Sloganeering: It’s not just a good idea, it’s a bucket of crap!

Your Humble Blogger recently had the enjoyable experience of being on hold whilst attempting to reach a company to whose business, I am told, I am important. Oh, so important. I was also vouchsafed a motto that struck me as interesting and profound. I took down the exact phrase. Sadly, not expecting to the telephone call to take quite so long, I simply carved the note into a nearby granite mountain, which was subsequently worn to dust by time and tide while I was still on hold. Next time, engraved sheets of titanium.

Anyway, the phrase, as near as I can remember, was this: Courtesy: it’s not just a service, it’s a commitment! I am unsure how to interpret this. The motto seems to be modeled after the Selective Service ads that told us that registering for the draft is not just a good idea, it’s the law. The ad was clear. Registering is a good idea (because in case of emergency, we want the machinery of conscription to work smoothly), and it is also the law (violation of which could lead to trouble), and therefore registering is doubly indicated. The latter reason was considered to be the more compelling, and I think that’s clear both in the motto and in the world at large, but the former reason was considered to be fully valid as well.

Digression: The day Your Humble Blogger registered for the draft was the day after the USS Stark was hit. Or so I remember. It seems unlikely, now, given the timing. It may have been some other incident that I feared would lead to US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. There were several provocations between our forces and Iranian forces that made the march to war seem very plausible. It was assumed, of course, that we would be allied with Saddam Hussein. I did not really expect to be drafted (for one thing, I was in college, and expected to be classified 2-S), but I remember coming back on campus from the post office in town (where one registered), picking up my newspaper and thinking oh, shit. End Digression.

It makes some sense to me that courtesy is a service. Or, rather, a training motto could well read “it isn’t service unless it’s courteous service”. Service, or at least good service, necessarily involves courtesy. Furthermore, you could argue that courtesy is in itself a service of a kind. A courteous word definitely improves YHB’s mood (particularly if I’ve been on hold), and improving my mood is a service, so there you are. It’s not the service I was calling them to provide, but it is a service. So we’ve accomplished the first half of the form it’s not just X, it’s Y!. To complete the form, we need a Y that is is greater than X, but also is different from X is some way other than size or quantity. And so we have commitment.


First of all, it’s not clear to me at all that a commitment is bigger than a service. If I am calling a business, I want that business to provide me with a service; I may or may not want them to provide me with a commitment. Except insofar as they commit to fulfilling the service, I suppose. Although even then, if I am calling to purchase a box of widgets, I may want them to commit to mailing me the widgets, but mostly I want them to mail me the widgets. If they are only half-hearted in their commitment, but when it comes down to it, the widgets are in the box and the box is in the mail, then I’m fine. And a greater commitment, say to sell me more widgets at a later time, or to refund me for the widgets I don’t use, is something I may want or may not want. So they’ve screwed that up.

More important, though, is that courtesy is not a commitment. The company may well be committed to courtesy, but that commitment is not the courtesy. The courtesy is the courtesy. As with the service, I don’t really care if the company is committed to doing it as long as they do it in my specific case. If they have no broader commitment to courtesy, but I just happen to be connected with the one courteous employee, I’m fine. And if they could be courteous without making a big fuss over their courteousness, that would be even more courteous.

What they are getting at (I surmise) is that they perceive courtesy not as something they occasionally provide (as they do their services), but something they always provide (because of their commitment). Therefore, the not just X, it’s Y form. But that form doesn’t work when (a) X is subsumed in Y, and (2) X and Y are describing different things, or the wrong thing altogether. And, of course, if I (the customer whose business is important to them) want something to be consistent, it’s the service.

I keep going around and around. It seems to me that the attitude behind this is that the company, in order to make certain that all employees are courteous, has made some sort of commitment. I have no idea what that commitment might be. Training? Support? Sacking anyone who doesn’t measure up? Anyway, they perceive themselves as having made some sort of commitment. And they are telling me about it. Why? Because I will assume that in the absence of such a commitment I will be treated discourteously. I can now translate the motto: I should believe that I will receive courtesy because not only does the company treat courtesy as a service (that is, a revenue producer for them) but they have committed to it. Hunh? But they committed to it because it’s a service, right? Do they not commit to fulfill their other services?

And around again. Why choose the form? Why not just say We are committed to courteous service? Or is that too easily understood? I was about to say that it was falsifiable, that unlike what they actually said, it has enough meaning to be proven false. And yet, it can’t really, because any specific instance of discourtesy would not disprove a commitment to courtesy, just an incomplete execution of that commitment. Which bring me back to where I was before: I don’t care if they are committed to being courteous, I care if they actually are courteous.

Hello? Hello?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “Sloganeering: It’s not just a good idea, it’s a bucket of crap!

  1. hapa

    i see a training session, with that written on the board, and the instructor laser-pointing the keywords


    “and also it is a form of excellence” probly didna fit on th’letterhead

  2. Matt Hulan

    I think the problem is that successful marketing wonks have marketing education, psychological training, and a mastery of words that would make Shakespeare… well, sigh, honestly, with sadness that such methods are used but consummate compassion for the human condition that causes us to come up with such methods, ’cause he’s freakin’ Shakespeare! JEEZ!

    But anyway, they also have a way with words, is what I’m saying.

    Slogans like this tend to be handed down from committees of executives with business degrees who want to save a few bucks by not getting the marketing guys involved.

    Also, the CEO can say “Oh, that was one of mine,” off-hand to the blonde on his yacht, as they soak in his gold-plated hot tub, drinking martinis from glasses rimmed with silver, and she gazes with greed disguised as fascination into his dull, bovine eyes, saying “OH, service AND committment. Are you even committed to servicing ME?” Which is good, right? Increases shareholder value, and all that?



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