Since the ‘Ministry of War’ rebranded as the ‘Ministry of Defence’ back in 1964, it seems the armed forces, and those who write about them, have become hooked on euphemism.
Take a look at today’s papers and you’ll see Admirals and Generals talking about Britain’s nuclear ‘deterrent’ (weapons); or ‘intervention’ (war) in the Middle East; or ‘air strikes’ (bombing) in Syria.
Fair enough I suppose, euphemism helps to soften what can otherwise be difficult and uncomfortable reading.
What really amuses me though, is how the paucity of militaristic language in the forces contrasts with its profusion in the marketing industry.
It seems marketing people are obsessed with all things soldierly.
Now I know what you’re thinking; perhaps we say ‘strategy’ and ‘targets’ too often, but surely that doesn’t mean we’re obsessed with military language?
Well, let’s start with the name of our esteemed trade magazine. The word ‘campaign’ comes from the Latin ‘campus’, which means ‘field’. It entered our lexicon from France in the 1640s, and literally meant ‘an army taking to the field’.
Now stop and think about it. How much more of our industry lingo has bellicose overtones?
We don’t introduce new products; we ‘launch’ them like missiles.
We aim to be ‘first movers’.
Our campaigns are ‘highly targeted’.
But they must still ‘battle’ for attention.
So we pioneer new ‘tactics’.
Or we aim for a ‘captive’ audience.
And we measure ‘hits’, ‘strike rates’ and ‘impact’.
If traditional channels are too costly – we drive ‘guerrilla’ strategies.
So we can ‘recruit’ customers.
And deploy our ‘sales force’.
Which can help us ‘outflank’ competitors.
And ‘steal a march’ on our rivals.
So how did this happen?
Samuel Johnson wrote “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.”
Perhaps our military jargon is an expression of feelings of inadequacy. Maybe deep down we like to pretend we’re on the front lines fighting for freedom, rather than say, trying to grow sales of chocolate muffins in packs of four.
Or maybe we’re not culpable. Perhaps we’re simply using the language we’ve inherited from the explosion of consumerism in the 1950s. A time when boardrooms were stuffed purely with men, fresh from the war and national service.
In either case, I think when books like these were made required reading at business schools in the 1980s; we became stuck with warlike verbiage for at least another generation…
Perhaps I shouldn’t be sneering. Marketing and advertising are often described as ‘zero sum games’ after all. For one business to succeed, another must fail. So maybe couching everything in militaristic terms is appropriate; there are jobs and livelihoods at stake.
We’re in a serious business, aren’t we?