The Trap Of Outsmarting Yourself By Mislabeling

Written by Mike Shapiro | | October 26, 2017

There’s so much communication out there, people are resorting to more creative and elaborate tactics to get you to hear and buy into their message. One method is fiddling with the labels of things. Sometimes it’s relatively harmless or merely annoying. At others it’s misleading or harmful. Here are a few examples:

Elevating a common term to slogan status

If you’ve been in a Wells Fargo branch in the last few years you’ve seen this quote on the wall behind the tellers:

“There is one very powerful business rule. It is concentrated in the word courtesy.” Henry Wells.

I’m sure Mr. Wells said this at one time or another. I’m also pretty sure he assumed and expected the people who worked for him would display other behaviors too, like being of service to customers and completing their transactions in a reserved and banker-ly manner. But for some reason, the latter day Wells-ers have made this quote the touchstone of their entire customer experience.

But the Wells version isn’t the same old courtesy you and I have known about since we were in grade school. Nope. This version has their employees smiling broadly and yelling “Hello, Mr. S. Welcome to Wells Fargo. How’s your day going so far?” as soon as you walk in the door. And when you get closer to the teller’s window: “Got any big plans for the weekend?”

I guess it might have been foreseen that this simple quote from Mr. Wells would take on a life of its own over the years. But who knew it would morph into a monster that would take over the personalities of the folks just inside the doors — one that would make me brace myself before screwing up the courage to walk in the bank for a simple transaction?

Wells would do well to get beyond this pumped-up interpretation of a simple expression and return their focus to just quietly helping customers.

Expanding the scope of an existing term

When it was first used, fake news meant “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.[1]”

Now the term is being used to discredit any type of news that the person using the term doesn’t agree with.

The danger is that accurate stories get labeled as fake and that more and more news of all kinds — even that which legitimately warrants our concern — is deemed unworthy of any serious attention.

Coining a new term to legitimize (or delegitimize) an action or behavior

A part of every election since the beginning of the republic has been finding unflattering things about an opposing candidate and blasting them out in public. This used to be called “muckraking” or “dirty tricks.” Now it’s called “opposition research” and pundits spend an inordinate amount of time trying to distinguish between this thing they now consider a routine and legitimate endeavor in every political campaign and something that “crosses the line.” What line? What’s on the other side? Isn’t it all the same old thing: Saying bad things about someone so people won’t vote for them?

Here’s another one: Remember when people were incensed by a book that was advertised as factually accurate, but which was found to be riddled with made-up things, inventions from the mind of the author? (This topic and the murky frontier between fact and fiction is given a thorough examination in the article “‘Based on a true story’: the fine line between fact and fiction,” by Geoff Dyer and others.)

Well, now there’s apparently a semi-legitimate safe haven for fiction that passes itself off as fact in a made-up genre, sometimes called faction.

But it’s still passing fiction off as fact, right?

It may take awhile, but once people catch onto the fact that someone’s been misleading them by mislabeling, even if it’s unintentional, there’s bound to be a loss of trust.

USE IT NOW: It’s worthwhile to take a look at your own messaging to see whether you’ve fallen into any of these labeling traps.