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May 2014

An appreciation of the 45-day tweet

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 13.43.56

A tweet by cheese brand Président has caused a stir on Twitter following a report that it took 45 days to prepare, including the involvement of a copywriter, designer, between 10-20 strategists, at least two social media managers, more senior writers and designers in the approval process, and then presumably various layers of management within the client company. Unsurprisingly, the result hasn’t been taken entirely seriously, but it's worth noting that it is actually quite a strong tweet.

Here’s my word-by-word appreciation.

Sharing
Implants a subliminal message into the first word of the tweet, enticing readers into an RT- and fave-friendly social state of mind.

a
Note the modestly generic ‘a’ not ‘our’ – a brave move that theoretically means this tweet promotes competitor Camembert brands. But the right decision. ‘a’ is less controlling and more confident – and there is a massive picture of PRESIDENT CAMEMBERT below.

Camembert
Important to get this into the first three words of the tweet.

with friends
More social triggering. Interesting exclusion of ‘family’ here – was this a sticking point in discussions?

?
Good to open with a question, immediately creating a sense of involvement and dialogue.

(How generous!)
At this point, the tweet is only seven words, but has impressively set up a dynamic tension between the opening question and the cheerful and socially flattering aside. The use of parentheses is key here – worth the deployment of two extra characters.

Get
Note the graceful move from interrogative (opening sentence) to exclamatory (parentheses) and now into the imperative, gutturally Anglo-Saxon ‘get’. This switch of mood is a sign we are getting to the ‘meat’ of the tweet (or the cheese).

the best flavor
That mildly winded sensation you’re experiencing is the Benefit hitting home. Despite its deceptive opening, this tweet isn’t just here to make conversation – it has a clear product-related message. (Was there a discussion about the Americanised ‘flavor’ as opposed to the the UK-friendly ‘flavour’? Of course there was.)

by serving at room temperature.
The tweet is working hard now, delivering pure information at high speed. The slip into more formal language isn’t accidental, but creates a reassuring sense of quasi-scientific authority.

#artofcheese
This is where the tweet steps up several levels from incidental disruption into pure Idea. The reader is being invited to consider all that has gone before not merely as good advice in its own right, but as one part of a bigger vision to appreciate and champion the ‘art’ of cheese. Think of the possibilities deftly captured in that 12-character device. The perfect cheddar-bread ratio for cheese on toast. The best cheese to pair with a Ritz cracker. How cottage cheese got its name. And is the subtle echo of 1980s synthpop experimentalists ‘Art of Noise’ coincidental? Nothing is coincidental in this tweet – it’s a smart trigger for the mum/dad demographic.

‪pic.twitter.com/R6iWPeKv1z
This appreciation is primarily concerned with the wording of the tweet, rather than the styling of the accompanying picture (which deserves an appreciation of its own), but note the enormity of the brand name – a no-nonsense contrast to the subtlety of the preceding tweet.

One final note: the entire tweet leaves three characters of its 140 to spare. At first sight, this is troubling – that’s three characters of valuable social media real estate unused. Were there discussions about this? Could there have been more exclamation marks after ‘generous’? Could ‘flavor’ have been depicted as ‘flavo(u)r’ to embrace the UK English market? Perhaps it’s nice that we’re being left to wonder what else might have been. This tweet has worked hard, but there is always the possibility of better to come.

Take your time, Président Cheese, we’re prepared to wait. 


UPDATE:
It should be noted that the agency involved has challenged the ‘45-day’ version of events, although the journalist has stood by the reporting. I think the agency might be better off embracing the humour and mounting a forensic defence of the tweet – they are welcome to use any or all of the above.

David Abbott and the fourth wall

David Abbott, one of the great advertising copywriters, has died at the age of 75. The campaign he created for The Economist will mean he’s remembered for as long as copywriting exists – it’s hard to imagine a time where it will stop being a reference point – but it was only one piece of work in a prolific career.

This post isn’t meant as a comprehensive tribute – follow the links at the end for some excellent articles. But it’s interesting to analyse the detail of how a great writer works and, looking through David Abbott’s entry in The Copy Book, I was struck by one trick that he uses repeatedly and feels notably fresh even though the ads in question are decades old.

Chivas_David Abbott

The first example is this Chivas Regal Father’s Day ad (1980). It’s a mass market advert for a big brand, but it’s written from a personal perspective – a direct message from the copywriter to his father which, by being personal, manages to be universal. (David Abbott acknowledges it might strike some people as sentimental, but it makes sense in the context.)

Volvo

Then there’s this one for Volvo (1983), where the copywriter steps out of the accepted fiction that an ad is a ‘brand’ talking to its customers and instead puts himself directly into the frame (literally – he’s the one beneath the car).

