Slate magazine recently published a takedown of the marketing copy that appears on the back and inside of the covers of novels. In it, writer Eric Farwell explains how copywriters from the big four publishing houses describe their books.

If the copywriter is feeling bold, maybe they'll let us know that the writer is a "dazzling new voice," or that the release of this debut novel is "heralding a brave new voice in fiction." From there, a frustratingly vague description of the plot usually contains a foreboding line letting us know the protagonist needs to go on a journey to another country to find herself, or that a man will try to save his marriage or family. End with a reminder that this book is very important and/or brilliant. Just like every other book.

Farwell's criticism reminds me of the behavior I've seen from many tech companies when they describe their products. The marketer is always "excited" to announce the product, which is "innovative," "cutting edge," and, of course, "industry-leading." (Etc.)

Clichéd book jacket copy and clichéd product descriptions share a common element: They try to tell you how you should feel about the product, via how the copywriter is pretending to feel about the product.

This is ironic, since every writing class in the world starts with a proviso to avoid adjectives, advice usually expressed as "show, don't tell." Unfortunately, most marketing writers--in both publishing and business--don't understand the difference.

To illustrate this difference, Farwell cites the jacket copy from smaller, nimbler publishing houses, which, rather than piling on the puffy adjectives, make an effort to describe a book in a way that elicits emotion, without suggesting how the reader should feel about it. For example:

Tragic Magic is the story of Melvin Ellington, a.k.a. Mouth, a Black, 20-something, ex-college radical who has just been released from a five-year prison stretch after being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. Brown structures this first-person tale around Ellington's first day on the outside.

Note there are adjectives in that jacket copy ("Black", "conscientious," "first"), but they are concrete not abstract. They particularize rather than emotionalize.

The rule here is never tell the reader how to feel. Instead use evocative, concrete words that might elicit emotion. For example:

  • Bad: "The industry-leading manufacturer Potrezebie is excited to announce an innovative, state-of-the-art, easy-to-use widget."
  • Better: "Potrezebie's newly released widget is smaller, lighter, and more reliable (according to independent testing) than any other widget available today."

When I've provided advice and examples like this in the past, somebody inevitably asks: "But what if our widget is bigger, heavier, and less reliable?"

In other words: How do you market a product that in fact is mediocre? Simple: Find something (anything) about the product that might elicit the customer to feel a positive emotion.

Perhaps your product has backward compatibility that avoids a costly conversion. Or perhaps it has a familiar interface that reduces training costs. In that case, you might say something like:

Our beta-test customers said they could use Potrezebie's new widget immediately, completely avoiding downtime, saving an average of $10,000 per widget.

If you honestly can't find something that can elicit emotion, don't bother announcing the product!

Under no circumstances should you attempt to dress up a mediocre product by slapping enthusiastic adjectives on it. Remember: Putting lipstick on a pig just makes the pig look uglier.