I’ll let you in on a little secret. One of the biggest giveaways that a client has written their own copy, without hiring a copywriter, is the over-use of exclamation marks.
The world’s most over-used punctuation mark has a lot to answer for. In a fraction of a second, it has the power to turn even the most delicately worded prose into a pantomime horse. It’s right up there with CAPS LOCK and alphanumeric truncation (h8ers gonna h8) for a spot in room 101. In the printing world, an exclamation mark is often referred to as a ‘screamer’, ‘gasper’, ‘bang’, ‘slammer’ or ‘startler’ – ie: something to be used sparingly, and for dramatic effect, where warranted. Over-use is tiring and annoying at best and shows a lack of control. (Apple even has a specific section in their distributer rulebook about avoiding their use.) There’s even a word for excessive use of exclamation marks: ‘bangorreah’. But try telling that to writers on social media, where the mere whiff of competition is excuse enough to crack open a whole can of exclamation marks! Take a look at this list of contests currently on NineMSN’s homepage. Among other things, you could win a cheese plate. A CHEESE PLATE! I might forgive them for using one on a prize worth a cool million dollars, but a cheese plate‽
Exclamation marks give the impression of an over-excited child. And in marketing copy, they often just aren’t needed. If a statement’s flat, no amount of exclamation marks are going to liven it up, they’re just going to make it look ridiculous. If it’s already exciting, why would you need to sign-post it? Exclamation marks are distracting. And while excitement will always be subjective, no brand should lose their shit over a cheese plate. Have a look at the next Lost Dog, School Fete, Yard Sale or Fresh Lemonade sign you see. Chances are it will be festooned with exclamation marks, most likely some clip-art and quite possibly a smattering of comic sans. These are not the communications tools of professional marketers. F Scott Fitzgerald once said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. If that rule applies to everyday brands, it should go double for premium ones. I spotted this advertising billboard for Swiss Miltary Hanowa watches at the weekend.
The Flagship Chrono looks like a nice watch. Admittedly, it’s not in the same league as Rolex, Omega or even Tag Heur, but if Hanowa wants to at least pretend to play in that space, that exclamation mark is a huge no-no, especially for their flagship watch. The words leading up to it are strange too. I assume the line ‘ALWAYS ON TARGET!’ is used to suggest a sense of dynamism, accuracy and weaponry, all stuff blokes love. But whatever the disconnect between the words, image and message (what’s it targeting?) that exclamation mark shoots the soaring metaphor dead mid-air. It’s a scream of shock as if being on target is something you wouldn’t expect from the brand. It starts you wondering about the surprise itself and makes you completely forget to read the body copy (a list of bullet points).
A time and place for exclamation marks.
So now I’ve had a whinge about the bad use of exclamation marks, it’s time I said a few words on the good. If you know what you’re bringing to a communications piece by using an exclamation mark, it can be a useful gizmo. Exclamation marks can be a simple way to add a touch of personality to a brand name. Air France’s new regional subsidy Hop! uses an exclamation mark not only in the name but as a very effective graphic device on its destination price lock-ups, acting as a clever nod to flight paths.
Hop! captures the excitement of flying, in a playful fashion. Similarly classic fragrance Joop! and Yahoo!
Both benefit from the quirkiness the exclamation mark brings. The surprise is delivered by the brand itself, not a clunky message it’s trying to express. It can be tricky to get right in sentence copy and headlines, but the best use of an exclamation mark is, oddly enough, the one it was designed for. Trusty Wikipedia tells me it was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century to show emphasis and is well-known for appearing alongside words like ‘bang’ to increase their potency. Boom! Bang! Boo! A boo without one would surely sound sarcastic? I may sound a little down on the shriekish bang, but I use it myself from time to time. My unofficial rules are to think about adding it to a script and imagining the difference it would make to the way the words are readout. Which tends to mean, I end up saving it for expressions like Ta-Da! Wahooo! Or Yippeee! And by the time a brand is playful and brave enough to be sporting these kinds of words in its vocabulary, chances are they won’t be needing cheap exclamation marks anyway.
About the Author: John Kerswell
Currently based in Australia, home of the terrifying drop-bear, John is a copywriter with strong branding and advertising background. With a specialism in naming and brand language, when he’s not juggling client projects, he’s counting the days to the next Burning Man.
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