Ddb_hires1

Finally, there’s this recruitment ad (1967) for agency account managers (‘men’ in those days), where the copywriter speaks directly to the people with whom he will soon be working.

In all three cases, the same trick is taking place. The writer is playing with the convention that adverts are a ‘brand’ talking to its audience, and explicitly drawing attention to the fact that there is a copywriter – a real person – being paid to write this stuff. In theatre, you would call it breaking the fourth wall – momentarily stepping out of character to address the audience directly, effectively to say ‘Look at me, I’m an actor’. It’s a technique that plays with expectations and has a postmodern edge to it – a sign that David Abbott could have fitted comfortably into the age of Twitter and meta-jokes.

In the writing tips that appear alongside his work in The Copy Book, David Abbott advises copywriters to ‘Put yourself into your work’, where he’s no doubt nodding towards this trick. But I think what he’s doing in these ads is more specific than this general advice implies. He’s not putting himself into the writing in the conventional writing-workshop sense of ‘drawing on your own personal experience’. He’s shifting the conceptual framework entirely to place the writer in the foreground. In a world where the babble of disembodied brands with annoyingly ‘personal’ voices is getting ever louder, there’s something appealing about this honest acknowledgement that a copywriter is involved in the process. It’s not a trick you can play every time but, when you do, it has a nicely humanising effect.

It’s also done with a commercial purpose. Like many of the great copywriting tricks, it’s rooted in the tradition of door-to-door sales, where a common trick is for the salesman to step out of character – ‘Between you and me, it’s my job to sell this stuff, but I’ve actually got one of these vacuum cleaners at home and it works a treat.’

I wonder what David Abbott made of the more recent trend for chatty, informal copy that has become the norm on packaging in particular. While the people behind that hyper-personalised approach might protest that they’re simply ‘putting themselves into the writing’, I suspect he would have been sceptical. The difference is that, when Abbott talks about putting himself into the writing, he’s not simply gesturing towards it tonally – nor, crucially, is he equating himself with the brand. The power of the approach comes from the way he’s separating himself from the brand and highlighting the fact that he’s a copywriter doing a job. It’s a structural idea, not a writing style.

By his own admission, David Abbott was never that interested in style (or tone of voice as it might be termed now): ‘I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar. I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate…’

Whether it’s in a press ad or on the side of a juice carton, I imagine David Abbott would maintain that copywriting is primarily about advocacy rather than self-expression – building an argument rather than projecting a personality. If drawing attention to yourself as a writer is an effective device for bolstering the argument, then it’s worth doing.

All this is a long analysis of a simple creative trick. But I find it interesting how a lot of the best writers, designers and creative thinkers have a bag of tricks which they draw on and reinterpret over the course of a career. This ‘fourth wall’ device was one of Abbott’s best. It’s instructive to see how he returns to it in pieces of work that are years apart.

Looking through the rest of The Copy Book, there are sections where the work starts to feel dated and the claims made for it seem overblown. But the entirety of the Abbott section is timelessly and disarmingly great, because the work is rooted in great thinking. It’s appropriate that he of all people should use this device of drawing attention to himself as a copywriter – when you’re David Abbott, why wouldn’t you?

Creative Review on David Abbott
Ben Kay on Abbott’s best work  
Mike Dempsey on David Abbott: Man of letters
David Abbott’s leaving speech 
Excerpt from The Copy Book 
Dave Trott on the roots of the Economist campaign

Elephants Charging Towards Brazil!

Hp_bus

The press have recently reported on the slogans chosen by each of the teams taking part in the Brazil World Cup to appear emblazoned on their team bus.

The slogans were submitted and chosen through a public contest sponsored by Hyundai, with predictably varying results.

However, for a copywriter, the whole thing is quite fun – the slogans equivalent of the Eurovision song contest. Here’s my take on each of the entries.

AlgeriaDesert Warriors in Brazil
Good – rooted in a point of difference about the country and sounds like the subtitle to an awesome movie. 8/10

ArgentinaNot just a team, we are a country
Mystifying statement of fact. Arguably more meaningful the other way round: Not just a country, we are a team. 1/10

AustraliaSocceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History
Cheerfully embraces the national stereotype, but ‘into History’ makes it sound like they will soon be history in the negative sense. Drop the alliteration and up the optimism: ‘Hopping Our Way To Glory’. 6/10

BelgiumExpect the Impossible
A mind-bending concept, but at least acknowledges that winning is an impossibility. Given the popular misconception about there being no famous Belgians, I'd have gone with: ‘Audrey Hepburn was technically born in Belgium.’ 4/10

