Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords

A buzzword is a fashionable term that comes into use seemingly out of nowhere and often disappears just as quickly. Buzzwords are very popular in the corporate world where they function as a kind of marketing tool for middle managers whose jobs by their very nature are ambiguous and ill-defined. Buzzwords serve to give the appearance of dynamicity or action. They are a kind of propaganda in that it’s the willingness of the reader and the community to accept their use which defines their power rather than any actual meaning they convey. This is not to say that buzzwords are meaningless and, in fact, often perfectly good words get used as buzzwords. But, when they do, their meaningfulness always diminishes.

Let me give one of my favourite examples of this process from the wonderful world of corporate IT where I make my living. At a company where I once worked they decided to give everybody a copy of a book the name of which I can’t remember. Management wanted everybody in the company to be on the same page about our new product development direction and this particular book apparently captured everything perfectly (was our new product direction stolen straight from a fashionable book? You bet it was.).

I tried to read my copy of the book but gave up about a quarter of the way through. Nevertheless, I did come across a phrase that was about to become a familiar part of my work life. It was called minimum viable product. The author of the book gave a quite specific technical definition of this term which was something like “the minimum number of features from which you can learn something.” The idea was for companies to get their products in front of customers as early as possible so they could get feedback. It’s a good idea. I would say it’s common sense but in the corporate world common sense is a rare commodity. In any case, that’s what the phrase and the book was explicitly about – learning from your customers.

Other people in this company read the book too and the phrase minimum viable product became an instant buzzword (or, should that be buzzphrase?) Everybody started using it. But, and this is the key point, they were not using it in the way in which the author of the book meant it to be used. They gave it the meaning “minimum number of features deemed politically expedient by management”. Of course, this was exactly the process that had always been used in the company where managers decided on the number of features based on their own considerations which were always kept top secret. The whole point of the book was the break out of that mindset and the phrase minimum viable product was the way to encapsulate the new mentality. Rather than adopt that mentality and use the phrase in the way it was intended, the old mentality was kept while the buzzword was used to give the appearance of a new way of working when in fact nothing had changed at all. Meet the new buzzword. Same as the old buzzword.

This little accidental social experiment revealed what I think is a very important point about propaganda that is often overlooked: propaganda doesn’t necessarily need to be conscious. When we think of propaganda, we think of evil people in dark rooms cooking up mischief. But propaganda can and does arise spontaneously in groups of people. It is actually a byproduct of shared interests. None of the managers in this company I used to work for had a secret meeting to agree to start misusing the phrase minimum viable product. It just happened organically. Their interest in this case was to keep the same control over the product delivery that they had always enjoyed while giving the appearance to their superiors that they were in fact following a new and dynamic process. This is, in fact, one of the main functions of propaganda: to give the impression that one thing is happening while a completely different thing is actually happening.

In the corporate world, buzzwords are also in the interests of another group of people: the incompetent/borderline incompetent. There are a lot of people in the work world who barely know how to do their jobs. But they do know how to remember the right buzzwords and this gives them the appearance of knowing what they are talking about. Most of us who work in such environments have had the revelation of finding out that somebody was completely incompetent. The surprise comes because they gave the appearance of competence because they knew the right language to use. Just like a sharply tailored outfit can make even an out of shape person look good, buzzwords and jargon can function to give a veneer of competence to the professionally challenged.

That’s how buzzwords function in the corporate world and it’s not much different in the public discourse. Whenever you have buzzwords you have some group who benefits from them and who get to determine their meaning. This year we have seen an explosion of buzzwords related to the corona event. The interest groups in this case are primarily the government and public health bureaucracy but also scientists and corporations related to public health. They have been the ones pushing the buzzwords. In fact, the very name of the supposed ‘new’ disease, covid-19, was created by the WHO. Others buzzwords we have learned include lockdown, social distancing, super spreaders, flatten the curve, levels one through four or tiers one through five depending on where you live etc etc. Here in Victoria we had a new one recently where the Premier designated the City of Sydney a Red Zone (or was it a code red, I forget). The point was, Sydney was now bad. Who came up with the phrase Red Zone? Is this a technical phrase used in public health or did somebody just make it up? Are there other categories like Yellow Zone or Green Zone? Who knows? And who cares? The point of buzzwords is not to be informative. Go back a year and ask anybody and they would have no idea what any of these words meant. They sprung into existence this year and suddenly everybody started talking about them as if they had always been there. The ability to create and define the meaning of buzzwords is actually a real form of political power and hence is an important facet of propaganda.

When buzzwords are brought into the general discourse from science, they can often obfuscate real issues. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a rather ridiculous form of this as virologists in the UK apparently discovered a new kind of sars-cov-2. The media struggled to know what to call it. Mostly they used the word strain but they also called it a variant and a mutation. As it happens, strain and variant have quite specific scientific meanings and using them interchangeably is not acceptable. Sars-cov-2 is itself a strain. So, saying there was a ‘new’ strain was a pretty bad error as it meant that there was really a ‘new’ virus. But in the public discourse, close enough is good enough. A strain or a variant or a mutation are all of the same efficacy when it comes to usefulness as a buzzword. In this way, important scientific distinctions are done violence when the words that define those meanings get thrown around willy-nilly in the public discourse. But, of course, our corona response is based on science, you know?

Buzzwords are usually very easy to identify because nobody in normal life uses them. In day-to-day affairs between people, buzzwords have no place. It’s only in political and quasi-political situations where buzzwords are used. So, if a word gets used that is not part of everyday language but is only ever used by corporate or government types, it’s probably a buzzword. A buzzword is by definition is a kind of power play. Like all propaganda, it aims to impose a meaning onto the world rather than uncover or share a meaning about the world. Scientific language is about precision. To fail to distinguish between strain and variant there would be a grave sin. But in propaganda it doesn’t matter. And the author of the book on product development I read in my old job is probably still tearing his hair out as corporate managers continue to use the phrase minimum viable product to mean what they want it to mean and not what he said it means.

Reader Exercise

It’s very tough at the moment to find any buzzwords (or any news at all for that matter) not corona-related but here is a nice satirical piece in the RT which makes fun of some of the corporate marketing blunders for the year. Some of the associated buzzwords are included. Have a read through and see if you can identify them.

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One thought on “Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords”

  1. Hello Simon,
    Great examples of buzzwords. I suspect your management tried to shove Lean Startup through your throats?

    Another favourite area where buzzwords mask inaction is the sustainability scene, often combined with future-predictions from last episode of Propaganda School. Use of “upcoming net-zero emission technologies” instead of “praying for a miracle”.
    By using fancy phrases and marvellous metaphors, we mislead ourselves and others so that we don’t have to change our behaviour.

    I suspect that a lack of competence of moral analysis is another reason why buzzwords work. Whenever people are well-trained in thinking about whether or not some proposal is good, and good for whom, and good in what way, the buzzwords evaporate like snow in a sunny spot.
    Buzzwords are brain candy for sweet and quick results, instead of the laborious chewing of real chunky thinking.


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