Proper language eludes many on brink of war

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A war campaign is also a word campaign. Through their choice of language, governments and politicians justify actions, define success and demonize enemies. Media outlets float phrases they hope will have resonance and grab readers. (Who first used "ground zero" to describe the site of death and destruction where the World Trade Center towers once stood?) And individuals, describing harrowing experiences, get better at telling their stories, because they refine the words they use.

In recent weeks, weve also seen linguistic miscues. We grimaced over those awful, if accidental, advertisements and headlines in publications that arrived just after Sept. 11. For those first few days, words frequently and casually used for dramatic emphasiswords such as "target"— stopped us in our tracks.

There were political gaffes, too. In the days following the attacks in New York City and Washington, President Bush offhandedly called the war against terrorism a "crusade." Advisers undoubtedly apprised him of the Crusadesa series of wars conducted over two centuries between Christians and Muslims for control of the Holy Landand suggested his phrasing would not be helpful in convincing Islamic countries to join an international coalition. Next, the U.S. military backed down from using "Infinite Justice," its original name for the military buildup. Reportedly, Muslim clerics objected, noting that only Allah can mete out such justice. Last week, the name was changed to Operation Enduring Freedom.

The repercussions for marketers in these serious times are complex. For weeks, marketing professionals have been struggling with questions of propriety: When will it be appropriate to use airline humor in campaigns? When will it be acceptable to use a New York City skyline in advertisements? Will words such as "target" ever return to the copywriters lexicon?

The more interesting question, I think, is how marketers will revamp their efforts to make legitimate connections to the aftermath of Sept. 11. Note that I said legitimate connections. A new TV spot talks about the American dream—"We refuse to let anyone take it away"— and then offers interest-free financing on a car.

On the other hand, with security heightened everywherefrom airports to the building in Chicago where I workand with an enemy that strikes without warning, everyone is appropriately sensitized to the importance of security. Will marketers take advantage of this increased awareness, where appropriate? Will they communicate the security aspects of their products and services? I think they will. I think they should.

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