Text sells

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It’s nice to have played a small part in the return of design title Grafik, now in online rather than print form.

The new site is interestingly text-led for a design site and the same approach has been carried through into its advertising. Rather than garish banners fighting for attention, Grafik is running text-only ads that are consistent with the editorial style, while still being clearly marked as ads.

I’ve helped write some house ads explaining the new approach, and written an essay about the continuing power of good writing in advertising and design.

Read the full article here.

Long copy isn't back

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I saw this tweet yesterday from DesignTaxi about Apple adopting a long-copy approach in its new ad campaign. 

I admit to feeling a sense of anticipation when I saw it. Something told me this was going to be great. For one thing, long copy is due a proper return. It has occasionally reared its head over the years, but it always felt like it would take a major brand like Apple to do something on a par with the greats of the past. Not just a retro imitation, but a proper reinvention that works on its own terms.

And there’s something especially intriguing about Apple doing it. They’re such a minimal brand – all white space and understated cool. What a change in direction it would be to see lots of words coming from them. Especially when they’ve got so much to say.

The timing is also interesting. Right now, it feels like more and more people are questioning Apple’s claim to superiority. Maybe this was Apple about to come out and tell a few home truths. Remind us exactly how great their products are and why. Make us fall in love with them again. I clicked on the link.


You can enlarge the image to see the copy, but here it is in full:

This is it. 
This is what matters. 
The experience of a product. 
How it makes someone feel. 
When you start by imagining 
What that might be like, 
You step back. 
You think. 

Who will this help? 
Will it make life better? 
Does this deserve to exist? 
If you are busy making everything, 
How can you perfect anything? 

We don't believe in coincidence. 
Or dumb luck. 
There are a thousand "no's" 
For every "yes." 
We spend a lot of time 
On a few great things. 
Until every idea we touch 
Enhances each life it touches. 

We're engineers and artists. 
Craftsmen and inventors. 
We sign our work. 
You may rarely look at it. 
But you'll always feel it. 
This is our signature. 
And it means everything. 

Designed by Apple in California

This isn’t intended to be one of those ranty blog posts (although it’s going to be anyway), but this copy is woeful. Vacuous, boring, self-regarding and counter-productive. It starts with a glimmer of promise – the point about designing things with the user in mind – but then goes precisely nowhere with it.

Arguably the worst thing is that it’s entirely free of information. The point is too obvious to need labouring, but look briefly at one of the old classics:

Put aside the clever headline, sharp tone and expertly crafted momentum that carries you to the end – and look at the actual information being conveyed. 32 miles to the gallon. Five pints of oil. No need for anti-freeze. 40,000 miles per set of tyres. Smaller parking spots. Lower insurance. Cheaper repairs. 

The same goes for one of the other old classics. 


This one has dated in terms of social attitudes, and maybe the ‘warpath’ ending is a bit formulaic. But again, look how hard the copy is working. You learn all about the details of how the shoes are made. Not just the inspiration for the design and the philosophy behind it, but the nerdy details of how the design has been subtly improved over the years. And the details are interesting. Strip away the jokes and the rhetorical tricks and the tone of voice and you’re left with a pile of solid, irreducible facts. 

With the Apple ad, you get nothing. You search in vain for a single detail or piece of evidence. Something that demonstrates how they design from the point of view of the user. Any small detail that signals artistry, craft and invention without simply proclaiming it. 

Of course, there’s one difference that Apple could use to defend itself. Unlike Think Small or Timberland, this isn’t a product ad. It’s a brand ad. It’s not about explaining the details of a particular product to you, but giving a more general sense of Apple and its values and philosophy. We’re not in the era of hard sell any more; it’s more sophisticated these days. 

It’s at this point I begin to lose the power of rational argument and feel like throwing things at hard surfaces. First of all, I can’t think of a better ‘brand ad’ for VW or Timberland than the ones above. Each of them leaves me with a pretty good impression of the brand, its philosophy and its values. Secondly, I can’t think of a worse brand ad for Apple than this one. Has no one ever told them that you don’t convince people you’re cool by going on about how cool you are? They start the ad by saying they think about everything from the user’s point of view, then spend the rest talking relentlessly about themselves. The final lines are a veritable orgasm of self-regard. You put your logo on your product? That is a massively uninteresting thing to tell me. (It might conceivably be interesting if Apple didn’t put their logo on their products, but relied on people working it out for themselves because they’re so brilliantly designed – that would at least be a story to tell in a long copy ad.)

