Monday, January 16, 2012

Having Words with Autism

John J. Ordover

In this country we like to fight things, whether it's the Fight Against Poverty or the Fight Against Drugs or even the Fight Against Gentrification, we sure do like to fight. We fight cancer, we fight child abuse, we give out soup to fight hunger, we fight, and fight, and, as on The Simpsons, we fight fight fight fight fight!

So, is it wrong to say we are fighting autism when we stand up for those on the spectrum? My wife, who has an Asperger's diagnosis, says it is. Others agree; others disagree, as a Google search for the term “fight autism” brings back over half-a-million listings. Here's the word on why this phrasing issue is important to me and to others trying to raise money to help people on the spectrum:

At 6pm on February 16th, 2012, at 6pm, at The SoHo Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan St. New York, NY 10012,, the mothers at my son's school for autistic children will be presenting HOT SOUP/COLD NIGHT -- a fund-raising event featuring bread, beer and home-made soup straight from their kitchens. Just the thing for someone trudging past the gallery door along a snowy New York City street. You also need to know that we're Jewish and my son's school is in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. You'll see why in a second.

To maximize the return on our investment of time and money, we of course want as many people as possible to hear about our event, show up and buy soup. That means sending out a press release. Over my years in publishing and marketing I have written hundreds of press releases so I didn't expect to run into any difficulty on this one, but I did, because I know in my marketer's heart that the catchiest phrase to put under the title of the event is:


That is, in my opinion -- which I respect highly -- the phrase that pays; it's punchy, it scans nicely, is neatly balanced and fits easily into the space available for a headline. It falls into the “fight cancer/fight drug abuse” phrasing that the media expects. When I proudly told my wife what I had come up with, she told me (as, full disclosure, did the editors here at TPGA with whom I consulted) that “FIGHT” was not an appropriate term to use. I was also told the terms “BATTLE” “CONFRONT” and “FACE” were inappropriate, as was any term that implied autism was something to be fought against. That we fight for people with autism, not against autism itself, and that my usage was offensive. The problem is


is clunky, too long, and does not conform to the expected phrasing. The same problem came up with all the many -- very many -- “fight for” rather than "fight against" variations I tried. If I used any of them in the press release, the story would be less likely to be picked up, we would get fewer people at the event, bring in less money for my son's school and those places that did cover it would likely come up with the same offending phrase themselves.

Stumped on how to serve both masters -- the need to market, and the need not to offend the autism community, I reached out to my friends who are professional marketers; they, too, were unable to come up with a punchy phrase for the release using a “fight for” mindset (although one suggested changing the title of the event to SOUP FOR YOU! which might yet happen).

I'm sure I'm not the only one facing this particular quandary. All over the country - and for that matter the world -- there are people sitting down to write a press release for their autism fundraiser; I am not the only one who needs to get word out to make their fundraiser a success, and not the only one banging my head against a keyboard trying to decide whether to go with phrasing something so as not to offend the autism community or go with something more likely to be covered by the media.

So what do I do? I can think of three alternatives:
  1. Going with my original, more media-friendly, less autism-friendly phrasing, and readying myself for the community blow-back.
  2. Putting subtle notice of the event into this article, by mentioning that At 6 PM on February 16th, 2012, at The SoHo Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan St. New York, NY 10012,, the mothers at my son's school for autistic children will be presenting HOT SOUP/COLD NIGHT -- a fund-raising event featuring bread, beer and home-made soup  straight from their kitchens and hoping it slips by the editors [it didn't – the Editors].
  3. Passing the buck to the highly intelligent, wildly creative, extremely generous, and deeply courageous readers of this blog. Do you have any suggestions for punchy-but-inoffensive phrases I could use? I have a Friday, Feb 3rd deadline to get this to Time Out magazine and other local media. 
So -- any ideas? Best one gets a free bowl of soup.


Update: John asked us to paste his comment below here too. -SR

Since I'm on a deadline I'd like to see if I can refocus the discussion here. The question isn't whether it would be right or wrong to use the "fight autism" phrase. The problem is that it is wrong but would be effective, which is the dilemma since effectiveness is vital. The question is very specifically "What effective phrase can I use instead?"

Headlines are by their nature hyperbolic -- for example the headline could be "15 Year Old Actress Has Two Children!" and the article would be about how she supports two orphans in Haiti and is building them a new house. Keeping that in mind, any suggestions?