LIFELESS LANGUAGE: THE CLICHÉ (Building Blocks of Local Radio-TV Copy)

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The desk dictionary you have nearby will call a cliche a "trite expression or idea." Going further, trite is defined as "worn out by constant use." Cliches are a substitute for thinking. If you use a lot of them in talking with people, you're a predictable conversationalist. If you use a lot of them in your copy, you're an expendable writer. Anyone, after all, can come up with a hackneyed expression or idea.

The most common cliches are worn out metaphors or similes. These cliches often originated as poetic language by such imaginative writers as Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Chaucer. Take the phrase "dead as a doornail" as an illustration. The first person who used this phrase was being original. The second person who used it was perhaps a shrewd copyist. Anyone using the phrase today, however, is not only a hack but is being meaningless and archaic as well. Who knows what a doornail is today? To eliminate such cliches, reread. Question every sentence, every phrase. Is it original? If not, where did it originate? Is it believable or just puffery? Does it serve any purpose? Is it the kind of description needed to get across your idea? Or would it be better to be straight and uncluttered? Above all, if the phrase is common and overused, try to avoid it. Something much better will spring into your mind if you think well enough ( and long enough) !


We've been talking about metaphorical cliches. There is another kind of cliche-simply tired everyday words and phrases. These are cliches for the same reason, however: They've lost their impact through overuse.

Don't let the fact that so many businesses use these cliches as a matter of course lull you into thinking that it's all right to use them. The kind of phrases I'm talking about are these, used as intensifiers:

-that's right

-you heard right

-once again

-never before and never again

-proof positive


-yes, just

-that's... ( This is often used at the end of a sentence to repeat the price or at the end of a commercial to emphasize the sponsor's name. "Shop at Jordan's today. That's Jordan's Department Store." Why say "that's" ? ) Some trite phrases that are supposed to denote low prices are:

-cut rate


-cut prices to the bone

-bargains galore

-prices slashed

-door-busting bargains, etc.

The list could fill this book. Taking such words from our copywriting vocabulary may seem difficult, but half the fun of copywriting is thinking up new ways to really get your message across. Certainly, words like those above don't do it. Anyway, your competition is using them, and you're different.

Such words are in what I call the drop-everything school. How many times have you heard, "Drop everything and hurry down to Finklemeyer's Hardware Store! "? "Well, personally," every listener thinks to himself, "I don't care if Finklemeyer is selling lawnmowers for $5, I am going to finish my coffee before I amble down to take a look." But let's suppose your client, Finklemeyer, is really selling lawnmowers for $5. Isn't this fact more powerful than all the hurry-up-and-buy-nows? Throw out the unnecessary clutter and come right out with it: Five dollars buys a guaranteed lawnmower at Finklemeyer's. Fifty lawnmowers are in stock and five dollars buys one of them for you during this week's sale only. Cut your grass with it. See how easily the balloon tires whisk you over your entire lawn, how ball-bearing action cuts your cutting time.

What does Finklemeyer mean by "guaranteed"? If you're not satisfied, take it back.

Finklemeyer refunds your purchase price.

But five dollars tells you the story.

Finklemeyer's Hardware-Main and Augusta.

Try to cut a word out of the above without distorting the low-key, matter-of-fact approach. Maybe you can. Write other similar commercials, being careful not to include cliches or meaningless expressions. Try to establish a conversational yet compelling manner. Once this happens, people will listen and buy-although they will not necessarily drop everything to do it.

Incidentally, the item and the price must be good. If they cannot get you, as the writer, enthusiastic enough about them to present hard selling facts, better suggest another item to be advertised. Even if the advertising is intriguing enough to sell a poor item, the merchant may lose a customer.

Use this rationale: If the merchandise is as good as the retailer says it is, why would he have to scream about it, exaggerate facts, tell people to "drop everything"? Potential customers unconsciously realize this. For example, you are familiar with the commercial that starts: Everybody is hurrying to the Smith-Jones Gigantic Shoe Sale...

If "everybody" is in such a hurry, why advertise? Anyway.

I am part of that "everybody" and I'm not hurrying. Not without more motivation than that, anyway.


It is possible to stress quality and low price in the same commercial. But you have to do away with the kind of cliches you see here: Cotton dresses now just $1.49.. .You heard right ( or, "that's right," "yes," "yes, just" ). $1.49 for $5.00 dresses during the cotton dress event at Sellmore's Department Store. Hurry on down and buy now while they last. That's Sellmore's Department Store, 101 North Main.

Instead, select words carefully to build a concrete impression: Step through Sellmore's rainbow into the prettiest dress you've seen this summer. The only thing that's the price. (PAUSE) Seven dollars...forty-nine cents. Write it down so you'll have it on your downtown shopping list. One rack of these cotton dresses, worth fifteen dollars and more, has a price tag that says $7.49. Of course, no one sees the price tag but you. Sellmore's. North and Main.