Life is too short to analyse all the other vacuities and non-sequiturs, but it gets particularly acute in the second-to-third ‘stanzas’.

If you are busy making everything, 
How can you perfect anything? 

We don't believe in coincidence. 
Or dumb luck. 
There are a thousand "no's" 
For every "yes."  

What are you talking about? Why did you just jump from perfecting things to coincidences? What’s dumb about luck? Don't luck and serendipity play a part in the design process? I get that you’re talking about being perfectionists and thinking about things, but give me an example. Anything. This reads like a succession of those vaguely New Age quotes that people stick on Facebook with a picture of a sunset. 

Possibly the most excruciating thing about the advert is that it contains its own damning critique, right here:

Who will this help? 
Will it make life better? 
Does this deserve to exist? 

Did anyone ask the same questions about this copy or this campaign? (Campaign may be stretching it – there are four executions, each featuring a different image but exactly the same copy.)




Finally, there are the line breaks.  It’s become a worrying trend in long copy ads to lay them out like poetry. Tesco did the same thing with its recent (pre-George Osborne) apology ad:Tesco

It’s tangentially interesting that both Tesco and Apple make use of the phrase This is it in their copy. The similarity is telling – it’s one of those emphatic phrases that is pure tone and no meaning. The kind of thing you say to convince yourself something is happening when it isn’t. If you find yourself including it in a piece of copy, you know something has gone wrong.

The line break trend is annoying to anyone who likes poetry, where line breaks are intrinsic to the meaning and not just a decorative feature (at least in any half-decent poetry). But there’s something particularly annoying about it in the context of these brand ads. It’s being done for a reason – to elevate the tone and lend an air of preciousness and high-brow appeal. If it looks clean and vaguely classy, maybe it will give the copy an aura of intelligence it otherwise lacks. Maybe you won’t notice it’s saying nothing if you’re too busy admiring how it looks.

So what’s the positive alternative I'm advocating? Well, it could be one of two things. You could do a faithful return to the traditional long-copy ad – why not? If Timberland can talk at length about what makes its latest shoe so great, surely Apple has plenty to say about its latest product? I’m sure there’s mileage in writing a brilliant ad packed full of product details that demonstrate Apple’s philosophy and ‘values’. 

But equally, I don’t think you have to return slavishly to the old USP-driven model. You could write a more high-level brand ad, but one that says something. Being a brand ad doesn’t let you off the hook. You still need a message. Every word has to earn its place. And it’s not like there’s nothing to say. You’re talking about one of the most interesting and impressive companies in the world. Whatever angle you choose to take, you should have trouble fitting it into a full-page ad. This one is padding from the first line. 

I suspect there will be a few people hailing the return of long copy when they see this ad, but it’s a hollow and lifeless return. Like watching a hologram of David Ogilvy. This is long copy drained of all the things that make long copy worth doing. Static and soulless and empty. The written equivalent of a mood board. 

Long copy remains officially deceased. Long, ranty blog posts are evidently alive and well. 

DesignTaxi post here.

PS: I've only just realised they also turned this into a film, but I can’t write any more. 


Update: A slightly extended (if you can believe that) version of this post has since appeared on Creative Review.

Problem: how to win a book


A post to point you towards the Johnson Banks Review of the Year 2012, which has become something of an industry institution. I sent in some contributions that made their way into the mix and won me a copy of the new edition of Problem Solved in return. A good way to start the year.

If you haven’t already moved on from 2012 retrospectives, the full list of contributions I emailed went like this:

Best blog
Mike Dempsey’s six-part story of CDT. Lovely balance of personal and professional insight. 

Over-hyped thing you’d like to see the back of (and that Creative Review should probably stop covering)
Pantone colour of the year. A tired but frustratingly effective PR ruse.

Best ad of the year
Channel 4 ‘Meet the Superhumans’ Paralympics promo. Still electrifying to watch.

Worst ad of the year
Colgate ‘focus group’ – possibly the most excruciating thing ever committed to film.

Second worst ad of the year
Facebook is a bit like a chair, sort of, if you think about it.

