What does the word ‘content’ even mean?

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The video above’s one I shot back in Cannes with Martin Weigel, head of planning at W+K Amsterdam. He’s talking about his beef with the word “content” (mainly definitional). I was reminded of it when, via Twitter, I stumbled across his blogpost on which marketing buzzwords he particularly dislikes, “content” among them.

Content. Also known as ‘branded content’. You mean spots? Oh, sorry, long spots. No? Oh, music videos? No? Sorry, you meant online films, right? Sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking about sponsored documentaries. Actually, what are you talking about?

I’d go further. For me, the word “content” – that’s content in the advertising & media context, meaning, basically, “stuff” – isn’t just an inelegant catch-all term for various marketing media. It’s actually quite insidious. For four reasons.

  1. “Content” implies that the vast variety of creative work humans are capable of – visual, aural, literary, whatever – is an undifferentiated output to be consumed by an undifferentiated audience. (Obviously, in a marketing context, it also implies a mercantile relationship with this audience of “consumers”.)
  2. “Consuming content” is not a good or worthy description for the way we actually read, look at, enjoy things and maybe talk about them with people we know. Seeing creative work as “content” betrays a lack of interest in the work itself.
  3. And, I’d argue, it doesn’t imply much respect for the people/consumers, who enjoy/consume it. Or, more likely, barely register it as they scroll, swipe and click away.
  4. Also, needless to say, it removes the “content creator” – the source from which all content flows – from the process entirely.

But the trouble with the word content is that it’s so useful. Not only does it describe all the stuff in a single, handy, two-syllable word, it sounds smarter than “stuff”. And sounding smart’s obviously really important when you’re at work.

So even if, like me, you’ve taken a semi-formal mental vow never to use the word, you find it constantly creeping to the tip of the tongue, forcing itself into emails, even into idle thoughts. It’s insidious, see. (And people have been making exactly the same complaint about the word since at least 2007 – it’s not going away.)

There isn’t an obvious solution. We’re really busy. We need a lexical catch-all. So maybe, for now, content will have to do.

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