“Tactical” Marketing

Words have meanings. As a marketing writer, I’m constantly under pressure to ignore that apparently obvious dictum. Some clients are convinced that hyperbole is the only way to get through to an audience supersaturated with marketing messages.

Wear this "tactical" watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

Wear this “tactical” watch to become competent and dangerous to others.

They may be right, but still I rebel. Still I believe that honest communication is the best way to address the audience. Maybe the audience really IS stupid enough to believe that your insignificantly evolutionary product detail is “a whole new ballgame – a revelation in (your product category here) design and function” if you tell them it is. But maybe you’d earn the audience’s respect if you treat them as if they had a whit of intelligence – if you leveled with them for a change.

In any case, I won’t bullshit the audience, even if it would and does sell more widgets. If you believe the bullshit about how capitalism maintains self-policing structures to ensure that capitalists don’t abuse consumers, then ethics surely play a part. I don’t believe that premise, and I don’t view morality as a pragmatic issue, but if that’s what it takes for you to act morally in business, go for it. I won’t do it because it’s wrong. Full stop.

All this is prelude to a pretty trivial issue: the use (misuse) of “tactical” in marketing and merchandising. Google “tactical” + (any product you can think of), and you’ll likely get some valid hits. There are tactical knives and holsters (no surprise), but there are also tactical backpacks, fanny packs, computer bags, tents, wrist watches, flashlights, pens, notebooks, bacon (!), shoes, shirts and underwear.


Gregory Peck’s drawers from The Guns of Navarone. Manly, yes. But I like it too!

Tactical fucking underwear.

Used thus, the word has literally no meaning. While a certain pair of skivvies might indeed wick sweat from your crotch more effectively than others, and might on that account be a good choice for conducting some dangerous undercover “op,” there is nothing “tactical” about it – or indeed, about any physical object that is not designed to accomplish a specific military tactic. An automatic rifle is not tactical: it’s a weapon that is used in the pursuit of a tactic, which might be something like gaining the high ground or protecting a city. Small nuclear weapons can be tactical, in the sense that they can be used as the primary tool to win a battle – as distinct from strategic nuclear weapons, which are designed to achieve strategic ends such as annihilating an entire enemy population.

For want of a nail, a kingdom may have been lost, but that was a butterfly’s wing effect. That nail wasn’t strategic, and it wasn’t tactical: it was just a nail. Same goes for your tighty whities.

If “tactical” has no literal meaning when used for marketing products, what IS it doing there? Its purpose is purely evocative. Even if you don’t know what a tactic is, you almost certainly do know that the word is associated with military stuff. So it’s dangerous. It’s macho. And every real man is supposed to want to be that. So a guy who needs a flashlight or an undershirt gets to think of himself as a bad dude if he buys the tactical version.

If his wife knew what it was called, she’d understand that he’s still playing army “at his age” and she’d laugh at him.

If I, as a marketing communicator, knew you were buying my client’s flashlight for that reason, I’d laugh at you. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to hold the people whom I communicate with in disrespect, nor will I hold them up to the disrespect of my clients who want to sell them stuff. So I’m going to talk to you straight. I’ll explain the benefits of the product and depend on your good sense to decide if those benefits make this product the right one for your needs.

Level with the customer. Treat him with honesty and respect. That’s a tactical approach to marketing communications, and you do it because it’s effective and it’s right.