Writing project of the year
Ma’amite. Single word, but pretty good.

Best creative project of year
Olympic opening ceremony, obviously.

Worst creative project of the year
Olympic closing ceremony. Conceived by "a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually creative." 

Best creative of year
Danny Boyle

Design of the year
The Heatherwick cauldron is the obvious and deserving choice, but the gold postboxes were a lovely touch. 

Influential design project of the year
gov.uk by Government Digital Service. Still an epic work in progress but on course to be a major design and writing achievement.

Design story of year
The Comedy Carpet not getting in-book at D&AD. An indictment of the design judging culture that ought to be a tipping point, but probably won’t be.

Unfortunate book of the year
The Snowman’s Journey – the book of the John Lewis ad.

Brand refresh of the year
Ecce Homo restoration.

Worst brand use of Twitter
This ‘topical’ tweet from @YahooNews:
Last week a Moscow judge sentenced a band to two years in prison. What musical act would you send to lockup and why? 

Website of year

Quote of the year
“Hard work and grafting.” Mo Farah after winning second gold.

Worst brand campaign
Mini Cooper sponsoring what turned out to be a deadly weather front.

Those we have lost
The Waterstones apostrophe, which inevitably got its own Twitter account.

Much more comprehensive Johnson Banks review here.

We interrupt this prose...

I’ve written a piece for Semionaut
on poetry in commercials.

The link is here—please share your thoughts,
however controversial.

11 from 11

In the predictable rush to cover natural disasters, political upheaval and the fall of empires, many reviews of 2011 will no doubt fail to note our blogging exploits – so we've been forced to write our own.

Here are eleven posts from 2011:


1. The year began on a sad note with Mr Blog’s Valedictory Awards Show.


2. The valedictory mood continued with reflections on Rob McElwee’s disappearance from our daily lives.


3 & 4. February was poetry month – one about Asda launching a dating service, and one about the birth of a new Asbury (the defining moment of our year in a big and increasingly noisy way).


5. April saw ill-informed copywriters defacing a blind man’s sign.

6. May was all about the Creative Amnesty, a joint venture with Creative Review, which saw the great and good of the creative world sharing their worst ideas.


7. June was the month of 1,000 words.


8. July was The One With The Really Good Friends Advert.


9. September saw a rare venture into long-form blogging, with some reflections on wackaging and the trouble with copywriting.


10. October saw the unwrapping of WrapperRhymes.


11. And finally there was a salute to the greatest brand name of all time: Rotavator.


If you have been, thank you – and happy Christmas.

Every little probably does exactly what it says on the tin of beanz and Pop!


Creative Review is in the process of working out the 20 best slogans ever created. They've invited some people to send in their personal top fives. This is what I went for: 

1. Every little helps

I put this ahead of the others because it’s not just an advertising endline – it’s also a proper brand positioning. This is the comment I left on the original Creative Review post:

For me, the best strapline ever is also arguably the most evil: Tesco’s ‘Every little helps’.

It’s clever because it’s rooted in folk wisdom – a saying that has been passed down through generations. Exactly the kind of thing your grandma used to say. So it carries the everyday authority of a proverb.

It’s tonally appropriate – conversational and impossible to misunderstand (unlike John Lewis’s mind-bending ‘Never knowingly undersold’).

It’s strategically spot-on, because it taps into the customer’s mindset, and also works as a brilliant internal motivator. It’s about the tiny things that add up to a big difference – the penny cheaper on the baked beans, or the penny off the price you get from a supplier. Multiply tiny differences by something as big as Tesco and you have world domination.

And that’s the evil bit. The line is a classic example of verbal misdirection. ‘Little’ ought to be the last word you associate with Tesco. You should think of them as a multinational giant crushing everything in its path. But instead they plant that word in your head, with all the folksy charm it implies.

I don’t like it, but I admire it very much.

2. Beanz Meanz Heinz

The classic brief – associate our name with the generic product. The prosaic answer would be ‘Think beans. Think Heinz.’ This is the poetic answer – a brilliant piece of wordplay rooted in the brand name.

3. Does exactly what it says on the tin

Created a new idiom that will probably survive in the language long after Ronseal has gone. It’s a kind of anti-strapline – no wordplay, no clever twist, and a message so obvious it shouldn’t need saying – why wouldn’t it do what it says on the tin? But the hyper-clarity is perfect for the bewildering world of DIY.

