Words matter. We all know that and yet within the media world we use the same word to mean different things. Further, and worryingly we don’t let on that this is the case, thus causing confusion and misunderstandings.

Take the simplest thing. We speak of digital media. This means next-to-nothing. Pretty well all media forms are digital, in that they are distributed digitally. It’s akin to describing media forms as being ‘paper’ in the sense that back in the day many were distributed and displayed using paper.

The great Tess Alps has argued against the use of the word ‘digital’ for years and still we do it, when in fact what we mean is ‘online’ (and even that’s a bit of an all-purpose non-descriptor when you think about it).

But digital, online, whatever, this is a misuse of language which may be inaccurate and irritating but by and large is harmless.

Other ‘misuses’ are more damaging and, worse are sometimes used deliberately to mislead.

Back in the day we used to talk a lot about TVRs, TV ratings, until we went all American and imported the descriptor GRPs. Everyone knew what GRPs were, and if you didn’t you could ask 100 people and get the same description.

Whether we thought GRPs were a relevant or irrelevant measure of anything, we all knew what the expression meant.

Now try the same 100-person test with the word ‘viewer’. What is a viewer? How long do they have to view to qualify? It all depends on who you ask.

How can this be? Surely someone who views something for a pre-determined amount of time is a viewer? How can multiple descriptions of the same concept use the same word without causing confusion?

How to compare those who ‘view’ TV with those who ‘view’ a Facebook video, when the two use different definitions of what constitutes a viewer?

The issue of course is the ‘pre-determined’ bit. The common-sense solution would be for an august body to rule on this.

But what if not all parties agree to the recommendation of the august body? What if one party works out that the independent body’s recommendations mean that it loses a rather sizeable proportion of what it refers to as ‘viewers’.

Years ago, we used ‘average issue readership’ as a measure of print exposure. The august body in question, JICNARS (a joint industry body but funded in large part by the publishers) decreed this to be the currency.

Yet nobody advertises in an average issue. And certainly, nobody advertises on an average page within an average issue. Why not measure readership by day of the week? Readership of a specific section? Sport, say, or reviews?

Because the numbers would reduce. Never mind that they might tell planners and advertisers something useful, because the numbers would be smaller, we would immediately reduce spend levels.

It was clearly beyond us to explain to our clients that nothing had changed – all that was happening was that we were measuring more accurately.

When the UK TV measurement system changed from diaries to people meters the sales side of the industry, which had argued in meeting after meeting, for years, against progress came close to having a collective heart attack. The numbers would change – ad revenues would collapse.

Somehow, we managed to explain, and the feared ad revenue collapse didn’t happen.

If the sales directors of the time had been responsible for digging ditches, we would never have progressed from teaspoons to shovels to mechanical diggers.

This absurd notion that nobody in advertising can manage to look beyond the largest number is what’s behind the multiple currency debate going on in the US. (More on that here for background).

Multiple currencies would be a backward step – even in a geography alone amongst major ad markets that has always avoided quoting audiences to ads, or ad breaks, relying instead on programme averages.

Why do the Americans put up with this inaccuracy, this irrelevance? Because the numbers produced are bigger. God forbid we may prefer accuracy and relevance over size.

If size is all that matters, we may as well pack up now and leave the business to the algorithms, and the optimisers.

The result of multiple currencies will be more people spending more time arguing over the minutiae of currency A over currency B and less time discussing how this or that channel can best be used to the advertiser’s benefit.

More work for the technocrats; more confusion; less benefit to the advertisers.

And ultimately less effective advertising.

This blog first appeared in BJ&A’s Cog Blog