Semantic Deflation – How we broke words and things turned dangerous

Words that once sparked emotions, carried meaning and provoked action … now get scrolled over. What happened? Have our minds changed? We're a species in need of reorganization, but the tools to organize have turned rusty. What now?
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

In a world shaped and dominated by agendas to sell and turn a profit, there’s a double-edged rule of thumb emerging:

  • The higher the adoption rate and resonant potential of a word, the more useful it is to get a message across
  • The more widespread its dishonest abuse, the more dramatic its loss of meaning (and resonant potential)

Ready to feign surprise?

This erodes trust. Tadaa.

Eroded trust is kind of a big deal, so let’s explore the dangers of this.

Language is under attack

Words lose their meaning.

This is not just about deceptive advertisement and marketing, but … people. It’s about mission statements, sustainability reports and oh so sincere assurances to pinky-promise regret this all too in-character misstep. Purely strategic and disingenuous use of language rips straight into the fabric of social coherence.

After enough abuse, we grow tired of being fooled.

We start to anticipate it – even where it’s not.

In his book The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck, Mark Manson writes about the erosion of trust in the West. He points to an economic incentive to smile, be false and pick agreeable words in order to access an abundance of economic opportunity – if you just stick to a specific superficial form:

»Appearances and salesmanship became more advantageous forms of expression. Knowing a lot of people superficially was more beneficial than knowing a few people closely. […] This is why people learn to pretend to be friends with people they don't actually like, to buy things they don't actually want. The economic system promotes such deception. The downside of this is that you never know, in the West, if you can completely trust the person you're talking to.«

This hurts our tribal memories where we had no shoeshine and fake smiles, but only a few people around that we deeply trusted and depended on … with our life, actually.

Life was real.

What you just said was stupid

Comparing our artifical conversation sweeteners to the blunt Russian frankness he encountered, Manson moves on to describe a date he had in Saint Petersburg:

»… within three minutes of sitting down she looked at me funny and told me that what I'd just said was stupid. I nearly choked on my drink. There was nothing combative about the way she said it; it was spoken as if it were some mundane fact – like the quality of the weather that day, or her shoe size – but I was still shocked. After all, in the West such outspokenness is seen as highly offensive, especially from someone you just met.«

After the first shock, he soon started to appreciate it …

»… for what it really was: unadulterated expression. Honesty in the truest sense of the word. Communication with no conditions, no strings attached, no ulterior motive, no sales job, no desperate attempt to be liked.«

While the Russian way might not be everyone’s way, I assume that we agree here:

It would be kinda sweet if we could trust each other.

It’s wired within us to long for this.

So how did we get here?

Mad men shape mad futures

The era of ‘mad men' marked the rise of marketers and advertisers in Western culture.

As pointed out in a recently published paper ‘World scientists’ warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot’ by Joseph Merz, Phoebe Barnard and others, marketing once was a means to ‘spotlight functional reasons to buy specific products when people needed them’.

In the era of mad men in the second half of the 20th century, marketing and advertisement became more manipulative. It did so on the back of growing psychological insight – originally meant to be of therapeutic value and salutogenic intent, but now perverted to bolster the bottom line of industries.

A quote from the paper:

Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, began experimenting with his uncle's psychoanalysis work to develop techniques for widespread behavioural manipulation.

This novel approach, along with others developed in advertising agencies around the globe, proved highly influential on the way products were marketed and sold to consumers.

Suddenly, marketing effectiveness was no longer determined by its ability to ‘raise awareness’ or harvest existing demand but by its ability to deepen and diversify the needs and wants that could be met through personal consumption.

This paradigm shift meant that business growth was no longer constrained by people's mere biological requirements, it could instead be unlocked by attaching greater meaning to an effectively infinite number of market offerings.

It was a trend shift of a thousand little nudges, billboards and sound bites.

Also, it worked fabulously.

