some of the points presented are valid.

  9. Matt —

    If I read the article correctly — I think Susan is saying that the public is getting pretty jaded. Are you not finding that to be the case?

    I wonder if it matters what you are selling. In what type of sales are you finding the word free to still be working?


  10. Karin,

    I think the difference is that you are using language that is both specific to what you sell and it’s not common.

    So, you capture your audience’s attention and the offer feels genuine. Have you ever had anyone push back on the guarantee?


  11. Justin,

    I think the effectiveness of buzz words is about two weeks these days. We get bombarded with them from every angle today…and don’t seem to have very much tolerance for them anymore.

    I wrote a post for Marketing Profs on this topic. It’s called…are we wearing out our words. ( http://tinyurl.com/62sclb )


  12. Steve,

    Geez, I wish you would care about something a bit.

    I agree with you — there’s always danger with one size fits all advice. But, in general I think Susan’s advice is pretty sound. I mean come on…you and I write for a living. Don’t we typically try to avoid using the same tired words that everyone else does?

    If for nothing else…just to keep it fresh. If we couldn’t say things in a more interesting way than the average joe — wouldn’t we be looking for work?


  13. Aleksandar,

    I agree — a conversation is always more interesting when both sides are being well represented.

    Glad you could stop by. I hope you’ll jump into another conversation soon!


  14. Karin H. says:

    Hi Drew (love your last post about juicy words – which is rather related to my answer on your reply above)

    What we write – more how we write – in our marketing messages is indeed very specific, we are after al a specialised retailer, but not common? There are many other wood flooring websites around, we just – we think – add a flavour of (double) Dutch in to it, making it more – we hope – authentic.

    As for push-back on our guarantee: no, not really. We take it ‘flexible’, when it is just a little thingy we can easily fix it even goes beyond the 4 first seasons.

    Karin H.

  15. Judy Murdoch says:

    Couple other words I see used in marketing which I especially loath:

    Massive – as in “Our new affiliate program will create massive profits”

    Explode – as in “watch your traffic explode”

    My eyes immediate glaze over as I click the spam button when I see either words in a subject line.


  16. Chuck Bartok says:

    Very interesting Discourse.
    I believe the argument that each circumstance require some Judgment is sound.

    I have not been a fan of FREE on the Internet for some Time, yet our Off-line business do very well well with that concept.

  17. Gene Munro says:

    While I agree with the author generally, it’s a very subjective game. One of the fundamentals of advertising and PR is to know who you’re talking to and adjust the message accordingly.

    While I have never used the word FREE I think that in some places it’s a nessisary evil. If a better-known competitor in say, FMCG is doing a BUY 2 GET 1 FREE promotion, it would be difficult to write promotional or advertising copy with as much bite.

    I actually have two books by Richard Bayan on my desk at all times: WORDS THAT SELL and WORDS THAT SELL 2.

    Thumb through them nect time youre at borders.

  18. Chris Goward says:

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus disagreeing with you about ‘Free’, Drew. If spam filters are your only problem, most of them are smart enough to understand complimentary too, by the way.

    I will, however, support you regarding ‘Very’ and ‘Really’, but they’re just two examples of the larger issue: adjectives. Good marketing copywriters know that adjectives are a crutch that appear when content is sparse. Eliminate adjectives from your copy and your results will improve.


  19. Very informative post. Where can we get the last 5 keywords to avoid?

  20. Bipin Kumar says:

    I agree with the author. Even these words no more appeal to me any longer. It would be nice if you could discuss ten powerful words to be used in place of these words.

  21. David says:

    The link to the rest of the article is out, but I enjoyed the portion here. I would agree with it all very, very much.

  22. Judy,

    Both the words massive and explode that you added to the list make me think of those monster truck event ads where the guy is shouting “power, power, power!”

    There’s something sort of sleazy and cheap about the whole effort. Probably not the sentiment most advertisers are trying to evoke!


  23. Chuck,

    As always — a good point. All of this is subject to the circumstances. There’s no absolutes.


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