4. Snap! Crackle! Pop!

The definitive example of a strapline driving an entire brand. Like many great lines, it wasn’t conceived as a strapline – it was part of a radio ad that got picked up and developed into a series of characters that are still used today. Interestingly, the product makes a different sound in other countries: Pif! Paf! Puf! (Denmark), Cric! Crac! Croc! (France), Knisper! Knasper! Knusper! (Germany), Pim! Pum! Pam! (Mexico).

5. Probably the best lager in the world

A classic example of a brand taking ownership of a word. Look up ‘Probably’ in a dictionary and you half-expect a TM to appear next to it. It’s even better because Orson Welles voiced the original TV ads – the greatest voice reading one of the greatest lines. They don’t make them like that any more. (They make ‘That calls for a Carlsberg.’)

Other contenders included ‘Yes we can’ (reinventing the political slogan), ‘Made in Scotland from girders’ (the surreal approach), Wasssup (dated now, but fresh in its time), and for sheer longevity: ‘Say it with flowers’ (Interflora). But I could probably have picked several more.

You can see all the other top fives here.


UPDATE: I've just remembered another personal favourite slogan, for Boost. "It's slightly rippled with a flat underside." Voiced by Vic Reeves. A nice deconstruction of the strapline.

Ernest Hemingway Copy Clinic


NB: Ernest Hemingway's "FOR SALE: BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN." is widely heralded as the greatest six-word story ever written. However, it's always struck me that it's a poor piece of sales copy – those shoes are never going to sell. Here's how I would have helped given the chance.


Hi Ernest

I took a look at the ad you wrote: FOR SALE: BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN.
I have a few issues with it.
1. Concise is good, but we’re writing an ad not a telegram. You have to make the audience want the shoes. Don’t be afraid to add some colour.
2. Speaking of which, what colour are they? Blue? Pink? That’s an important detail.
3. As are size and material. Are we talking newborn, 0-3 months, 3-6 months? Plastic, leather, felt? Don't make your audience work for it.
OK, that gets us to something like this:
Can you see that’s already working better?
4. So you’ve got me interested, but what’s going to swing it is the price. $6.99? Sounds competitive.
5. I know you like concise, so I’m going to suggest a cut. Do you really need that ‘For sale’ at the beginning? Is it not obvious from the context? Especially when you add the price. Let’s see:
6. We’re pretty close here, but every ad needs a call to action:
7. OK, there’s one last big problem to overcome. NEVER WORN is a great product benefit, but you’re underplaying it. Can we flesh it out somehow?

 8. See how this has more personality now? Is there any way we can push it further? Get a bit of the real Ernest in there? Remember, people buy from people.

OK, we have an ad. 
Now can you send in John Steinbeck – I have a few problems with his Hannah Montana Used Wardrobe Accessories treatment.

The one with the really good Friends advert


This is the ad that Channel 4 ran a few years ago to promote the last ever episode of Friends. Good, isn’t it?

I’ve written an article about it on the D&AD website.

I’m blind. Please leave my sign alone.


There’s an old story, usually attributed to David Ogilvy, about a copywriter whose daily walk to work takes him past a blind beggar on a street corner. His sign reads, “I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.” Every day, the beggar is largely ignored by the passers-by. One sunny morning, the copywriter stops, takes out a marker pen and scribbles three words on the sign, then moves on. From that day, the blind man’s cup is stuffed with notes and overflowing with change. The copywriter has adapted the sign to read: “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.”

It’s a lovely story, which has been making copywriters feel good about themselves ever since (and possibly making blind people feel somewhat patronised). It’s usually quoted in the context of how important the ‘emotive sell’ is when pushing the latest commercial message into the minds of unwitting consumers, which is what copywriters generally do when they’re not being selfless superheroes.

Anyway, I mention this because a video version of the story has recently gone viral, attracting 6 million hits on YouTube. It’s a promotional video for online agency Purplefeather, titled ‘The Power of Words’. But, regrettably, the story isn’t quite the same. It’s been what you might charitably call ‘adapted’, or less charitably call ‘unforgivably mutilated’.

