During a break in the late morning activities, the replica bust of Augustus Caesar in a corner of the living room caught my eye. Due to my mellow mood, I contemplated the artifact. Augustus is considered one of the greatest leaders of Ancient Rome. He led the empire during a long stretch of relative peace. The small bust is a good reality check. It is a reminder that people are capable of noteworthy accomplishments. It is also a personal nudge to be careful with my use of superlatives to describe myself and my actions.
Most of us have learned to be wary of people who exaggerate and use a lot of superlatives. The braggart may impress us at first, but we soon become weary of the egotism. We may even wonder if the braggart has narcissistic tendencies. The more superlatives he uses the less believable he seems. We are prone to take what the braggart says with a large grain of salt. This is especially true when he describes himself and his alleged accomplishments with bloated adjectives and descriptions.
Back in the day, my literature professor cautioned us students about the use of superlatives during lectures about hackneyed writing. He reminded us that significant writers know that all the superlative words are worn out and shoddy due to overuse. Aside from historical fiction writing, memorable literature is centered around plain heroines and average heroes. The piece’s leading characters work best when they are relate-able to the reading audience. The characters being placed in ordinary settings further draw the reader into the story.
In as much as biographies of leaders such as Augustus Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte are fascinating, the stories about the average Roman citizen or soldier or the lives of French citizens of that time period hold our interest longer. At least this is true for me. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had been born in the time and place of the Roman Empire during Augustus’ rule.
Later in life, when I apprenticed in the field of advertising, many of the same cautions about superlatives were mentioned. It is too common to find lavish, overuse of words like, “greatest”, “best”, “outstanding”, “finest”, and even “superlative” in print and broadcast ads. The target audience becomes immune to such descriptions quickly. The superlatives become valueless filler words that the audience ignores. We can only be screamed at for so long until we disregard the noise of the ranter.
This means that many of the guidelines for effective literature can be adapted to the composition of advertising copy, too. Have you ever noticed the placement of products in average, everyday situations in use by normal, everyday folks? This is common in ads. When we see people like ourselves we automatically relate to them. If average Joe uses brand A stain remover, it must be an effective product.
It’s amusing to use overblown descriptions, especially for us Americans. We love such phrases as “largest in the world”, “best in its class”, “world champion”, “exceptional value”, etcetera. While the claims may provide us with heightened expectations, we are usually let down because the bloated descriptions rarely match the actual product. The use of such superlatives is detrimental. Such usage suggests disregard for the truth. Braggadocio leads the audience to dismiss all the statements that are made. It is the same when braggarts are judged to be ridiculous and dishonest.
We will be exposed to more than our share of superlatives in the following weeks. It behooves us to see beyond the boasts.