The differences are somewhat exaggerated here, but you get the idea. The second commercial stresses the attractiveness of the dresses and, before giving the low price, hastens to assure the listener that these are not "cheap" dresses. It implies that they compare with far more expensive items. The price is then emphasized by asking the listener to write it down. Whether she does or not, chances are the oddity of the request will firmly implant a mental note. Once again the expensiveness of the dresses is implied, as is the gentle threat of a sellout, couched in the words "one rack." "Some," "one group of," or the exact number are other ways to avoid the trite "limited number." At the close, vanity is again appealed to: "Of course, no one sees the price tag but you." When you work to eliminate cliches such as those in the first of these two commercials, you'll find yourself writing in the more interesting style of the second one.


Closely related to cliches are superlatives. What do these mean, anyway? How much better is something that's "great" than something that's "good"? How much better is something that's "magnificent," "wonderful," etc.? Adding to the difficulty of getting at the meaning of these words is the tendency to stick very before all of them. On principle, avoid these "great" superlatives.

If you want to use superlatives in your copy, try words that are fresher or more descriptive-words like:

accomplished complete inimitable

animated conversational invaluable

active delightful lively

alive electrifying prize

bright enjoyable stirring

bubbly expressive striking

buoyant fluid timely

captivating fluent uncommon

clear forceful unusual

colorful handsome vivid

I won't go on. A dictionary or thesaurus will give you dozens of words to use instead of great, wonderful, very great, or very wonderful.

If you don't find a word that does exactly what you want, you might try coining one. Some of the more colorful words in our language have been deliberate creations for a specific effect. On radio, a wine becomes the "genu-wine," and Schweppes mixers have a carbonation that can only be described as "Schwepper-vescence." And there are always fad words which-before they become overworked-can be used as superlatives. Mod and psychedelic were two good examples until they became overused.

What gives this word its impact? Human nature. Your nature. People like new things. Possession of something new makes people feel superior to the way they felt before they had this "new" item. Any untried product holds a promise of relieving a slight discontent that people carry around with them. The word is so important that manufacturers spend millions each year changing their packages to include the words New! Improved! and millions more to announce the fact in all advertising media.

Even though it is a cliche, the word new can step up the power of your commercials. But when presenting a new store or product, give a real reason for its newness.

Demonstrate it with some new benefit. Try to make the new store or product sound more revolutionary than anything else in its field (since you're going to be competing with a lot of other new things). Using the word new or the idea of newness helps you get and keep attention in a commercial by telling people something they didn't know before. Consider this commercial:


MAN: Madam! What are you doing with my packages of Bug Out?

WOMAN: This is national Be Kind to Bugs week and I'm here to stamp out this new product that's guaranteed to stamp out bugs.

MAN: Be Kind to Bugs week? Why haven't I heard of it before?

WOMAN: Before the invention of Bug Out, bugs didn't have much to worry about. A few weak sprays, a couple of messy powders...

MAN: I catch on. You mean that Bug Out really bugs the bugs like they've never been bugged before.

WOMAN: That's why Be Kind to Bugs week was started-to stamp out the product that stamps out bugs!


MAN: But, Madam, Bug Out is kind to bugs. It has the approval of the USDA, U. S. Public Health Service, the State of Illinois...

WOMAN: But how can it possibly be kind to bugs?

MAN: Puts them out of their misery.. fast.

Another word that ranks high in consumer appeal is free. Use this when you can. Certainly, any business offers--or can offer--certain free products or services.

Here's one way of combining the ideas "new" and "free" in one commercial: If you've gone to McDougal's lately to get your car serviced, you either loved it or you couldn't get in! That's why McDougal's has opened their newest, largest and most modern service center at 100 North Main.

Every day, three hundred cars are getting fast, accurate service in McDougal's new facilities.

Drive in during the Grand Opening--and get an electronic tuneup free! Other Grand Opening prices slightly higher.

Another word that is important is the word now. It carries all the connotations of the drop-everything school in an unpretentious, nonirritating way. When you want immediacy and cannot think of anything better or original, use now.

Have you noticed that when you work to eliminate cliches, better writing comes almost automatically? Almost.


1. Write five common cliches such as "As luck would have it," "sadder but wiser," "last but not least," etc.

2. Write a short commercial employing five common commercial cliches. (This should take about ten seconds.) Then, rewrite it tersely, using raw facts and clean, specific phrases.

3. What are five better ways of saying "good" (other than those listed in this section)? Work them into five commercial leads.


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Updated: Thursday, 2020-11-26 13:45 PST