2.1 Impression vs Meaning


What did they really say? It is my observation that most messages that come at you have an apparent meaning and an actual one, the Impression vs the Meaning. I see several techniques commonly employed to achieve this. One is simply choosing words, phrasing, graphics, packaging, colors and context to create a powerful Impression. If I asked you, “What did they say?”, you would repeat to me the gist of this impression. If I asked “Are you sure? Take a second, more careful look: what did they really say?”, you may find the actual words and content of the message tell a different story than your first impression.

I got a package the other day. Inside the box I found my merchandise and a single packing pillow — a little plastic balloon stuffed into the box to take up space and keep my goodies from banging around. The pillow was green and bore these words: “EarthAware Recycled Film. 95% pre-consumer recycled content. LDPE #4. Infinitely recyclable.” My first impression was of an eco-friendly, environmentally responsible, sustainable-practice packing pillow. For an instant I felt good about myself and the vendor from whom I purchased the merchandise. I’m doing my part!

But then I took a second, more careful look: “95% pre-consumer recycled content.” Do you know what pre-consumer content is? This is also called Industrial Waste, the spare parts typically left over during the manufacture of anything, but “consumer recycled” plays much better than “industrial waste.” The pillow was made by Automated Packaging Systems Inc (APS), which makes a lot of plastic bags. This indicates they reprocess scraps and waste from other industrial products into this one. This is common industrial practice. It is likely that APS has always reprocessed its scrap into one thing or another, but has simply labelled this product to co-opt the Sustainability fad.

This is like saying your cookies contain 20% pre-consumer recycled dough, because after you use the cookie cutters to cut each batch, you scrape up the dough scraps and work them back in to the next batch.

This is similar to the orange juice labelled “Now! Caffeine Free!” and the apple chips labelled “Processed with NO TRANS FATS!” The impression is of something especially healthy, something the smart shopper should prefer. But take a second look: it’s just an impression. Orange juice never had caffeine. Apple chips are processed with air.


Next time we will look at the Objective/Subjective pairing, a very powerful technique to create a specific impression and turn opinion into fact.


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