Fighting Hot Air and Hype in PR

One of the most common mistakes small businesses and non-profits make is to use hot-air adjectives to describe their products, services, or public events.

The event was a resounding success!

The results were fantastic and phenomenal!

Adding an exclamation mark at the end of such statements doesn’t make them more persuasive.

Worse, the sentences that these adjectives appear in often seem to have been thrown together with little thought. The reader can tell.

  • Instead, use an objective source — such as a customer or respected peer or reviewer — to describe the product/event.

  • Use plain language. (See George Orwell’s 6 rules for writing.)

  • Avoid "marketing-speak." Ever since Jakob Nielsen’s 1997 research into how users read on the web, we’ve known that hot air annoys readers.

In Nielsen’s words:

Users detested "marketese"; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims ("hottest ever") that currently is prevalent on the Web. Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users clearly see that the site exaggerates.

When it comes to tag lines there are some big brands whose track records enable them to use superlatives effectively; BMW: “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” But they’re in the minority.


If you’re battling hot air in your company’s online (or offline) PR, check out Josh Bernoff’s post on “meaningless-but-true superlatives” and “how to talk people out of them.”

Josh, co-author of Groundswell, runs a regular feature on his Without Bullshit site called “Ask Dr. Wobs.”

Dear Dr. Wobs:

My boss wants to promote in a news release that one of our products is the fastest-growing product in its category in our industry. I really think it’s empty corporate speak that adds nothing but a boost to our ego. What’s a better way of communicating that message as I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince him to drop it altogether?

— Fighting the Fight Against Corporate Speak

Dear Fighting:

You’re not alone. Lots of people are doing battle with bosses with stupid ideas. I’ll start with the logical arguments about why you’re right, and them move on the practical question of what to do when your boss is wrong.

Read the rest of Josh’s article here.

As Josh’s post suggests, “meaningless superlatives” are often accompanied by meaningless metrics (vanity metrics).

Moral of the story: a brand that purveys hot air will eventually put its thumb on the scale.