Comment - Spirits - Is Marketing Twisting the Meanings of Words?

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In the battle for consumers' hearts and minds, are drinks companies overlooking the widely-held definitions of words and phrases? Is there leeway to argue that certain terms may not mean exactly what consumers perceive? Ian Buxton considers the evidence.

"Handmade." What are we to understand by this most evocative of terms? The online Oxford Dictionaries definition is unambiguous, defining it as "Made by hand, not by machine", before adding – more controversially, one might feel - "and typically therefore of superior quality". And, it offers as an example of the correct usage: "his expensive handmade leather shoes".

Leaving aside my complete unfamiliarity with expensive handmade shoes, it’s the "typically ... of superior quality" that interests me. It’s surely apparent to the disinterested observer that, when a brand wraps itself in the ‘handmade’ label, it would like the consumer to conclude that it is something "of superior quality" even if, rather disingenuously, the self-same brand’s lawyers don’t expect us to take the ‘handmade’ message literally. Indeed, they scoff at the very notion, thus rather begging the question of what their marketing colleagues thought they were doing when putting it on said label in the first place.

And, as we learnt recently in a South Florida court, the law (at least in the US) takes the same lenient view, suggesting that common-sense is to be applied here: The term ‘handmade’, it seems, is to be taken as little more than florid self-promotion rather than understood literally, at least where alcoholic beverages are concerned. For the first time in my life, I could even start to feel sorry for the purveyors of expensive shoes.

What are to we conclude from this, and where will it end? Can any old booze brand looking to add the gloss of perceived superior quality now label themselves with impunity? I’m reminded of the words of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." And that, indeed, is the question. Back in October last year, my colleague Richard Woodard was troubled by exactly this point and, as recently as March. I commented here on this site that "Before this ends in tears, or court or, worse still, with yet more legislation, the spirits industry might do well to curb the enthusiasm of its more loquacious marketing practitioners; get round a table and agree to craft some new vocabulary before the industry’s various and increasingly energetic critics take it on themselves to do it for free."

Beam Suntory, grateful recipients of the Florida court’s judgement, argue that it sends a "strong message" to people seeking to profit from "irresponsible litigation". It might equally be argued that it sends a strong message to the industry that anything goes – that words mean what a brand chooses them to mean – which, if we’re not very careful, opens the door to some irresponsible labelling.

We devalue language at our peril and short-term gains may very well lead to long-term losses. Being able to describe brands with precision and accuracy is not to be lightly tossed aside. Back in my distant past, when I was learning some of the dark arts of marketing, my old boss required me to apply a simple test to any proposed activity: Was it, he asked, legal, decent, honest and truthful? If this simple test is applied, significant problems should simply never occur. If your product isn’t really ‘handmade’, then why describe it as such? It’s simply asking for trouble.

Beam Suntory has got away with it this time. No doubt, this will set a legal precedence and others, notably Tito’s Handmade Vodka, will charge through the same loophole. But, before breaking out the Maker’s Mark in celebration, I’d suggest the industry pause for a moment to consider where this could lead, and take a collective decision to draw back.

Let’s go back to the dictionary and discipline ourselves to say what we mean and mean what we say. Why provide the industry’s many critics with the ammunition they’ll gleefully fire right back?

It might be a little less fun in the short term, but would leave everyone a lot better off in the long run.

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