The Great Dazzle

‘People’ got rebranded as ‘consumers’.

This newly minted swarm of empty-promise receptacles was wide open to be sold. Sold on what? Sold on the idea that their dream of a better life could be realized by a product. And another one. And another three.

Did it cross their minds that their sense of lack came from within?

Maybe for a moment, so they obviously had to get re-dazzled by machine-gun advertisement, and quickly. Time is money after all.

Empty words. Overpromises. Dreams come true. Happy people. Visions of hot wheels, porcellain entry halls and pedantic lawns. While there was a full shelf of words available, the top compartment turned out to work best in piedly piping people to Hamelin. Mundane products were emotionally charged with an aura of yet another saviour and flew off the shelves, a habit that would define marketing for decades to come until today.

Why? It worked.

So? It was exploited shamelessly.

Profit was king, and whoever commanded the power to increase it by sleight of mind could turn habitual insincerity into a career.

The Stockholm Syndrome up for a monthly subscription

The ‘consumer’ tribe, in turn, bought into the mirage.

They went along with it and became complicit with the fraud. The promises were just too juicy to give them a pass. The busy consumer’s mind was hypnotized by the dangling carrots of quickly fabricated health, wealth and happiness. Unbeknownst to them, they slowly slid down a slippery slope into the very opposite.

Over time, another habit was born: Seeking fulfillment in the outside world.

What a pointless excercise, haunting us to this day.

If it wasn’t born in this moment, it sure escalated at this point. Soon, the West was trapped in a self-perpetuating consumption loop that would spill over into ‘developing’ countries within a few decades. Not only had we created our own mirage of consumerist bliss, we had also magnetized it for others. We dressed it up as a gold standard of sophistication and prosperity, and it turned into a perceived milestone of civilizational development.

And why not? More people hooked on a fantasy, more markets to ‘bless’.

More profit.

When actively asked about it, we resented this dynamic:

»In a 1998 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards across a range of professions, advertising people ended up near the bottom, sandwiched between lawyers and car salesmen. Today 92% of people skip the commercials on their recorded programs. How has the industry responded? By hitting further below the belt-sneaking advertising into editorial copy, television content, movies, and events, all under the euphemistic heading of product placement.«

– Marty Neumeier in Zag

But in the moment of truth – in the store, after having our senses flooded by a relentless onslaught of marketing messages massaging themselves past our neocortex and into our emotional sense of ‘want’ …

… most people gave in.

They bought and subcribed and gave into consumption against their sense of dignitity.

And that was before the digital revolution.

Level UP: The internet and the rise of clickbait

As the Dot-com bubble captured the Western hivemind, advertisers and marketers saw the writing on the wall.

They booted their personal computers, beepbooped their modems and now truly came online. Soon, they inspired the first immature iteration of a digital creator economy. Creators were their own advertisers and needed to generate clicks.

How did they do it?

Again, top shelf of words. This time at scale, multiplied by distributed digital megaphones. The internet got flooded with the same tricks that unhinged ‘consumers’ before, amplified by a sudden explosion of senders vying for attention.

Let’s take an example.

What’s a genius?

To be a ‘genius’ once meant to possess a rare and outstanding type of mind.

These minds were capable of feats so uncommon, they typically made their way into our history books. Somewhere between internet and Social Media, we seem to have created optimal habitat conditions for this once rare specimen. If you believe the clickbait headlines, this unique breed saw a significant uptick in population size as the 21st century took off.

Well, either that, or our definitions have changed.

If a smart way to smugly shortcut household chores earns you the badge, we might have loosened our understanding of the revered genius a littled.

Granted, the semantic deflation around words like ‘genius’ is more easily ignored – it’s not that horribly important and easy to take lightly with a smile. It’s worse when it starts to poison the well on more existential concepts, such as sustainability.

Somewhere on the path from Mad Men, to the Dot-com bubble, all the way to clickbait titles …

… semantic deflation turned into an existential threat.