Bosnia and HerzegovinaDragons in Heart, Dragons on the Field
Should be epic, but somehow isn't. 5/10

BrazilBrace Yourselves! The 6th Is Coming!
The kind of over-confidence that could end up backfiring badly. But then they are Brazil. 5/10

Cameroon A Lion remains a Lion
Strong. Suspect the original meaning is closer to ‘A lion will always be a lion’. But the odd phrasing gives it a mystical quality. 8/10

ChileChi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Go Chile! 
This is how you write a slogan for a national team. Joyful, optimistic, fun. Contrast with USA. 10/10

ColombiaHere travels a nation, not just a team!
Cross-reference with Argentina. You know what they mean – the whole country is with you. But it says very little. Humour may have helped – Addicted to Victory / The Drugs Do Work. 2/10

Costa RicaMy passion is football, my strength is my people, my pride is Costa Rica
My slogan is lame. 3/10

Ivory CoastElephants Charging Towards Brazil!
A stunner – four words, nationally relevant, creating a memorable and massively exciting visual image. The new benchmark for all slogans – it’s good, but it’s not Elephants Charging Towards Brazil! 10/10

CroatiaWith Fire in Our Hearts, For Croatia all as One!
Fire in their hearts, rather than Dragons (see Bosnia and Herzegovina), but sounds like they’re trying to convince themselves. 4/10

EcuadorOne Commitment, One Passion, Only One Heart, This Is For You Ecuador!
Ecuabore. 2/10

EnglandThe Dream of One Team, the Heartbeat of Millions!!
Completely unEnglish line. Two exclamation marks? (Although in its favour, at least it’s not ‘Keep calm and score goals’.) In honour of the John Barnes goal against Brazil, they should have gone with ‘Get round the back’. 3/10

FranceImpossible is not a French word
Seems to have been lost in translation, as ‘Impossible’ definitely is a French word. Reminiscent of George W Bush’s ‘The trouble with the French is they have no word for ‘entrepreneur’.’

GermanyOne Nation, One Team, One Dream!
1/10

GhanaBlack Stars: Here to Illuminate Brazil
Poetic. Sounds disconcertingly race-fixated until you realise it’s a play on the national flag. 7/10

GreeceHeroes Play Like Greeks
Given the way they won Euro 2004 and the fact these slogans are being printed on the side of a bus, they should have gone with ‘Where do we park this?’ 3/10

HondurasWe are one country, one nation, five stars on the heart
So many of these slogans are obsessed with numbers. And a country is a nation, so the repetition grates even more. 1/10

IranHonour of Persia
A dignified slogan which I am not going to criticise as it’s from Iran. 7/10

ItalyLet’s paint the FIFA World Cup dream blue
Stop sucking up to FIFA, Italy. 3/10

JapanSamurai, The Time Has Come to Fight!
Yes. Solid and whole-hearted embrace of national stereotype. 9/10

South KoreaEnjoy it, Reds!
I want to give this slogan a big hug. 5/10

MexicoAlways United, Always Aztecas
Expect better from the Mexicans. 3/10

NetherlandsReal Men Wear Orange
This is good. Bit of humour, bit of attitude, very Dutch, sounds like a proper slogan. 9/10

NigeriaOnly Together We Can Win
Lighten up, Nigeria. 3/10

PortugalThe past is history, the future is victory
They seriously put ‘The past is history’ in their slogan. 1/10

RussiaNo one can catch us
The campest of all the slogans (even the Dutch). Conjures up images of a bare-chested Putin sneaking into the room, tagging you and then running away giggling. 3/10

SpainInside our hearts, the passion of a champion
You can just about get away with talking about ‘passion’ when you’re a Mediterranean country (imagine this line spoken by Antonio Banderas), but this still talks about passion instead of showing it. It’s not Elephants Charging Towards Brazil!

SwitzerlandFinal Stop: 07-13-14 Maracana!
Check Switzerland out with their fancy numerals, no doubt set in Helvetica. 03/10

UruguayThree million dreams… Let’s go Uruguay
Rare example of a line that would be improved by an exclamation mark at the end. I worry for their mental state. 4/10

U.S.A.United by Team, Driven by Passion
Good in the sense it could only have come from America. Straight out of the corporate manual of buzzword collage that is handed out to every MBA student. United by Team? What does that mean? Should have gone with the @usasoccerguy approach: ‘GOALSHOT! Team USA with the deathstrike! #worldsoccerchampionship’ 2/10

All in all, an entertaining tournament, with Chile and Ivory Coast cruising into the final, which Ivory Coast go on to win 12-0.