You can watch the video yourself if you want to add to the viewing figures, but suffice to say the key moment comes at the end, when the copywriter (a woman this time) takes to the sign with a marker pen. This time though, instead of elegantly adapting the existing text, she turns the sign over and writes: “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.”

This is seriously what she writes.

The copywriter ignores the existing text written by the hapless blind man, and writes her own line on the reverse, thereby removing any of the wit and charm of the original story.

But she goes further by spelling out what was implicit in the original line. “IT'S SPRING AND I'M BLIND’ is a spare statement of fact that leaves the reader to fill in the emotional gap. This is where it gets its power. “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT” is the same line rewritten by the Ronseal copywriting team. In fact, it doesn’t even have that level of disarming directness, because the writer has forgotten to include the call to action. Without the ‘Please help’, it’s all a bit pointless.

And there’s another problem. What if it isn’t a beautiful day? What if it’s raining tomorrow, or in a couple of hours? Ogilvy thought of this – ‘spring’ is nicely open-ended (although you have to hope he adapted the sign come summer). Does this new copywriter have a stack of signs covering various weather conditions? “IT'S DRIZZLING SLIGHTLY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.” “IT WAS NICE A MINUTE AGO BUT HAS SINCE CLOUDED OVER A BIT AND I CAN'T SEE IT." (If you watch the video, you can see it appears to be a grey and damp day, even though the woman copywriter is bizarrely wearing sunglasses. Almost makes you wonder which of them is blind.)

It’s testament to the power of the original story that this bastardised version nevertheless retains enough impact to garner 6 million hits. But it’s also disheartening. We copywriters only have a limited supply of industry folklore to keep us going. If you’re going to use this story to make your agency promo, at least get the line right. Redrafting David Ogilvy isn’t something to undertake lightly, especially when your video is all about the power of words.

Anyway, if I ever fall on hard times, I’ve already planned my sign, which, if nothing else, should raise a smile from the odd passing copywriter – “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND DRUNK. PLEASE HELP.”

I just hope that woman doesn’t come along and change it.

You wouldn't ask a copywriter to write you a headline


In our semi-recent semi-review of 2009, we mentioned loser-generated content as one of the more troubling trends of recent times.

The main player to date has been Confused.com who asked members of the public to send in lo-fi footage of themselves talking about how much money they had saved. Hey presto, a low-budget TV campaign that doubles as a viral and focus for PR.

It was only a matter of time before the same principle worked its way into print. Step forward, search engine marketing specialists Epiphany Solutions.

Over the course of 2010, they're running 12 double-page ads in The Drum along the lines of the one above.

In a move that will have copywriters around the world glancing at the nearest ceiling rose and wondering if it will hold their weight, Epiphany has asked people to tweet their headline suggestions, promising to use the best ones over the course of the year.

You can see why people do this stuff – it's a win-win. Not only do you get free content, but you also create lots of free PR, and project an aura of being inclusive and 21st-century and just generally brilliant.

Nor does it seriously spell the end for creatives, who are still needed to think up ideas like this in the first place.

What's worrying and faintly depressing is that this bandwagon is apparently only just beginning to gather pace. Pretty soon, every advertiser will want a piece of the crowdsourcing action. And then it all starts to feel a bit old. If it isn't already.

Incidentally, most of the headlines suggested so far involve people. (You wouldn't ask Peter Stringfellow for fashion advice, You wouldn't ask Russell Brand for haircare tips etc.) This has a slightly unfortunate effect when you set it against the strapline: "The Right Tool For The Job."

Might be worth crowdsourcing an alternative.

Give us a forward slash


GAP's new Christmas 'viral' is objectionable for many reasons, most of which explain themselves when you click on this link. (Be warned, it will take you several hours to recover your equanimity.)

One admittedly minor quibble is the lack of a forward slash between two of the 'chant' names: Good luck with that bird (a chant about cooking your Christmas dinner) and You office party hardied (a chant about embarrassing yourself at the office party).

Run the two phrases together, as this site unfortunately does, and you have a very rude sounding chant.


Give us a P. Give us an R. Give us an O. Give us an O. Give us an F. Give us an R. Give us an E. Give us an A. Give us a D. Give us an I. Give us an N. Give us a G.

UPDATE: A version of this post has since appeared on Creative Review, complete with comments.