Here’s a great illustration of why it’s so important to write with your reader in mind. First, though, a short rant…
The Affordable Care Act is the most convoluted law ever written by any government in human history… or animal history or plant history. (Although I hear a few plant governments have gotten quite anti-oxygen and are writing some pretty stringent O-emission laws.)
ObamaCare’s 380,000 words of dense legalese give it the bizarre distinction as the first law ever on which every adult, child and infant holds a strong opinion, but that not a single human has actually read. And if anyone out there has tried to plow through this thing cover to cover, let’s hope that among the law’s insurance “mandatories” is treatment for masochism, or flat-out lunacy.
Okay. The healthcare law is a mess.
But what in the world are the people at H&R Block thinking with their new multi-zillion-dollar “Helpth” campaign?
As I understand it from the billboards and the commercials and the company’s website, Helpth is H&R Block’s program to help people find the best possible insurance policy under the complex new rules of ObamaCare. It’s “help” for “health” insurance. Get it?
H&R Block obviously realized this incomprehensible new law would leave millions of Americans confused about their health insurance. And they saw a business opportunity in addressing the problem. Sounds smart.
But when it came time to name their program — a program they claim will help clarify things for health-insurance consumers — H&R Block chose a bowl of letter salad, making up a word that’s meaningless, nearly unpronounceable, and that looks like a typo.
On the typo issue: I know they know it looks like a typo, because they actually devote one of their billboards to reassuring us it’s not a typo. That ad reads: “Helpth. It’s not a typo.” (That’s right, dear reader. We mean to look this dumb.)
On the unpronounceable issue: Try it yourself. Say “helpth” out loud. It’s as though you’ve got a bee sting on your tongue, and — appropriately enough — you’re calling for help. (That’s right, dear reader. We don’t care if you sound this dumb.)
Oh, one more side note: Actually, they call it HelpthSM, with that little service-mark symbol, which I think is hilarious. (Sorry, competitors. Find your own gobbledygook name. This one’s ours.)
Why would a respected organization, in business for 60 years, run ads like this? Does H&R Block think we’re so stupid that we need tiny, one-syllable words to explain complex concepts — even if those words have to be made up? Another of their ads, the one pictured here, reads, “Helpth. It’s as simple as it sounds.” Excuse me, but what is as simple as it sounds?
Actually, I don’t blame H&R Block entirely. Their mistake was to trust the advice of their advertising agency, an ad agency they probably paid many millions of dollars to name the Helpth program. And that agency terribly abused H&R Block’s trust.
One of the agency’s creative folks was probably playing around with the words “health” and “help” and realized — Hey! — they have some of the same letters. Soon after that… Helpth! Look what I came up with!
And that’s the problem. H&R Block paid millions of dollars for a “look what I came up with” ad, not an ad that’s designed to mean anything to its customers.
I guess smashing the two words together to form a new one was clever, sort of. But who cares? Look: I can do it too. When my relatives get together for dinners, we have big arguments. They’re relatiffs. Get it? Wait! I mean, RelatiffsSM. (Note to H&R Block: For your next ad campaign, hire some new helpth.)
The lesson: Always write with your reader in mind.
The good news here is that this advertising disaster provides us with a great reminder of the importance of writing always with our readers in mind (being “you-focused,” as opposed to “me-focused,” as I like to say it).
1. Write to resonate with your reader.
Does helpth mean anything to anyone? Are any of us walking down the street thinking, “I sure need some helpth?” No. The concept ignores the reader altogether.
Always place yourself in your reader’s position as you write. Stay alert for passages you’re writing that refer to information your reader might not have, details your reader won’t care about, or concepts your reader won’t understand. Your writing will be much clearer for it.
2. Remember that your reader is busy (and “me-focused”).
Imagine: You’re walking by a billboard or bus-stop bench and see the sign: “Helpth. It’s as simple as it sounds.” Do you give it another second’s thought? If you don’t immediately understand it or think it applies to you, probably not.
Don’t demand your reader do any research or investigation to figure out what you’re saying or asking for. That’s your job. Besides, because your readers are busy and self-focused (as we all are), they won’t do it anyway.
Too bad for H&R Block, and for their potential customers. Assuming this helpth service they’re offering is any good, a lot of people are going to miss discovering a potentially useful resource, because the idiotic Helpth sign won’t get their attention. Unless they think it’s a typo. Then maybe they’ll stop for a second, just long enough to read the helpful subhead — “It’s not a typo” — and then move on. I wouldn’t blame them.