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Research shows that English critics were right to condemn the ‘NYT’ headline—suggestive words heavily influence the thoughts of readers.

On June 4, the “New York Times” posted a link to one of their articles on Twitter with the headline “The London attacks hit a nation still reeling from the shock of the bombing in Manchester almost 2 weeks ago.” What seemed like just another news-feature article turned out to be spurned by Londoners for a rather unexpected reason—word choice, as despite the seemingly neutral nature of the headline, people didn’t like how weak the statement made London appear. Many users took to social media to express their disdain for the newspaper’s decision to use the word “reeling” in the post. “Whoever wrote this headline doesn’t understand the British,” one Twitter user replied. “This sort of hyped-up headline does the terrorists’ job for them. UK isn’t “reeling” @nytimes,” said another.

In response to the buzz about the headline, in true Twitter fashion, a hashtag was born. Londoners and other residents of the United Kingdom made posts with the hashtag #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling to mock the New York Times headline. Various British staples, such as milk with tea, the BBC show “Sherlock” and David Attenborough were some of the subjects that were joked about when the hashtag arose.

Word Games or Mind Games?

Upon reading about this headlining gaffe and its aftereffects, I began to think about the significance of words. Yeah, of course words are what we use to communicate, but they also have the power to reveal some insightful information about its subject. When you choose one word in lieu of another, your words can evoke a particular response that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.

There are numerous platforms in which word selection allows for varied emotional reactions and responses; take polls, for instance. One critical aspect to an unbiased poll is the way that the questions are worded. Any strategically placed word in a poll can alter your response dramatically because of the images that that word can convey.

According to an article from the Pew Research Center, “The choice of words and phrases in a question is critical in expressing the meaning and intent of the question to the respondent and ensuring that all respondents interpret the question the same way. Even small wording differences can substantially affect the answers people provide.”

In order to conduct an unbiased poll, researchers have to be choosy with their phrasing. For example, take this survey scenario from Pew about medically assisted suicide. In a 2005 research survey by Pew, 51 percent of respondents said they favored “making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,” but only 44 percent said they favored “making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide.” Technically, both questions are asking the same thing, but one of them is more euphemistic in the wording, which causes a change in the results. When you alter the wording in a question or statement in this way, it alters respondents’ perception of the nature of the question, which in turn can affect their response. In other words, wording can control the outcome of a poll, among other things. Creepy, huh?

According to Pew, there is also an “acquiescence bias” that comes with the wording of some questions. This means that respondents, when told to agree or disagree with a given statement, are more likely to acquiesce to the statement rather than straight-up disagree with it. If respondents are not given multiple options, they’ll tend to agree due to the assertiveness of the statement that they are shown.

Another commercial area in which words matter is advertising. When designing an ad to best appeal to a target demographic, advertisers make very particular decisions on what to communicate about the product and what they should withhold. Wording in advertising can also  alter the perception of a product, making it look more favorable in consumers’ eyes (or, as history has shown, can taint the product or company’s image). Also, research has shown that emotional appeals tend to work and resonate more with consumers than feature or function appeals. That being said, of course marketers are seeking to use powerful words; it’s psychology, and it works.

“Mad Men” (Image via The AV Club)

There’s also another advertising tactic called “weasel words,” which are words and phrases that can make something sound appealing, but in the end, the claims that are made end up being hollow, falling through with empty promises. You’ve probably come across an ad that claims that Product X “helps” you with X and Y things, but it doesn’t definitively claim to actually do something. Phrases in advertising that use compound words as adjectives, such as “top-quality” and “vanilla-flavored,” have also made for more pleasant-sounding, yet possibly deceiving, promises in the advertising field.

Connotation Comes in Clutch

The “New York Times’” headline fiasco is not the first time in which a word has sparked controversy, and it most certainly won’t be the last.

One of the more recent marketing fumbles occurred with Starbucks’ 2015 “Race Together” campaign. This program lasted only six days due to a lot of pushback from consumers who felt that the coffee chain’s race relations initiative was done in poor taste. There have also been far too many cases where the wording in ads for alcohol have innuendos that imply date rape.

So, how can we avoid these gaffes from happening again? Connotation is key. As you probably learned in your high school English class, words have connotations, or second meanings, that carry more emotional and cultural associations with them than just the definition you see in a dictionary. Whether you’re writing an advertising campaign, a headline or a text message, it’s important to take the connotation of words into account.

In the end words, and how you perceive them, matter.

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