There’s nothing like pointing to a bit of research to back up your claims – especially if it comes from a prestigious source.

Copywriters know this better than most, but it seems we’re not quite as hot when it comes to checking our sources.

Ever since the 70s, copywriters and others have been peddling the story of how Yale University researchers discovered the 12 most persuasive words in the English language.

When I first heard about it, it certainly persuaded me. It rang true with what I’d read elsewhere.

But according to Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log, the research is nothing more than a ‘lingua-canard’.

(That’s ‘a pile of tosh’ to you and me).

Luckily the true story is even more entertaining. This is it…

The strange tale of the most persuasive words in English

According to Zimmer, newspapers began reporting lists of the most ‘persuasive words’ no later than 1961.

The ad on the left appeared in the New York Times on 14th August 1961, while the one on the right turned up in the Washington Post a couple of months later on 11th October.

Lists of the most persuasive words in English

Both of these articles mention what Zimmer refers to as a ‘generic (and possibly fictitious?) “Marketing Magazine”‘.

The fact the two lists are slightly different is certainly fishy. There are eleven words in each list, but while one has ‘new’ the other has ‘happiness’.

(The other ten words are: you, discover/ discovery, easy, proven, save, money, guarantee, health, happiness, love, results.)

By 1963 the ‘research’ was being attributed to a ‘big advertising agency’ and the list had shrunk to 10 words.

But the list grew to 12 by January 1970, when a syndicated American columnist named L.M. Boyd wrote:

The 12 most persuasive words in the English language are: you, money, save, new, results, health, easy, safety, love, discovery, proven and guarantee. Or such is the claim of researchers in the Yale psychology department. No salesman should forget this.

From this point on, the myth truly snowballed. The list changed from time to time (to include words like ‘free’ and ‘safety’), and it was variously credited to Duke University, the University of California and other impeccable sources.

And copywriters like me have lapped it up as gospel. Which would make us look foolish, were it not for one thing…

The research may be a myth, but the words are proven to persuade

I haven’t a clue whether there has been any academic research into the magical 12 words, but I do know that the most successful copywriters keep testing the words they use – and keeping an eye out for any that are losing their power to persuade.

In 1963, just a couple of years after the adverts pictured in this post were published, David Ogilvy published his list of the 20 most persuasive words in advertising.

They were:

  1. suddenly
  2. now
  3. announcing
  4. introducing
  5. improvement
  6. amazing
  7. sensational
  8. remarkable
  9. revolutionary
  10. startling
  11. miracle
  12. magic
  13. offer
  14. quick
  15. easy
  16. wanted
  17. challenge
  18. compare
  19. bargain
  20. hurry

There may be remarkable new words these days – but while its easy to test for improvements, it’s not a quick process. So I won’t be announcing any miracles soon…