7 Marketing Clichés that Make You Sound Like a Hack

By Elisa Gabbert June 04, 2014 Posted In: Copywriting Comments: 12

Do you know the etymology of the word “cliché”? It’s a printer’s term – back when printers had to physically arrange letters together to form words and paragraphs and pages, they would sometimes arrange common strings of letters or words together on a single plate to facilitate printing those sequences more efficiently. This was also known as a “stereotype block.”

etymology of cliche

You can see how both “cliché” and “stereotype” evolved into metaphors. In the same way that using clichés made things easier for printers, clichés make things easier for writers. Reaching for a common, familiar phrase is a shortcut to communicating something close to what you mean. It’s harder and it takes longer to express yourself in fresh language that is also clear.

We’re all lazy and we’re all guilty of using clichés in our writing. It’s easy to get away with because people spend even less time reading our content than we do writing it. They skip and skim – you could even argue that using clichés makes it easier for readers to scan your content. The familiar is easier to process – clichés are already “cached” in the brain’s servers.

So what’s the problem? The problem is: Overuse drains phrases of meaning. Those who do take the time to read your articles sentence by sentence will find them hackneyed and trite. Write for your best readers – the smart and attentive ones – not your worst readers.


As a poet, I’ve avoided all forms of cliché for years. Oh, the shame you felt when a professor in a workshop called out a line in your poem as a cliché: “Starlings are always wheeling!” “Ice cubes are always clinking!” A good friend recently judged a poetry contest and sent me a hilarious list of words and topics that have crossed into poetry cliché territory in 2014:

cliches to avoid

As marketers, I think we should strive to be almost as cliché-avoidant as good poets. Here’s a starter list of marketing clichés to ban from your content.

Content Is King

Probably the absolute #1 most overused phrase in search marketing (with the possible exception of “SEO is dead”). It’s supposed to mean “content is the most important thing,” but it’s turned into one of those thought-terminating clichés that make people’s eyes glaze over and brains shut down. And it’s arguably not even true – in fact, “content is king” was named multiple times in this round-up of bad SEO advice.

list of marketing cliches

You know it’s a cliché when there are stock images about it

Think Outside the Box

Ah, the meta cliché – people use “think outside the box” to mean “don’t be a walking cliché.” And yet … you just said “Think outside the box”!! The chefs are always saying this on Chopped, which drives me nuts, but hey, their knife skills are better than ours. Us content people should know better.

Keep Calm and Carry On

In “Keep Calm and Carry On” we have a visual cliché – you don’t even need to use these five words to be taking part in it. Some genius even managed to combine two clichés from this list into one meme:

content is king cliche

As they say, “Le sigh”

This shit peaked in 2012, guys. It’s over.

overused marketing jargon

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About X But Were Afraid to Ask

Someone on went on a rant about “Ultimate Guides” a while back. (I couldn’t even find it on the site because there are so many submitted articles with “ultimate guide” in the title!) I too hate formulaic headlines, but the “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About X But Were Afraid to Ask”* formula is the one that most annoys me. See also “What You Can Learn About X from Y” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About X.”

*Some of you all are probably too young to know the reference. It comes from a 1969 sex manual, which Woody Allen adapted into an extremely bizarre film in 1972. So every time you use this headline formula you’re unwittingly making your readers picture Woody Allen in this costume:

headline cliches

Always Be Testing

Traditionally accompanied with an image of Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. (Don't feel too bad, we've done it too.)

Take X to the Next Level

I'm all about leveling up when I'm playing Super Mario, not that I've done so in the past ~25 years.

But can we all just agree to stop saying "take your blah-blah to the next level"? When I read this phrase, I always hear it in one of those obnoxious male voiceover voices. SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM!

Google Quietly Launches …

This one is more of a tech journalism cliché. I see it all the time:

marketing cliches to avoid

The implication is that GOOG is doing something sneaky, that the quietly launched feature in question is part of Google’s big conspiracy to steal all your money and take over the universe. The thing is, Google literally launches multiple features per week across all its products. So obviously most of those launches are quiet. (That doesn’t mean it’s not a conspiracy though.)

What marketing clichés make your skin crawl? (Oh you know I had to end this post with a cliché…)

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment.


Wednesday June 04, 2014

Barry Adams (not verified) Said:

'Inbound Marketing'. I sincerely hope we'll be able to leave that vacuous hypephrase behind soon. It looks like 'peak inbound' has been reached and the slow decline has just begun:

We can hope. Fortunately the populace still seems to know who the king of digital is:

Wednesday June 04, 2014

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Heh :)

Wednesday June 04, 2014

Megan Williams (not verified) Said:


What's next: is content marketing the new poetry? (I am guilty of this one, too, but it's EVERYWHERE.) 

Wednesday June 04, 2014

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Oh, for sure! "Content marketing is the new link building." I'm just wondering what the new content marketing will be.

Wednesday June 04, 2014

DeVaughn (not verified) Said:

The term "social media marketing" should be put to bed in my eyes. 

Its all marketing why is "social media" and different? 

Thursday June 05, 2014

Ryan Biddulph (not verified) Said:

I hear ya Elisa...I'd add that keeping calm and carrying on is a secret to my I may share it here and there to bring some formerly panicky people with me lol. Thanks!

Thursday June 05, 2014

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Keeping calm will never go out of style, just the poster :)

Thursday June 05, 2014

Sunday (not verified) Said:

Hmm! Quite a thought provoking article. Literary, there are many cliches out there and we should readily know when these are effective.

It is important to understand how to effectively use these words and get rid of those that are overused and render our content creation ineffective!

Thursday June 05, 2014

Megan Marrs Said:

Haha, oh man, I love this list Elisa! The list of poetry cliches is pretty funny - brings me back to when I used to be on the editing staff of our high school's literary magazine. Lots of remembering, "sorrows", and "scars".

Also, that Woody Allen screencap from the bizarre movie (which I've never seen) instantly reminded me of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A coincidence? I think not! (so cliche)

Thursday June 05, 2014

Elisa Gabbert Said:

Meg, we have much to talk about!!

Tuesday September 02, 2014

Jay (not verified) Said:

I was hoping you would mention when people call themselves ninjas, gurus, or rockstars. Such garbage... 

Tuesday September 02, 2014

Elisa Gabbert Said:

How could I forget that one?!

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