October 11, 2006

Yale University Researchers Reveal 12 Powerful Words To Increase Your Profits

That's what quite a few web pages tell us: {Yale you save money easy guarantee health proven safety discovery new love results}. I haven't checked out all 102,000 of the hits, but a sample of the first few pages leaves me skeptical that any journal citations will be forthcoming from the rest of them. Nor does Google scholar turn up any "Yale University researchers" claiming responsibility for this list.

Arnold Zwicky pointed out this morning that Alan and Barbara Pease, in their work The Definitive Book of Body Language, attribute the discovery of this same set of words to "a study at the University of California". I happen to own a copy of the Pease's book, and I'll echo Arnold's observation that they don't offer any further details -- not even what campus. (And though the University of California has a bewildering number of campuses, I'm pretty sure that none of them is named "Yale".)

Another set of web pages tell us that this list was invented by the American humorist Goodman Ace: {"Goodman Ace" you save money easy guarantee health proven safety discovery new love results}. Some of these are much more circumstantial than the Peases' account: thus Ernest W. Nicastro advises us, in his opus Five Never Forgets for Sales Letter Success, to follow the maxim

4. Never forget to use the magic words - In Denny Hatch's great book, Method Marketing, he writes about the time early on in his career when his boss gave him a half-hour lecture on direct mail. According to Mr. Hatch, at one point his boss pulled out a column from the old Saturday Review wherein the writer, humorist Goodman Ace, listed what he considered to be the twelve most powerful and evocative words in the English language. Those words are -

you, save, money, easy, guarantee, health, proven, safety, discovery, new, love, results.

To these twelve Hatch adds one more -- FREE -- citing legendary direct marketer Dick Benson who said, "'Free' is a magic word." So, for that matter, are the other twelve. Look for every opportunity to use these thirteen magic words in your sales letter copy. Use them properly and they will work magic on your response rates.

I'll give you another writing tip that Ernest W. Nicastro unaccountably failed to follow -- a new discovery of my own that's easy to use, guaranteed to impress people, and offered to you entirely free of charge:

4a. When you want people to believe something, attribute it to "X University researchers", for X = one of {Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.}, or to "a Y study", for Y = one of {U.S. Government, University of California, Harvard, etc.}.

Although providing this form of attribution is a bit dishonest -- in fact, it's a bald-faced lie -- you can use it in complete confidence and safety, because no one ever checks. (Well, no one used to check. This is the era of blogs and WCFCYA -- but if you get a good publisher, a hundred people will buy your book for every one who finds out that you're making the whole thing up.)

If you want to move up a notch in the intellectual food chain, you can go ahead and provide an end-note referencing an actual scientific publication.. It's easy -- just search in Google Scholar to find a paper whose title or abstract contains some vaguely relevant words. For example, the fact that claims in self-help books are mostly bogus, but no one ever checks the references, is documented in A. Moyer, "Accuracy of Health Research Reported in the Popular Press", Health Communication, 1995.

Or maybe not. I didn't read the article. But it's true, right?

[Note that I'm not accusing Alan and Barbara Pease of lying -- I'm just saying that if you were to follow my advice to invent an authoritative attribution for something you just made up, or vaguely remember from a lecture, or found somewhere on the internet, you'd be, in the technical sense of the word, lying. As far as the Peases are concerned, I'll look forward to someone telling me about the actual University of California study that discovered the 12 powerful words. Because I'd hate to think that a work of popular science, published by Bantam Books and reviewed admiringly (if a bit cynically) in the New York Times, was full of lies.]

[Update -- Ned Wolfenbarger has a confession:

I'm a big fan of Language Log, and your recent "12 Powerful Words" post reminded me of a technique that I often used in college in the pre-internet days. Since there was no Google Scholar at the time, I would look up keywords in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or in some other likely reference book and copy that book's references for use in my papers. I didn't actually read or even see or typically ever even have heard of the referenced work. I'm afraid to say that not only was I never caught, I was never even questioned.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 11, 2006 03:44 PM