Adjective Power



Compelling, emotion-rich adjectives can give bland copy a major boost in effectiveness. (Just like the start of that sentence!) I was reminded of this while viewing a Panera menu. Which do you think sounds more appealing:

Ham, egg, & cheese on wheat bread sandwich.


Our Breakfast Power Sandwich starts with lean, hardwood-smoked ham and a freshly cracked egg. Then we add Vermont white cheddar for its tangy sharpness. Finally, we grill everything on our freshly baked whole grain bread to bring out the grains’ nutty, smooth flavors.

Take a look at the adjectives that turn an average sandwich into a mouth-watering, tantalizing sales magnet:

Our Breakfast Power Sandwich starts with lean, hardwood-smoked ham and a freshly cracked egg. Then we add Vermont white cheddar [cheese] for its tangy sharpness. Finally, we grill everything on our freshly baked whole grain bread to bring out the grains’ nutty, smooth flavors.

If people aren’t lining up to buy this sandwich, it’s not the copy writer’s fault. (Sadly for Panera, though, most patrons only see the mimimalist description on the in-restaurant menu board.)

In Neuro-Menus and Restaurant Psychology, I mention adjectives as a key element of menu psychology. But do adjectives really work?

Adjectives Boost Sales

Properly used adjectives actually DO increase revenue:

Other research by Dr. [Brian] Wansink found that descriptive menu labels increased sales by as much as 27 percent. He has divided descriptions into four categories: geographic labels like “Southwestern Tex-Mex salad,” nostalgia labels like “ye old potato bread,” sensory labels like “buttery plump pasta” and brand names. Finding that brand names help sales, chains are increasingly using what is known as co-branding on their menus, like the Jack Daniel’s sauce at T.G.I. Friday’s and the Minute Maid orange juice on the Huddle House menu, Dr. Wansink said.

Dr. Wansink said that vivid adjectives can not only sway a customer’s choice but can also leave them more satisfied at the end of the meal than if they had eaten the same item without the descriptive labeling. [From NY Times – Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners by Sarah Kershaw.]

Beyond Food Adjectives

While we can likely all agree that “applewood-smoked bacon” is more enticing than than plain old “bacon,” most of us don’t run restaurants. Still, we can learn from what those food establishments have found to be effective. When it makes sense, enhance the impact of your descriptive copy with carefully chosen adjectives. I’ll offer my own variation on Wansink’s categories of modifiers:

  • Vivid – “Freshly-cracked” is much more compelling than “fresh.”
  • Sensory – Terms like “hickory-smoked,” “brick oven fired,” “oven-crisped,” etc. engage the reader’s senses.
  • Emotional/Nostalgic – “Aged Vermont cheddar” evokes images of crusty New England dairymen rather than Kraft mega-plants.
  • Specific – “Wild Alaskan” attached to a salmon description immediately enhances it with visions of vigorous, healthy fish swimming in pristine, unpolluted streams, whatever the reality may be.
  • Branded – Attaching desirable brand names to a description can boost sales. I’m sure it hasn’t been cheap for restaurants to offer “Jack Daniels” barbecue items, but their continued menu presence suggests such branding more than pays for itself.

I’d guess these adjectives are processed unconsciously most of the time. Do you really ponder whether the tomato on your burger is “farm-fresh” as the menu claims? What does “farm-fresh” mean, anyway? Do some restaurants use tomatoes that don’t come from farms, or that are so old as to be inedible? (More likely, the tomatoes are so “fresh” that they started green, had to be ethylene-ripened, and still are as hard as croquet balls!) While your conscious mind is thinking about the price, how much money is in your wallet, and whether the item fits your diet, those sensory and emotional terms are being processed in background.

Your own challenge is to find the adjectives that work for your product or service. What emotions do you want to evoke in your customers? A feeling of, say, tradition and craftsmanship? Or cutting-edge technology? Personal service? Find relevant, compelling adjectives, and your copy will be more effective.

Striking a balance

In your quest to liven up your copy, don’t go overboard. As enticing as the Panera sandwich description is, most of us would hate to read more than a paragraph written in that style. As poster Jason Cohen notes on Brian Clark’s Copyblogger, in 10 Secrets to More Magnetic Copy, “Most adjectives and adverbs don’t add information; they just take up space and dull your message.” That’s particularly true if they are boring words that add little in the way of sensory or emotional engagement. But it’s certainly possible to overdo things with vivid modifiers, too. Use them in short product descriptions and similar places, but leave them out of your call to action, your ordering instructions, and anyplace else where easy comprehension is critical.

I trust you’ll find this to be timely, useful, relevant, and actionable advice.

  1. Brian Clark says

    Hey Roger, great article. I just did a webinar on headlines with Jeff Sexton, and we emphatically stressed that in headlines, adjectives are what make all the difference in effectiveness. So, while overusing adjectives in longer body copy might slow you down, adjectives in headlines (and other short descriptive copy like menus and catalogs) are what bring your words to life.

    By the way, I didn’t write that article you link to at Copyblogger. It was a guest.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for catching that, Brian. Jason how has proper, correct, and eternal credit!


  3. Bob Boucher says

    My favorite quotes on the subject seem to dissuade us from adjectival abuse:

    As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.
    – Pudd’nhead Wilson (Mark Twain)

    When you catch an adjective, kill it. A wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.
    – Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880

  4. Aurelius Tjin says

    Very good article. Adjective. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. denise lee yohn says

    roger – this is such a timely post, as i’ve been reading “on writing well” by william zinssner, considered by many as the bible on, er, writing well. zinssner emphasizes writing simply and suggests stripping out adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. clearly these principles have merit for most communication, but when it comes to sales copy, i’m not convinced. the panera menu is an excellent example. thanks! — denise lee yohn

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I think the key is to use adjectives only where they will have a real impact. Describing a food item in sensory terms is good. But I see a lot of adjective padding where all it does is slow down the reader: “Our dedicated, well-trained employees work in state-of-the-art facilities using modern, efficient equipment…” While an occasional descriptor can help, often they are thrown in to cover for the lack of real content.


  6. Nick Wright says


    Excellent, balanced post on adjectives and adverbs in text. The golden rule I follow is make sure every word deserves its place. As an editor I usually cut about 25 percent of words from most text. As one person said once: “I don’t know what good style is, I just cross out every third word and rearrange the rest”.

    Adjectives and adverbs are high on the list of words to question. The worst offenders are those that add nothing to the text through overuse. Examples include ‘very’ ‘totally’, ‘completely’, ‘fully’ and so on. These I always cast my editor’s pen through. No one has ever noticed their absence from the final draft.

    I have few problems with descriptive adjectives or adverbs. They can add life, color and specifics to nouns and verbs. The real problem stems from people using stale and clichéd adjectives and adverbs. If it’s predictable, then it’s likely to suffer from the editor’s pen.

    We designed our copy-editing software, StyleWriter, to help people learn these editing skills. One feature of the program lets you add any word or phrase – including any stale adverbs or adjectives not already highlighted by the program.

    If you want to see how it works, there’s a free trial at our website below.

    Nick Wright
    Editor Software

  7. […] According to Roger Dooley from Neuromarketing: […]

  8. […] research has shown that when you use vivid and ultra-specific adjectives, your writing is more likely to boost sales. That’s because your copy will paint ‘word […]

  9. Mel Fenson says

    I read this just before lunch and now I’m starving! A freshly-cracked egg might hit the spot…Really interesting piece, thank you. I was going to say ‘food for thought’ but that would be a cringe-inducing cliche 🙂 I’m reading ‘The tall lady with the iceberg’ about metaphors in copywriting, it’s an area I want to improve in. Thanks,

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