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Power words: they are the ones advertisers use when they want us to run out and buy, buy, buy.

They are the ones advertisers use when they want us to run out and buy, buy, buy.

That old saw, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," may have some truth. Words can't cause physical harm, of course. But words can inflict emotional pain and can be influential, persuasive, and also deceptive, leading us down a rosy path strewn with specious promises and shattered dreams.

Consider words used in advertising. Many consumers are aware that advertising hype is often more exaggeration than truth, and sometimes those words have an almost subliminal effect. We read and respond to certain words without being consciously aware of it. And that's exactly what ad agencies-and their clients-want us to do.

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. The next time you're wandering the aisles of a supermarket see how many times your eyes are attracted by those words on product labels. And watch some television commercials closely and see how often you can spot those words, either spoken or in graphics. They'll dance and strut and bedazzle the viewer with their electronic aerobics, hoping their images will settle somewhere into the brain waiting for the moment when the unsuspecting viewer is wandering the supermarket aisles. ZAP! the product says. "Buy me. I'm new. I'm improved. And get this free offer." (Never mind the $3.50 charge for handling and postage.)

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. Now, you might wonder why this expert came up with 11 words. Why not an even dozen? Or 10? You might just as well wonder why we're now paying 29 cents and not 30 cents for a first-class stamp. It's just one of those cosmic imponderables of life, like the check-out line that speeds up-as soon as you move to another line. Fretting about such things, however, is about as productive as sitting around wondering if that little light actually goes out when you close the refrigerator door.

At any rate, here is the list of the university professor's 11 most essential words: you, money, save, easy, safety, love, discover, results, health, proven, and guarantee.

Now, if we take the ad agency expert's list of 3 words and the college professor's list of 11 words and combine them, perhaps we could come up with one sentence containing the most effective and persuasive 14 words in the English language, a sentence that would narrow life down and explain everything. Here it is:

"You can save money with improved and easy safety by the free discovery of new love, which results in a proven guarantee of health."

Some adventurers in the quest of the meaning of life have traveled to a remote mountain in the Himalayas to seek out a mysterious guru to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" In this case a simple trek from an ad agency to a university campus did the trick quite nicely.

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. "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.

The professor explained that she had recently programmed several hundred words, at random, into a computer and then asked it to write a poem. The computer wrote:

"The ugly memory jumps near the liquor/The rosy wet character flies with a ring/The gloomy soothing judge skips near a large dumb visit/A trolley shines."

Perhaps the words chosen at random were an extension of the professor's own personality, indicating something that Freud would have fun interpreting. But what's the computer's excuse? One observer suggested that the computer might have been hanging around with the wrong crowd of chips and semiconductors.

"But," the professor said, "consider this paradox." (Professors are also quite fond of raising paradoxes, which are much easier than raising parakeets.) "This same computer," she said, "has been used to translate technical articles from Russian into English. When the words have precise meanings, the computer had no difficulty. But then we tried some words with lyrical meanings."

This experiment, the professor explained, involved programming the computer with an English phrase, asking it to translate the phrase into Russian and then retranslate the Russian into English. The professor chose what she described as an innocuous phrase, one that everyone understands: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

The computer took that phrase, translated it into Russian and then retranslated into English this way: "The ghost is ready, but the meat is raw."

The professor was then asked to streamline all of this into the ultimate sentence, the most powerful and effective words that everyone longs to hear. She said without hesitation, "Oh, that's easy. `I love you.' Those three little words are the ultimate, the essence of life."

Then she paused and said, "Of course, there's a close second choice for the three little words people want to hear most: `Find check enclosed.' But that's cynical." She paused again and said, "Wait. I have it. I have narrowed everything down to one simple word that has meaning to everyone in all languages. It came to me just last week while I was standing in a horrendously long line at the Motor Vehicle Bureau. And suddenly I heard the word. It has beauty, compassion, drama, a sense of achievement."

She paused again. The suspense was palpable. Then she said, "And that word was, `Next.'"
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bohannon, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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