It’s not exactly new for people to moan about brands and the way they talk to us, but there seems to be a gathering storm right now when it comes to packaging copy in particular. In the last few days, I’ve come across a few notable instances.
Firstly, there’s Wackaging, a new tumblr dedicated to examples of 'wacky' packaging copy. It’s run by Guardian journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Ella’s Kitchen (the children's food brand) comes in for a particular battering.
The tumblr has inspired this cheerfully-titled coverage in The Times...
...as well as getting a mention in this article by Eva Wiseman in the Observer, about the weird form of baby-talk that has become the default position on our supermarket shelves. Here’s an extract:
At some point brands stopped wanting to make us sexier and richer, and instead just wanted to be our friends. It's as though they all decided to babyproof their packaging, sanding down the corners and hard consonants, replacing "complicated" photography with crayon illustrations, including little jokes to break up the monotony of reading their calorific intake info. "A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the fryers at Burts," said a crisp packet to me recently, possibly in a regional accent. "Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle!" Our fwend's shoes. Carry on. "But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is palm-oil cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to orangutans." The awful thing about this one is that it makes me want to harm orangutans.
Finally, there’s this article by Lucy Sweet in Sabotage Times. Charmingly titled “F—k you, talking smoothies” it lays into Innocent, Boden, Pret A Manger and Dorset Cereals with a ferocity apparently born of years of pent-up frustration.
As I say, none of this is new. I remember Simon Hoggart writing years ago about the ‘infantilisation’ of modern culture, using the example of coffee cups that cheerfully tell you ‘I’m hot’. The arguments about Innocent are also well-rehearsed – they continue to take a lot of the flak that should really be aimed at their imitators.
But all of the above sightings come clustered in the space of a few days. You have to wonder if there is a tipping point coming.
Historians may one day explore the link between this mailing and the recent riots. (Spotted via this blog post by Oliver Wingate.)
I think there are three possible interpretations for what's happening. Defenders of brand writing might suggest it’s just Guardian writers being typically knowing and cynical, and that most people out there love this stuff.
Possibly, but that sounds like wishful thinking.
You could also argue that these are aberrations – over-enthusiastic copywriters going too far. There's nothing wrong with the basic principle that brands should aim to be friendly, human and informal with language – it’s just a tricky thing to get right. All the more reason to pay good writers to help out.
An appealing argument, and possibly valid.
The third possibility is that the basic philosophy we espouse as copywriters is problematic in some way. The kind of chummy, childish copy that infuriates people isn't an aberration, but the inevitable outcome of the principles we advocate to our clients every day. Ditch the formality, talk like human beings, write as though you're talking to your mum or best friend. You're not a business talking to a mass audience, you're a person chatting to another person.
All of which sounds fine, but is it really? Isn't it overlooking the fact that business and brand communication is a very particular kind of discourse? Yes, there’s a writer at one end and an individual customer at the other, but both are working in a special context. The writer is representing a brand and business – both abstract concepts that are hard to pin down – and the individual customer is just one part of a mass audience that varies so greatly that no single member can be taken as representative of the whole. Writing in that context is a subtle and shifting discipline.
I suspect there is also a thesis to be written about the wider loss of respect for 'business' and a rise in the status of the individual in recent decades. What matters, these days, is 'you'. Personal expression takes precedence over everything else. Business doesn't sit well with that – it requires you to subsume your personality into a greater whole. The only way for business to respond is to pretend it's not about business at all – hey, we're a bunch of people, just like you.
But there is a more old-fashioned, romantic notion of business – one that finds a certain nobility in impersonality and collective enterprise. Yes, a business involves a collection of people, but it also has a separate existence beyond that – it's a representation of an idea. Its interactions take place at a more formal, abstract level than everyday human interactions, and that is how it should be.
It certainly seems that the more we tell businesses to talk like people, the more people are objecting. And it may be no coincidence that these dissenting voices are getting louder at a time when tone of voice guidelines have never been more prevalent.
The first step to changing things might be to acknowledge the obvious – that businesses aren't people. They occupy a different place in the world. For a brand to position itself as our best friend is a straightforward category error. That doesn’t mean a return to staid formality in business language, but it could involve a more rounded recognition of a business’s place in society – in particular the fact that not everyone encountering your brand is a cheerful co-enthusiast. So don't write like you're talking to your mum – write like you're a representative of a brand talking to your customers. And if you can't do that in a charming and interesting way, pay someone who can.
This was meant to be a really brief post to tell you about Wackaging.