Sunday, February 22, 2015

When I Edited Engineers - 3

Another attempt, from my aerospace editing days, to call proposal-writing engineers back to their roots as purveyors of precise, measurable data.

On “World Class”

This is one of those phrases become meaningless through over- and inappropriate use.

At the Olympic games, where competitors actually are from all over the world, “world class athlete” makes sense. Applied to everything else (as it has been, from harmonica playing to peanut butter cookies; today's reader, Google it if you think I’m exaggerating) it doesn’t carry the weight its authors intend. You know what they’re trying to convey, but you also know whatever it is they’re pushing hasn’t literally been tested against similar items around the world, and that the claim is pointless. If it had been tested in world competition, and certainly if it had been found  best or close to it, they wouldn’t be mealy-mouthing around with “world class” -- they’d say “best in the world,” or "one of the top ten (or hundred)," and they’d be prepared to show you the stats.

Interestingly though, that sort of claim has been judged legally permissible in advertising. Under the law, advertising has special status, in that it’s not held to the standard of absolute truthfulness. The Ohio State Bar’s web page notes that in advertising, “The law allows some  exaggeration, called ‘puffery,’”  further defined in other legal articles as “non-actionable” puffery.  To invite regulatory action a claim would have to be misleading enough to cause an average consumer to buy when he or she would not have bought in the absence of that claim. The assumption is that an average consumer won’t take as truth an exaggerated claim that can’t be proved by measurement. 

If the average consumer knows enough to ignore puffery, it sure ain’t gonna convince the Department of Defense -- a cut or two above your average consumer  -- to award us the  contract we’re bidding for. Let’s lose the phrase.