Today, I want to discuss the most important and consequential subject to arise in the history of Western civilization. I know of what I speak, because I am the foremost and most highly trained expert on the issue, with knowledge and insights unmatched by anyone, anywhere on the globe. If you fail to heed my extraordinary and once-in-a-lifetime wisdom, the horrors that may befall you will make any previous challenges you have experienced pale in comparison. I assure you, with absolute and unquestionable certainty, that this blog post will change your life.
I am, of course, using hyperbole.
Hyperbole is a rhetorical device fraught with peril and can destroy credibility and decimate the effect of any message you try to convey. It can also get you into serious legal trouble. Based on the Latin root hyper, which means “spazzy,” hyperbole is what can happen when a business goes from promoting the attributes of its products or services to the realm of absurd self-aggrandizement or even abject falsehoods.
Effective content marketing inherently involves some degree of self-promotion. The goal is to get customers or clients to see your business as superior or preferable to others in the same space. That means drawing distinctions between what you bring to the table and what others bring. It means emphasizing and explaining the attributes that make your company the right choice.
You’re not going to accomplish that by simply proclaiming, “Our product is good” or “We’ll serve you adequately.” You have every right and obligation to toot your own horn, and that will involve descriptive language, generous use of positive adjectives, and other rhetorical devices specifically designed to make people call, click or visit your business.
It can be tempting to go too far, however. That’s when hyperbole becomes an issue, especially with declarative language that is unsupported by objective evidence. Your product may be incredible, but is it really “the best in the world”? Your services may be fantastic, but are they “unmatched by any other organization”?
Credibility is an important commodity for any business, and anything that dilutes that credibility is a liability. That liability can manifest itself not only as lost business, but also legal peril. Hyperbole is the cornerstone of “puffery,” which the Business Dictionary defines as “advertising or sales presentation relying on exaggerations, opinions, and superlatives, with little or no credible evidence to support its vague claims.” When taken too far, such puffery can lead to claims of false advertising or consumer fraud, among other costly troubles.
Where is the line between effective promotion and hyperbolic puffery? As was once famously said of obscenity, you’ll know it when you see it.
When I was a very young lawyer, I knew hyperbole well, as I was prone to using it when I allowed myself to be baited by what I considered to be improper or galling conduct by opposing counsel (I’m feeling much better now, thank you). I once filed a pleading in federal court that contained the following language:
“Quite simply, the defendant and his counsel are out of control and have with their instant motion transcended all bounds of proper and civilized conduct in this litigation. Their quest to plumb the depths of dilatory, contumacious, contemptuous and outrageous conduct should be of grave concern and serious offense to this Court. …”
While I certainly had compelling arguments to make, this kind of language didn’t do me any favors. In fact, I’m quite sure it was the absolute worst thing filed in any court in the entire history of American jurisprudence.
Have you used hyperbole in your marketing or other business communications? How did people react to it?