Tue Feb 14 2023 Michael McQueen

Can you explain the difference between ‘used cars’ and ‘pre-owned vehicles’? What about ‘wire tapping’ and ‘electronic intercepts’? Or ‘impotence’ and ‘erectile dysfunction’?[1]

The difference? Semantics!

It is easy to dismiss the adjustments and manipulation of words under the term of semantics, forgetting that semantics is a matter of crucial significance to the communication of ideas. We tend to believe that we are immune to the effects of the words and capable of comprehending the objective meaning they are relaying. However, evidence across every arena in which words play a crucial role suggests that we are far more vulnerable to the manipulation of words than we would like to believe.

Have you ever wondered why we don’t think twice in purchasing a packet of ‘veggie chips,’ but ‘potato chips’ feel like unhealthy indulgence? 

According to the Journal of Consumer Research, the assessments we make regarding the healthiness of food items gives a profound insight into human decision-making. For instance, data shows that people will genuinely believe that combination of pasta and vegetables is lower in carbs if it’s billed as a ‘salad.’[2]

My colleague and ad agency exec Adam Ferrier discovered just how powerful this principle can be when working with a client who produced sweet snacks named ‘Little Bites.’ By re-labelling the client’s product as small pieces of muffin rather than cake, the company saw an immediate 11% bump in sales.[3]

Similarly, marketing guru Roger Dooley points to the re-naming of ‘prunes’ to ‘dried plums’ as a branding masterstroke. In doing so, fruit makers reached out “to a new generation of young, vigorous, health-oriented consumers.” According to Dooley, the genius in this move is that “Not only did [fruit sellers] avoid an expensive image makeover for prunes, they could keep selling the wrinkled fruit to their traditional base with no loss of revenue.”[4]

To this point, consider how the reputation and connotations of the ‘gambling’ industry changed when two letters were removed from the name and it became simply known as ‘gaming.’

One of the architects of this rebrand, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee named Frank Fahrenkopf, knew the power of a carefully-chosen word. When Fahrenkopf was appointed the president of the American Gambling Association in June 1995, he immediately recognised the need to recast the industry in order to address negative connotations. 

In his book Words that Work, Dr Frank Luntz describes the astonishing success of Fahrenkopf’s efforts:  

“The switch from ‘gambling’ to ‘gaming’ in describing one’s behavior contributed to a fundamental change in how Americans see the gambling industry. All of the old, unsavoury associations gave way to a lighter, brighter image of good clean fun. ‘Gambling’ sounds like the pleas of a desperate degenerate trying to talk a pawnshop punter into paying a little more for his wedding ring… ‘Gaming’ is what families do together at ‘family-friendly resorts’ in Las Vegas. ‘Gambling’ is a vice. ‘Gaming’ is a choice. ‘Gambling’ is taking a chance, engaging in risky behavior.”[5]

The critical factor here is that the activity of gambling didn’t change. The slot machines, cards decks and dice were the same. What’s more, the negative social consequences associated with gambling addiction didn’t disappear. All that changed was the label. And that changed everything.

Similar wordsmithing efforts in the corporate arena have been similarly successful in recent decades. By recasting “drilling for oil” as “energy exploration,” the resources sector took much of the heat out of the environmental debate. Similarly, drug companies shifted public perceptions by changing the way they described their core business. In the case of Pfizer, this was by shifting the language from “disease management” to “prevention.”[6]

While unpacking the wordplays is interesting, many of us are fairly aware of the efforts of marketers to influence the way we think about products. Framing and branding are concepts familiar to us and though they can feel manipulative at times, we generally treat them as harmless. The stakes begin to heighten, however, when we enter the political arena. When serious public affairs begin to rest their weight on the voting public’s interpretations of words, the significance of semantics begins to become clear.

For instance, polls indicate that 68% of people believe the government is offering too little “assistance to the poor.” However, when asked their views on “welfare”, 42% of the very same people will complain the government is spending too much (and only 23% say welfare spending is too low). It goes without saying that ‘assistance to the poor’ and ‘welfare’ are the same thing, but the language used carries meaning with it. 

There are countless examples of this. Research from the US General Social Survey points to the fact that:

  • People are more willing to favour policies that “protect social security” than merely “social security” policies
  • “Solving the problem of big cities” is seen as more attractive than “assistance to big cities”
  • Citizens are in strong support of “halting the rising crime rate” while wary of “law enforcement” initiatives. [7]

When framing and positioning ideas, the choice of language is of paramount importance. Words are not merely a means of communication – they are vehicles by which we create meaning. Beware of being quick to dismiss words as mere semantics – they are doing more work than you may think!


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1] Luntz, F. 2007, Words That Work, Hachette, New York, pp. 70; 279-288.

[2] Dooley, R. 2012, Brainfluence, Wiley, New Jersey, pp. 161-163.

[3] Ferrier, A. 2014, The Advertising Effect, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, pp 69-71.

[4] Dooley, R. 2012, Brainfluence, Wiley, New Jersey, pp. 161-163.

[5] Luntz, F. 2007, Words That Work, Hachette, New York, pp. 129-131.

[6] Luntz, F. 2007, Words That Work, Hachette, New York, p. xx.

[7] Luntz, F. 2007, Words That Work, Hachette, New York, p. 47.