Monday, March 7, 2011

Where Jargon Rules

A chemical engineer in Washington, DC by the name of Marc Silverman acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal that he has no idea what an advertisement plastered to the back of a city bus means.

To him, the acronym "UAV" prominently displayed in the ad is more likely a new treatment for AIDS, rather than a sophisticated weapons system marketed to Department of Defense policy makers and buyers.

UAV, a weapon system.  Photo credit:
Even long-standing government workers are often perplexed by the jargon liberally sprinkled in public sector advertising.  Allan Burman, a former administrator for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), commented to the Wall Street Journal about one particular ad, "ISR?  I'm not sure on that."

"ISR" stands for "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" and there is no reason why an OMB worker should know that.  ISR is primarily the domain of intelligence and defense agencies.

Is it a problem that federal government focused systems integrators, contractors and technology vendors produce ads and other forms of communication that are so jargon heavy?

The Washington Business Journal's Jill Aitoro believes so.  In a November 2010 column she pleaded with companies to embrace plain English in their releases and other press materials.  (Disclosure:  I write a column for the Washington Business Journal's FedBizDaily that Jill edits.)

My take is two-fold:

1) It's perfectly appropriate for a company to employ language in its marketing programs that has relevance to its intended audience.  What might be jargon to Silverman, Furman, and (even) Aitoro, is actually quite descriptive to customers, prospects, partners and investors who are engaged in military programs.

2)  Delivery of this message via advertising channels is a savvy play, even though much of the dollar investment is lost on eyeballs that don't matter.  That's because financial strength and viability are essential attributes of companies that serve federal agencies.

The ability to fund an advertising program communicates that a company is in a position of leadership with a solid financial footing.

I once questioned a director of marketing at a global technology client why they invest budget advertising a somewhat vague corporate branding message on CNN.  His answer:  "Because we can...and our competitors can't."

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