Obfuscating on thin ice


Sometimes it just falls into one’s lap. The other day I spoke to the Content Marketing Association. My speech on authentic communication was in need of an opening line when, the day before the event, I received a hamper from Fortnum & Mason including a card on which was written:

‘Many thanks for speaking at the International Content Marketing Summit. You helped make it a great success’

The CMA delegates – who seem like a thoroughly nice bunch of people – enjoyed the joke. So, it seems appropriate to have the bottle of claret from that hamper as a prize for one of my irregular Friday competitions.

I am looking for the best example of a phrase designed to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

Although I don’t agree with everything in ‘Get Real’ I have found myself repeatedly quoting this line from Eliane Glaser’s feisty book:

‘we have sleepwalked into a world where nothing is as it seems; where reality, in fact, is the very opposite of appearance’.

Glaser is describing things like ‘green’ oil companies, mass produced ‘artisan’ products and ‘farmhouse’ branded goods imported from eastern European factories.

One aspect of the general problem of inauthenticity is phrases which are inherently misleading. An example, albeit somewhat clichéd, is the politician who says ‘I’m glad you asked me that question’ when their eyes are saying ‘how dare you pull that one on me’. Another phrase – this time in a sporting context - usually taken to mean its own opposite is ‘the Board/owner has expressed full confidence in x’. In fact, I’m sure I heard that recently said about QPR’s subsequently and swiftly sacked manager, Mark Hughes.

I have my own candidate for the most egregious and harmful example of double-speak, but had kept it under wraps until just having a very pleasant lunch with a friend who is a senior cooperate executive. She told me about research apparently showing that companies which included the phrase ‘shareholder value’ in their mission statement systematically perform worse than those which don’t.  The research thus confirms the central hypothesis of John Kay's excellent book ‘Obliquity’.

This emboldens me to reveal my own bête noir (if no one beats it, I keep the wine). It is ‘a duty to shareholders’. This winds me up not only becuase I tend to dislike the kind of people who produce it as some kind of trump card, but also becuase of the ingenious way it generates mental links which disguise its real import.

On the one hand, the word ‘duty’ is resonant with Aristotalian virtues of responsibility, self-sacrifice and restraint. On the other hand, the idea of ‘shareholders’ evokes civic republican notions of collective stewardship, engagement and commitment.

Yet, as we know, the words themselves are generally code for, ‘our strategy is to make as much profit as we can as quickly as we can and damn the consequences’.

Dear readers, you have until midnight on Monday to come up with a better example.

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