October 12, 2006

Persuasive words: the middle years

So far, Ben Zimmer has taken the persuasive words quest back to 1961, in a New York Times ad (11 words, "safety" missing) and a Washington Post ad (11 words, "new" missing), both attributing the list to either an unnamed marketing magazine or a specific publication called Marketing Magazine, it's hard to tell which, and then forward to a Bennett Cerf column in 1963 (10 words, "health" and "safety" missing; list attributed to a "big advertising agency"), an L. M. Boyd column in 1970 (all 12 words; list now attributed to "researchers in the Yale psychology departrment"), and other sources through the 1970s.

Now we can add more details from the turbulent middle years of the magic words.

From the You Just Knew It Was Going To Happen Department: an attribution to HARVARD (from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky):

A few years ago, Harvard University did a study of which words had the highest impact on the largest number of people.

The usual list, with "discover" instead of "discovery".

Elizabeth also unearthed what will surely be the most entertaining reference we'll find, a column by John Bohannon ("Power words: they are the ones advertisers use when they want us to run out and buy, buy, buy") in the July-August 1991 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.  It starts small:

At one New York City advertising agency, an expert on Power Words recently came up with the three most powerful and most effective words in any advertising copy. The words, this expert proclaimed, are, in order of their importance, new, improved, and free.

But then we move into familiar territory:

Although the Power Word expert at the ad agency believed that he had found the three definitive power words in the English language, another expert-this one in psychology-at a university in the northeast compiled a list of what she believed were the 11 most persuasive words in the English language.

The canonical list, but missing "new" and with "discover" instead of "discovery".  (You begin to savor these little differences in the lists.)

So far we have an unnamed Power Word expert at an unnamed ad agency and an unnamed (but female -- a nice tiny touch of specificity) psychologist at an unnamed university (but in the northeast -- another tiny touch of specificity).  If you can't smell the rotting fish by this point, you should get help.

But it gets better.  Enter an unnamed reporter (sex not specified) for an unnamed publication.  And we get a fairly long report of the interview with the professor, complete with direct quotes and personal touches.  It begins:

But there was yet one final step to be made. A reporter in search of the ultimate list of meaningful words went back to the professor to show her the ultimate sentence [combining the 14 words in the two lists]. "Ah," she said thoughtfully. (College professors are quite fond of saying, "Ah," thoughtfully.) As she hurried down one of those hallowed halls, she said over her shoulder, "Perhaps you will be interested in seeing what a computer does with a comparable list of words." The reporter allowed as how that would indeed be interesting.

and goes on with the professor displaying some (unimpressive) computer-generated poetry and some translation from English to Russian and back to English again: yes, the hoary mechanical translation joke about "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."  We seem to have fallen out of the genre of fabricated reports of research and into the genre of mockery of computational linguistics.

Elizabeth's third contribution, an on-line article "Communication Factors" by Russ Peterson and Kevin Karschnik, takes us back to Yale (once again, recently) and adds someone with (part of a) name:

Utilizing the right words is an important step in building rapport with your audience.  In 1998 at Yale University, Dr. Levinson identified the most persuasive words in the English language.  The single most persuasive word is our first name; using a person's name in communication is the most influential thing you can do.  The other persuasive words found in Dr. Levinson's research include:
·        Easy
·        Results
·        Guarantee
·        Need
·        Proven

(Just a sampling from the canonical list.  Peterson and Karschnik also (mis)report Mehrabian's research.)  You might think that we could now track down this Dr. Levinson at Yale.  But if you've been following this story, you'll realize that that would be a fool's errand.  In fact, I suspect that the name Levinson got into this tale from still another source, Jay Conrad Levinson, the exponent of "guerilla marketing"(see the Wikipedia page), who has, as far as I know, neither an association with Yale nor a doctorate.  (Thanks to Kevin Smith for the pointer to Levinson.)

Starting with his 1982 book Guerilla Marketing, Levinson has churned out an astonishing amount of material advising people how to run small businesses on tight advertising budgets.  Among other things, he recommends using "magic words".  Here (from Smith) is what he says on p. 121 of Guerilla Marketing Excellence: The 50 Golden Rules for Small-Business Success:

In my book Guerilla Marketing I wrote about the magic words. The list has grown as more guerillas have shared their findings. Right now, meaning in this era as much as at this moment, the magic words -- with the most important words first -- are

Free New You Sale Introducing Save Money Discover Results Easy Proven Guaranteed Love Benefits Alternative Now Win Gain Happy Trustworthy Good-looking Comfortable Proud Healthy Safe Right Security Winnings Fun Value Advice Wanted Announcing Your People Why..

(I've bold-faced words that are on the canonical list or are variants of these.)  Elsewhere Levinson has shorter lists, but I'm not about to plow through the mountain of his stuff on marketing to see what they look like.  What's interesting about Levinson's lists is that he cites no sources beyond "other guerillas", so giving the impression that he devised the lists himself.  Well, he's selling this stuff.

While we're back in the early 1980s, here's a passage (found by Marcus Hum) from a 1984 book on writing (not a marketing or self-help book), The Writing Workshop, vol. 2 by Alan Ziegler:

According to a Yale University study, the twelve most persuasive words in the English language are: "save, money, you, new, health, results, easy, safety, love, discovery, proven, and guarantee". Write a poem using most or all of these words; or, make a list of the "most beautiful" (or disgusting, conceited, pretentious, threatening, scare, etc.) words and use these words in a poem.

We're back at Yale, and with the full list in its canonical form.

Oh yes, Mark Liberman's posting on persuasive words quoted Ernest Nicastro's on-line column, which in turn cited Denny Hatch's Method Marketing (1999) as referring to an old Goodman Ace column in the Saturday Review.  Since Ace died in 1982, this might be a line back to material in the period between Ben Zimmer's cites and mine above.  On the other hand, Hatch might have misremembered Bennett Cerf as Goodman Ace. 

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 12, 2006 03:54 PM