This one is a little bit… niche. But I think that it’s something a lot of folks have noticed: ads employing liberal use of exclamation marks. If you haven’t noticed this before, I’m sure that you’ll find the sight of it familiar, at the very least:
Full disclosure: I’m going to talk about social media advertising. It’s a little heavy but it’s important, because we’re exposed to it on a daily basis. No one has to tell you this is a huge market. And I think that the exclamation mark sits just adjacent to the center of it all.
I’m friends with a lot of ‘modern Internet users’ on Facebook, and we all seem to be, for lack of a better term, ad-weary. It’s easy for us to see this kind of marketing as cheap or trivial, easy to shrug off social media advertising as like, cheap shit for people who don’t realize that corporations can never be your friend.1
But don’t tell me that no one clicks on these things. If it wasn’t a profitable system it would have died out. Clash of Kings, up there, has a million players. 8-Ball Pool: 10 million. Do you know how many people play Candy Crush? 50 million people do. That’s all of Canada, and then half of Canada again.
I know that their userbases are not built on the strength of their advertising alone. But I also know that there are some men in very expensive suits making very informed decisions about how to get these trends to continue. And it must be working, because the newest Candy Crush Jelly Saga came out on Facebook on a Tuesday and in less than a week, it had 10 million players.
So what are those men in suits thinking up there, in their meticulously-designed towers at King Digital Entertainment, PLC.? Here’s my take: these brands don’t want to win your buck through coolness, showmanship, or sparkle–like the Apples and Googles and Nikes of the world. These brands want to be your friend. And the abundant use of exclamation marks is testament to that.
Let me explain.
A purpose for exclamation marks, according to ‘marketing gurus’
I thought at first, like a lot of people probably think, that the exclamation mark is being used here to create excitement. Like forcing your inner voice to jive with sheer capitalistic thrill, even when the content of the sentence is literally just the name of the product.
Operating under that definition, though, a lot of ‘marketing gurus’ will warn you in no uncertain terms off the exclamation mark.
Consider the arguments given by websites like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one. Most make only passing reference to the exclamation mark’s ostensible job. They all more or less rehash the same points: ‘it cheapens your writing, ‘it evokes infomercials/clickbait’, ‘it’s unprofessional’. None of them really seem to know why–most of them just point to the style guides at Apple, Google, or Coca-Cola (or inexplicably, Chevrolet); the rest construct tasteless, loaded scenarios.2 When they do try to unpack the idea of the exclamation mark’s relationship with excitement, they instead focus on bemoaning the inferior writer’s inability to convey excitement through their writing (with such platitudes as, “Don’t ask punctuation to do a word’s job”).
The articles all tend to sort of peter out before passing you on to some kind of graphic that urges you to join a mailing list–which graphic will, in three out of four deliciously ironic cases, include an exclamation mark.
A purpose for exclamation marks, according to the scientific method
It doesn’t take a significant force of intellect to realize, however, that the standard interpretation of an exclamation mark (i.e. indicated excitement) isn’t really accurate anymore–if it ever was. I mean, go check your email, check your Facebook messages, and count the number of times you come across “Thanks a ton!” or “Hey guys!” or “Good to hear!” or “Looking forward to seeing you soon!” These aren’t excited phrases. These are just phrases.
Turns out that exclamation marks don’t indicate excitability that much at all. Carol Waseleski, in studying the use of the exclamation mark by men and women in “electronic discussion lists”, found that an exclamation mark only indicates ‘excitability’ about 10% of the time.3
Exclamation marks were significantly used, however, for ‘friendly’ statements (e.g. “I appreciate that!” or “Good luck!”) and for statements of ‘fact’ (e.g. “The world is flat!” or “It turned my hair gray!”–note here that it just has to be presented as fact, not actually fact). Overall, about a third of the statements were considered ‘friendly’, and a little less than another third were ‘facts’.4
A purpose for exclamation marks in social media advertising
Taking all this into account, these ads become a little bit insidious. They’re not just trying to get you riled up. They’re trying to be your friend. Candy Crush’s “Play with friends!” line isn’t an imperative; it’s trying to inform you that social play is possible, a friendly guide. The Meat Guy wants to save you money: “NOW ON SALE!”. They’re on your side.
What’s a little more sinister here is that if Waseleski’s right, these ads are also commandeering the exclamation mark’s association with fact. That is, these are ads presenting themselves as the truth.
Although, at the end of the day, what the ads are actually saying doesn’t even matter that much–I mean, check out these hot phrases:
Just to be clear, those aren’t even sentences. The first is just a proper noun and a prepositional clause. The second is just a noun phrase. But those exclamation marks on the end coax you in. Candy Crush is trying to talk in the same casual-type sentence fragments you hear from your friends: “Not at all!” “Just last night!” Just relax. Candy Crush is your friend.
