This morning, I was listening to The Allusionist podcast while working out at the gym. This is a great new podcast from the UK that covers all kinds of quirks in the English language. I listened to Episode 3 this morning (“Going Viral”), and I learned a new word!
li·to·tes noun \ˈlī-tə-ˌtēz, ˈli-, lī-ˈtō-ˌtēz\
: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in “not a bad singer” or “not unhappy”)
(definition from Merriam-Webster)
Litotes is pronounced LY-toh-teez (although, in American English, it sounds more like LY-duh-teez). It’s not pronounced LY-totes (darn Greek). The word reminds me of its opposite, hyperbole, another Greek word. My husband used to tease me by pronouncing it “hyper-bowl,” but it’s pronounced like litotes: hy-PER-boh-lee.
I’ve long been a fan of the word hyperbole, both for its sound and its meaning. Hyperbole is exaggeration to make a statement, prove a point, or provide humor. An example might be, “My legs feel like they weigh a million pounds!” After a long hike, your legs might be exhausted, but they don’t literally weigh “a million pounds.”
…whether we use a round or sharp number depends on our goals. If precision is our biggest communication goal, we’re more likely to use a sharp number. But if our goal is to convey emotion and emphasis, we’re more likely to use round numbers.
So, when we’re using hyperbole, we usually use phrases like “a million dollars,” or “a thousand points ahead,” or “a bajillion chores to do” (which isn’t even a number, but nevertheless effective as hyperbole). If someone said, “I still have 38 dishes to wash,” you wouldn’t understand the statement as hyperbole. You would be inclined to take it literally. However, the sentence, “I still have a hundred dishes to wash,” conveys hyperbole just fine.
I point this out because spotting hyperbole is easy if you’re looking for it. When it comes to viral marketing trends on the internet, you should be looking for it.
You’ve seen the articles floating around:
17 Reasons Why the Beatles Were the Best Band in the History of the Universe
(subtitle: RIP John and George)
This Girl was Walking Back to Her Dorm, and You Won’t Believe What Happened
(subtitle: Don’t let this happen to you!)
One Reason Why We Hate All Should Spinach
(subtitle: It’s not what you think!)
11 Hidden Gems You Never Noticed in Friday Night Lights
(subtitle: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t lose!)
These are examples of viral marketing articles. I found all of the screenshots posted below within an hour of each other on Buzzfeed and on my Facebook news feed. If you’re new to the internet (welcome!), these are also known as “click-bait.” These titles are crafted with the sole purpose of getting you to click on the link, which will get the linked website traffic and advertising revenue.
The attached articles can be of varying degrees of quality. It’s really hit or miss. Some can make you laugh, while others are just pictures pasted together with poorly-written captions. Ultimately, the content of the articles isn’t really that important. The link could lead to a page with an error message, but it wouldn’t matter much if there was an ad slapped underneath it.
Sometimes, they’ll even hide it in a “slideshow” of pictures with captions. That way, you have to click through a whole slideshow before you get to the information that interests you. Clever, right? Now, instead of one click from you, that site just got 25.
Here are a few tricks commonly used by writers of viral content:
We discussed this above, but hyperbole is used by viral writers all the time. (See what I did there?) It’s a great way to get a reader excited about something. It’s also used to attract skeptical readers. Look at the examples below.
One type of reader will be excited by words like “brilliant” and phrases like “change everything” and “one of the most brilliant auditions ever”. Another type will think, “Oh, yeah? I bet these Harry Potter thoughts from Tumblr won’t actually change anything.” Both readers are likely to click.
2. Understatement and Litotes
Understatement, including litotes, is becoming more and more common as readers shy away from hyperbolic titles. These titles aim to attract readers by making them indignant.
One example I’ve seen recently concerns the vaccination debate. An article is floating around titled “Why My Child Isn’t Vaccinated” with the subtitle, “It’s not what you think!” In the article, the opening paragraph explains that this person’s child isn’t vaccinated because he is too young, but that once he gets old enough, he will definitely be vaccinated. This article attracts two clickers: “Vaxers” who are indignant that a child is not vaccinated and “Anti-Vaxers” who want their opinions reassured. This article could also be an example of click-bait (see number 5 below).
Look at these examples:
The Texas article is also an example of click bait, but I put it under this category because it’s so understated. The whole article lists amazing things about Texas, but uses them as reasons not to move there. In this case, sarcasm is used as understatement. This article, like the vaccination article, attracts two readers: people who love Texas and are mad that it’s being insulted and people who don’t like Texas and want affirmation. Same thing with the Korean article. Americans want to know why they don’t like our snacks. Why would they hate pudding snack packs? Click to find out.
Words like “probably” and “not impressed” are clues that the author is going for understatement or litotes. The phrase “not okay” is common litotes in titles, like, “Justin Bieber is Spitting on His Fans, and That’s Not Okay.” Understatement is funny (of course it’s not okay that Justin Bieber is spitting on his fans), and that makes readers click.
3. Extravagant Language
Boring titles don’t get clicks. Look at this example:
What if this title was simply, “29 Things Children Have Said to Their Parents”? Not very interesting. The author added the word “creepy” and the phrase “make your skin crawl” to make the link more appealing. The title also features an odd number (see number 4). Just by looking at the picture, I can tell that the article doesn’t have much to it. The author simply read an AskReddit thread and took screenshots instead of producing any real content. Doesn’t matter. Got clicks.
I use this tactic, too, so I’m not innocent of this. You just need to be aware that content writers use numbered lists to attract you. Look at these two examples:
The first one uses hyperbole, but both use numbers. Would you be as likely to read articles titled, “Faces Every Person Who Works with the Public Will Recognize,” or, “No-Bake Desserts that Want to Be Your Valentine”? Probably not. The numbers make the article more exciting.
“Wow, they came up with 31 reasons why ice cream is my spirit animal? I can only think of 12!”
The Allusionist podcast also mentioned that most writers prefer odd numbers over even numbers because they get more clicks. Why? No idea. People just visually prefer odd numbers (like 27 or 23, above).
This tactic counts on your curiosity. You won’t believe what happens next!
This one is hilarious. The link leads to an ad-ridden webpage with a slideshow that takes you through one slide after another, zooming in closer and closer on the mattress.
“Can you see it?”
“You don’t see it yet?”
Finally, it shows you where they photoshopped a man’s face under the bedframe, insinuating that the woman (who looks more like a college student in a dorm room) was cheating on her husband before he got home. “What the… REALLY?”
“Something Awesome Happened.” Click to find out!
Look at this one. This little tidbit of information will apparently “rock your world.” The author wouldn’t put the “one thing you never noticed” in the title or subtitle. That wouldn’t get as many clicks. They’re going to hide it to make you curious.
Be an aware reader. Know the tricks. It’s okay to click if you want to (personally, I have trouble resisting links with “Harry Potter” or “puppies” in the title), but make your click a conscious one. Don’t be a click zombie.