Are you scaring your customers?

Scaring your customers - scary halloween masks

By Liz Doig

I’ve only ever had one brief where our client – the former UK Borders Agency – wanted to scare people who read its communications. In fact, “scare” might be too strong a word. But they certainly wanted anyone reading information at the border to be completely aware that:

  • They had no choice but to comply
  • There were serious consequences if they broke the rules

Another interesting aspect of this brief was that their audiences would have a range of first languages.

These two aspects came together quite nicely. Because there’s nothing that puts people with English as a first language on guard quite like a lot of Latinate vocabulary. And if your first language is a Romance language – or you’ve learned English very formally – then Latinate vocab is likely to make as much (if not more) sense to you than the Germanic side of the English language.

A quick recap – English with Latin roots v. English with Germanic roots…

In English, we’ve often got two words that mean the same thing. The longer version often comes from Latin, while the shorter version comes from old German.

As kids, we learn the shorter words first – and we learn the longer words later. For people whose first language is English, this often means that Germanic words are the ones that come to us more spontaneously. Their longer, Latinate equivalents, on the other hand, are the words we have to think about and that make us stand on guard a little.


For the UKBA brief, we knew that we wanted to make readers feel a little on guard, so we opted for more Latinate vocab than we might normally have done. We also felt it was more likely to be understood by people with English as a second or third language.

This meant that communications at the border looked like this:


You must produce your passport for inspection.

Instead of:


Please get your passport ready for us to see.

The first piece of text is unambiguous. It’s unlikely to make friends – so it isn’t terribly commercial. But then, that wasn’t its purpose.

However, if you’re in the business of building awareness and loyalty, the second approach is likely to work better for you. This is because the shorter, sharper Germanic words feel more natural and conversational to a native English speaker. When we read them, everything feels safe and normal – and like they’re listening to someone on their level. Instinctively, the reader of the second example would not feel they were in a high alert situation.

But if you need to make people feel more alert, on edge and compliant – then the UKBA approach is there if you need it. You can always soften it with a “thank you”. 


Do not approach the checkout until called.

Thanks for understanding.

There’s a great quote in a book (which I really recommend) called Solutions for Writers, by Sol Stein. In it, he says: “The duty of the writer is to evoke emotion in the reader.”

The trick is staying in charge of the emotion you want to evoke. Use scary language on those rare occasions you want to put the wind up your readers. But don’t use it accidentally because you think it’s “better” to use longer words. Then you’ll be scaring people – or at least making them sit up, not sure what’s coming next – instead of making them feel at home, reassured and ready to find out more about your offer.