Another example in action
Or take, for instance, the infamous ‘Jeb!’ logo that Jeb Bush ran during his presidential primary campaign before dropping out earlier this year. In an article about the logo post-dropout, branding consultant Ed Roach said, “When I put an exclamation mark on a logo, it’s usually a little bit of playfulness; it takes the edge off, it’s a little friendlier, it’s light-hearted, is how I would look at it.”
I think that the exclamation mark plays a little differently when it’s representing a human rather than representing a brand (of course in most cases the human is, themselves, representing a brand, and is subordinated to that brand just as much as the exclamation mark is–but at any rate there’s a layer of abstraction to deal with here). Maybe having a face to attach the exclamation mark to makes the heavy lifting of connecting the brand to friendliness a little lighter. This would go a little ways to explaining why Ed Roach has a prominent exclamation mark on his own website’s front page. He wants you to believe that he is your friend, and he is going to tell you the truth.
Hire him now.
I recognize that a lot of the be-exclamation-marked sentences here are calls to action, like “Play Candy Crush Saga now!” It could be argued that those are obviously neither ‘friendly’ nor ‘factual’ exclamations. Let’s lay aside how aggressive those sorts of imperative sentences are with periods (i.e. “Play Candy Crush Saga now.” Yikes). I’d argue that they (i.e. imperatives in advertising) are lent their credence by the very fact that the dominant use of exclamation marks outside of ad copy is either friendly or factual. And a lot of the time that sort of friendly/factual use does actually get employed within some ad copy itself. The context, both inside and outside of ad copy, informs the use of the exclamation mark in imperatives.
So like for example, if someone said to you (or rather, if you read, somehow), “Get in the car now!” of course you’d never do it. But maybe if it read, “Comfy seats available! Arrive at your destination on time and in style! Get in the car now!” you might consider it (I mean that’s Uber’s model, right?) Even though the content of the call to action hasn’t changed, the context has changed the meaning.5
The bottom line is that a lot of the brands that operate primarily on social media use exclamation marks because they’re emulating some sort of trustworthy friend.
Of course this isn’t a good marketing tactic if you’re Apple or Google–neither Apple nor Google wants to get cozy with you. They want to be something between an older brother and a butler–someone cool and in control but who is also going to bend to your every whim–they want to raise you up and feel like the master of something important.
But on the other hand, consider brands that make their bread and butter on social media–and by extension, word of mouth. Consider brands that don’t have huge budgets to blow on clever ad campaigns or taglines. They want to be your friends, because it benefits them to blur the lines of trust and companionship between your friends list and your games list. They’re operating in realms of social currency. That is to say, they want to hijack the faith you have in your friends to sell their product. And the poor, much-maligned exclamation mark has been shoehorned into doing just that.
1 I mean, it’s clear that more ‘classy’ advertising has moved on to the period as the punctuation of choice–it lends an air of authority and Hemingway-esque minimalism to an advertising motif. No wonder it has accompanied the rise of the ‘short, pithy item description’ (pioneered by Apple and long lauded as ‘innovative’) as the dominant mode in quote-unquote ‘design-focused’ marketing, e.g. “The only thing that’s changed is everything.” At any rate, I’ll get to the period at some point, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.
2 Like this lady’s comparison of the cruise director with and without exclamation marks. First off, you’re talking about cheap writing and you’re using speech to make your point? Second, the cruise directors with and without exclamation marks aren’t even remotely offering the same thing. Have you heard of the term ‘false equivalence’? How the fuck do you have so many comments patting you on the back for doing such a good job? Where are my thousands of pageviews?
3 The study defines “excitability markers” as “moderately aggressive/rude” statements, “sneering or cutting remarks”, or “effusive expressions of thanks”. If this seems a little narrow, it’s because Waseleski was looking for phrases that had some sort of inherent “positive or negative emotionality”. Other phrases in the study, like “My apologies!” or “I like Blackboard!” or “Bet you won’t find it!” wouldn’t be considered ‘excitable’ since they don’t really involve any kind of emotion outside of the exclamation mark. Just try saying them aloud with a period at the end. See?
4 The study also found some pretty cool correlations between gender and the use of exclamation marks, which I don’t want to cover here because it’s off-topic and I don’t trust myself to accurately represent the information. (Gender politics are a lot harder to untangle than the argument that ‘some advertising is bad’.) That being said the study itself isn’t particularly long or opaque, so if you have a free ten minutes you should definitely definitely read it.
5 I mean, consider the fact that of the Facebook game ads at the top of the article, the one with the fewest ‘friendly’ or ‘factual’ exclamations (Clash of Kings) is also the one with the fewest players.