Survival with a sales problem

Before it lost its punch, sustainability was a way to describe a much required trend-shift for humans to essentially come home.

Well, it should still be.

But is it?

Personally, I am not particularly moved anymore when I read the word.

Taking a glance at what could be called mainstream culture, others seem to feel the same. Through decades of abuse, it has lost its punch. Language might feel like a basic staple, not so much of a big deal, but it’s the very water we smelly human fishes are swimming in. We organize knowledge, develop ideas, synchronize minds, coordinate efforts, share visions and agree on directions – all by language.

Let’s take the fraud of ‘climate neutral’ as an example.

When ‘complete’ precedes ’42%’

It’s neither news nor surprise: There’s a corporate incentive to communicate wins.

Quickly, this turns into a multipolar multipolar trap – a dynamic of short-term economic advantages that leave everyone behind that doesn’t join, while in the end everyone’s worse off. This, then, shows up as painful cases of incoherent corporate lingo bingo.

Let’s take an example:

How about reaching climate neutrality twice before going after the highly ambitious goal of 42% emission reduction?

Taken: September 17th, 2023 by Oscar Haumann

What a hilarious mess.

It's so over the top, that it almost bypasses tragic and goes right to comedic.

Normally, with these labels, you might create an ephemeral short-term spike in customer goodwill. If you go about it like this, tho, you defuse the deceptive but potentially sales-driving power of the claim in the very next line. You’re really just giving the game away at this point, and this actually doesn't make sense for anyone involved.

Is this intern work? Or is that work done by someone so deep into it, they don't recognize the self-deception anymore?

They seem to have noticed, because they backpedaled by now:

Taken: September 23rd, 2023 by myself

It only took a few days to correct.

It’s still not coherent, but at least without blowing their own cover – admitting that after reaching complete climate neutrality comes 42% emission reduction. It’s better – granted, not if you're after reality, but certainly in terms of how your sustainability blabber comes across to the reader.

In hyperspeed and within the snapshot timeframe that a website edit takes, we’re back on track – for the planet!

When language turns corporate-spineless and empty like this, we end up in a troubling floating state that is notiously hard to put the finger on. It’s not in your face, but exactly the opposite. Things just slowly fall apart, with no definite origin to identify. We’re in a special kind of crisis that stirs the memory of a famous line by T. S. Eliot – something about the world ending … a bang … a whimper.

If the power of language to spark inspired action is depleted right when it’s needed the most, what does that say about the evolutionary fitness of a (somewhat) intelligent species?

Playing ‘The boy that cried wolf' on a global scale

By its slowly percolating nature, this trend did not immediately spark global catastrophe.

Our trust in words deteriorated only slowly, almost unnoticable, but the downstream of this trend now impinges our ability to get people moving under the right flags.

Today, three trends merge concerningly:

- The original signature, zest and magic of words dramatically weakened

- Tired, scared and distracted minds unable to tell a signal from noise

- A global civilization in dire need of a tipping point and trend shift

Without being obvious about it, semantic deflation represents a terrible debilitation to our (theoretical) capacity of realizing the required change. It’s a background noise we're taking for granted, unaware that there had been different times when certain words still had some juice. After decades of shifting baseline syndrome toward a bland semantic baseline, today we’re left with quite a number of pretty crucial words that lack their original charge.

This charge is not easily recovered.

The drama of a dying world has been turned into a soap opera for most people.

– Terence McKenna

What now?

We’re in trouble.

Not just from the genuine nature of our culminating eco-crisis, but from our semantic debilitation to do anything about it. We hear ‘wolf’, but it doesn’t make a limb twitch for most people.

As a true changemaker in need for compelling language to communicate an essential mission, what can you do?

You’ll find some answers in another article dedicated to the reversal of semantic deflation.

That will be published later this week – if you want to be notified when it hits the road, sign up to our newsletter (scroll down one screen).

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