TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Protect your lists against gunk!

There is nothing wrong with using lists (with or without bullets),
unless of course anything about the list is wrong, as is too often
the case on presentation slides… and in commercial advertising.
The following bullet list, seen at a Shell gas station in California,
exhibits everything that can go wrong with a short list. (At least,
the list has no more than five items; that may be its only quality.)

Shell list

First of all, the above is a false list: its four items do not belong
together, really, if only because the last item is about one grade
(V-Power) while the first three are about all three grades of gas.
To challenge or to fix a list, identify the very nature of its items.
Are these four qualities? Four benefits? Four customer actions?
If the only nature you can come up with is “these are four things
I want to say,” what you have is not a list: it is just a brain dump.

Second, the items are not grammatically parallel: the first item
is a clause (subject + predicate); the second is a noun phrase;
the third is an adjective phrase; the last is an imperative clause.
To show that all items have the same nature, express them all
in the same grammatical form, such as all clauses or all phrases.
Doing so makes them easier to compare and to remember, too.

Finally, the whole thing is wordy and the emphasis, meaningless.
At first glance, readers notice (in the list) the words “PROTECT,”
“ONLY at Shell,” and “maximum protection” which of course fail
to convey anything meaningful. The last item could usefully place
the objective before the corresponding action, too (not after it).

I am not sure the above information should be conveyed as a list,
but if I were forced to use one, I would go for something like this.

Protect your engine against performance-robbing gunk
with Shell's unique nitrogen-enriched gasolines (all grades).

For maximum protection and optimum performance,
use Shell V-Power premium gasoline.

Shell list

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Mon 17 Oct 2011   Ivan Stefanov provided the following point of view:
“I agree with you about the inconsistent grammar structure of the list.
Nevertheless, I would not immediately label it as ‘just a brain dump.’
In my opinion, the structure of this advertisement portrays an aggressive
sales strategy and most people (in California) would interpret it as follows:
1) I need protection
2) Protection is available at Shell
3) Thank God, I'm eligible to get protection
4) If I want real protection, I better pay extra
The word protect (against known or unknown dangers) and the word Shell
would be the only two words which would be imprinted in a person's brain
if he/she was driving a car and glanced at this banner. That's all that really
matters to the Shell salesperson. Today's reality is that your ‘list’ would
probably not sell nearly as much gasoline as this banner.”

I can certainly understand Ivan's marketing reasoning. I would just argue
that it is a sequence (a serial structure, in a sense, not a parallel one),
so it does not belong in a list in the first place. People always seem
to think that using bullets organizes their thoughts, but not always.