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Jemima Myers

The Power of Words in Marketing: Being Adaptive vs. Censored?

In celebration of World Book Day yesterday, we thought it was fitting to dedicate a blog to the power of words. Words are at the core of any marketing strategy: from the IG Reel caption that hooks your followers, to the copy that’s front and centre of your homepage. However, the recent Roald Dahl censorship debate has got us all thinking: will anyone’s words truly stand the test of time?

The Roald Dahl Debate: Whose Side Are You On?

First, let’s recap why Roald Dahl, the critically acclaimed yet controversial author, has been trending over the last few weeks. It all stemmed from Puffin Books’ announcement that they were publishing new editions of Dahl’s books. These new “and improved” versions edited out language that could be deemed offensive, from references to weight and appearance, to gender-specific parents. Unsurprisingly, this led to a huge backlash online, with fellow authors such as Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman rushing to Dahl’s defence – and even the Queen Consort gave her two cents on the matter!

There have certainly been some interesting points made on both sides of the argument. Some claim that this ‘censorship’ was the responsibility of the publisher, in order to protect children from harmful views. Similarly, many have pointed out that this would not be the first time a renowned children’s story has been adapted to serve newer generations. After all, most children are exposed to the watered-down, romanticised version of Cinderella – with no severed toes in sight!

However, the overwhelming response has been one of outrage and confusion; many believe that literary classics should survive intact, and that readers should simply be aware of the context in which they were written. What’s more, Dahl defenders claim that everyone has the freedom of choice: parents can simply opt for their children to read something more palatable, if they wish. The overarching opinion seems to be that any editing – particularly to such extreme lengths – of a deceased author’s classic works is a form of censorship, and the beginning of a slippery slope.

The Aftermath – Through A Marketing Lens

Puffin Books seemed to hear this backlash loud and clear, and have since announced that the original editions will be published later this year, branded as Roald Dahl’s ‘Classic Collection’.

Francesca Dow, Managing Director of Penguin Children’s Books, gave the following statement:

“We’ve listened to the debate over the past week which has reaffirmed the extraordinary power of Roald Dahl’s books and the very real questions around how stories from another era can be kept relevant for each new generation”.

In our expert opinion, this is quite clearly an example of social media crisis management. Ironically, Puffin’s tweets regarding the controversy resulted in the most engagement on their feed by far – yet the vast majority of comments were negative, with some even boycotting the publishing company altogether. Whether or not their response was genuinely a result of Puffin listening to public opinion, it was the necessary step to combat the backlash.

On the other hand, some claim that this entire saga has been a stroke of genius marketing from Puffin Books and the Roald Dahl estate. Could they be working in cahoots? Regardless of the intent behind the dual announcements, the trending nature of the topic will work wonders for book sales. Roald Dahl has always been relevant – after all, he is one of the best-selling authors of all time – however, this has propelled him to the front and centre of public opinion. What’s more, those who are advocates for the ‘new’ editions will flock to the shelves, whereas anyone adamantly against these edits will purchase the ‘classic’ editions in protest. PR stunt or otherwise, Dahl’s sales will henceforth be doubly effective.

There are many examples of advertising being adaptive to the modern-day, catering to a more well-informed society. For one, the tobacco industry has had to shift its marketing strategy completely. Likewise, smoking is a far less significant feature in TV and film – particularly from a glamorised perspective. Even Tom and Jerry have quit smoking! Furthermore, over the decades, Gillette’s adverts have evolved from celebrating stereotypical masculinity (1989), to speaking out against toxic masculinity (2019). Whilst the latter received decidedly mixed reviews, this is undoubtedly an example of a brand attempting to “keep up with the times”.

The above examples are certainly understandable, worthwhile causes. But when is it appropriate to adapt – and where do we draw the line? The recent Roald Dahl debacle is undoubtedly a leap that many perceive as dangerous territory.

Is Your Business Adaptive to the Times?

Nowadays, your words are immortalised on the internet. What’s more, many language tropes don’t “age well” – and the same will likely be said for our own idioms, decades down the line. Language evolves over time, in tandem with society, and it is important that your brand learns to adapt to this.

We aren’t simply referring to the risk of offending users; in fact, it’s essential to regard the wider landscape of language, and how it is influenced by life as we know it. For example, on certain platforms (TikTok and Twitter, we’re looking at you), captions are becoming increasingly shorter and snappier, with references to Gen Z colloquialisms. This reflects the short attention span of today’s society – and the mass amount of content out there! Brands, therefore, need to capture users’ attention – and quickly! Moreover, most brands use inclusive language and are reactive to current issues and trending topics. Again, this reflects our current culture, which is widely awakened to the many issues plaguing our planet.

Furthermore, businesses are applauded for having unwavering, authentic opinions, and backing up their words with action. Words are powerful – but if they’re empty, what’s the point?

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