Another Example of Framing

I’ve posted a few examples of how simple word choice can frame the way we think of things. Here’s another example that I saw the other day and found really striking. It’s the top of a trash can. What a huge difference between this and “Trash.”

Is there a better way to say what you’re trying to say?


It’s the Little Things

Awhile back, I wrote about the importance of language in how we think of things. How sometimes really small nuances in how something is phrased or a small gesture can make a big difference.

For Christmas, my wife got some All-Clad skillet thing. In the skillet was this tag:

Everyone’s seen tags in their clothing that say “Inspected by #213.” Maybe I just haven’t been noticing, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that included the inspector’s name. That says quality to me way more than the word “quality” in the ensuing copy.

It’s not an idea that would win any awards, but whoever decided that putting the inspector’s name on the tag instead of his number was onto something.

Language and Framing II

A while back, I wrote a post about the importance of language and framing, about how small changes in language can compel us to make larger shifts in the way we think about something.

I’ve recently gotten hooked on listening to audiobooks. I love them because they allow me to “read” while I’m driving or working in my yard. The other day, I noticed something: rather than a “Read by…” credit on the cover of the audiobook, it said “Performed by…”

I used to consider audiobooks a form of cheating. Someone was reading the book to me instead of me doing the work. It felt kind of lazy. I imagine this is one of the big hurdles for the audio book industry.

But “Performed by” frames the audiobook in a way that gets me over this hurdle. I’m not just having it read to me, I’m taking in a performance. It’s as different as a play or a film. In this case, they hired actor Michael Boatman, who reads the narration and acts out the parts, giving voices to all the characters. It’s a true performance. It changes how I think about the form and how I enjoy it.

In addition to how we frame things in the work we produce, the words we use to present it, particularly to our clients, can make a big difference.

We might think something is “cool,” but a client might be more interested in hearing that it’s “relevant to the target.” Same meaning, different language. Is an idea “weird” or is it “breakthrough?” Is a design “clean,” or does it “communicate more clearly?”

If someone had told me this when I was a student, I would have said, “Whatever. I want to sell my work on the strength of the ideas, man.” I had much to learn.

A Few Observations on Framing and Language

One of the important things you’ll have to do many times in your advertising career is craft language to frame a topic a certain way. This simply means that you control how someone looks at an idea. What perspective are they viewing it from and how are they judging it?

You obviously can’t always control how someone perceives your idea, but with the right language and the right tone, you certainly can influence it. Here are some examples:

1) Setting up your work for a client. I like to let the client know, as I set up the work we’re showing, how I judged the work and what I think it has going for it. This doesn’t always mean they’ll agree, but it lets them understand where I’m coming from before they form their own opinion. Or I’ll ask them to put their 12-year-old boy hat on (or whatever the target is) for a moment as they listen to the script.

2) Is there a completely different strategic approach? When my agency did a campaign for Brita Water Filters, which had always been about super-clean water without impurities, someone had the smart idea to re-frame the issue to be about conservation. Because a good deal of the plastic water bottles that people use end up in landfills or circling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Here’s another example, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in hotel bathrooms.

The cynic in me sees those signs and thinks, “Yeah, right. The hotel’s just trying to save money on laundry.” Which may be true, but it is helping the environment too, and in the end I reuse my towels.

3. Word choice for the little things. Consider these possible call-to-actions in a banner ad:
Click here to visit
Discover more at
Start the journey at
They’re all asking me to do basically the same thing, but each sets my expectations for Is there a better way to say what you want?

Here’s another example that always strikes me when I see it. Rather than the typical SELL BY DATE, some drinks have the much more promising ENJOY BY date.

Framing is not about tricking anyone. It’s about asking someone to consider something from a different viewpoint. And if you have any questions as to whether it’s important, I invite you to listen to this episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab. In it, they discuss the potential effect of Obama’s election on the academic performance of African-American students, as well as how the simple act of framing a test (i.e. the language used to say what the test measures) can have a huge impact on test scores.