Conservation Corner: What’s in a word – the Kryptonite Factor


Conservation corner - summer 2008

Before getting involved in water conservation, I was the assistant creative director of an advertising agency. I am going to tell you a story about one of the first campaigns I worked on and how I came to discover the ‘Kryptonite Factor.’ (Bear with me – the story will eventually get around to water conservation.)

Our agency was assigned to write a radio campaign for a major pizza franchise. We came up with ‘The Super Duper Deal’ – a parody of the old Superman TV series. The script included the following line: “Get a large pizza with your six favourite toppings – except Kryptonite – for just $9.99.”

After two days on the air, the results were less than spectacular. People were not exactly leaping over tall buildings in a single bound to order the ‘Super Duper Deal.’

To find out what was wrong, we conducted some quick focus groups. It turned out that many people heard the line quoted earlier this way: “Get a large pizza with your six favourite toppings – except tonight – for just $9.99.” So, they all thought it was a pretty good deal, but they would not order it because they did not think the special was available that night.

That is when I coined the term, the ‘Kryptonite Factor,’ which I used to teach young copywriters the importance of choosing the right words for their audience. The ‘Super Duper Deal’ proves that just one misunderstood word can lead to a super duper lack of communication.

Take the word ‘Xeriscape.’ If there was ever a word clouded by the ‘Kryptonite Factor,’ this one is it. The word combines xeros (Greek for ‘dry’) with ‘landscape’. Clever idea, but the problem is that it sounds like Zeroscape, which conjures up images of desolate, boring, rocky landscapes.

People in the water conservation business know what Xeriscape means, but have you ever wondered what the average person visualizes when they hear the word?

A  consulting firm in Ontario conducted focus groups where they asked people to draw two pictures, one depicting their ideal landscape and the other depicting a Xeriscape landscape. The ideal drawings included green grass, colourful flowers, trees, decks, gazebos and walkways. The Xeriscape drawings showed rocks and droopy, brown plants. One even included a cartoon of a dead dog, indicating just how negative that resident’s attitude was toward the word.

The ironic part is that most of the ‘ideal’ landscape drawings included many of the principles of Xeriscaping: reduced turf, colourful plants, low maintenance and extensive non-turfed areas. So, the problem lies in the word, not in the concept.

The consulting firm suggested – and I agree – that it is time to put the word Xeriscape out to drought-tolerant pasture and come up with a new term. The term ‘low-flow’ toilet always struck me as somewhat negative. The word ‘low’ suggests that it is something less than a ‘real’ toilet. Ultra low-flow is even worse. So, it is great to hear the latest toilet technology described as ‘high efficiency,’ as opposed to, say, the super duper ultra low-flow toilet.

Even the term ‘water conservation’ has gone though its own semantic evolution, from water efficiency to the new buzzword, water sustainability. Time will tell if the term ‘water sustainability’ catches on with the public or if it remains something we throw around within the industry and in reports to government.

The point is that, when communicating with the public, we have to choose our words carefully. Use the ‘Kryptonite Factor’ to identify words and phrases that might be misunderstood. Terms we use within the industry may not resonate with the average person or, as in the case of Xeriscape, may turn them off entirely from what we hope to accomplish.

There are almost a million words in the English language, and every one of them can be used to your advantage – except Kryptonite.


By Neal Klassen, BCWWA “Watermark” contributor


Posted July  2008


Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Watermark Magazine, the official publication of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association (BCWWA).