I've written a post for Creative Review about the new Coca-Cola Taste the Feeling campaign.
(Top image: 1939. Bottom image: 2016)
I've written a post for Creative Review about the new Coca-Cola Taste the Feeling campaign.
(Top image: 1939. Bottom image: 2016)
‘Review of the year’ is a grand title for what is mainly a review of things I’ve tweeted / favourited (now ‘liked’) over the last year. I’ve also been less active than usual online, so this will miss out a lot of things. But apart from that, here is my comprehensive and authoritative review of the year.
Best brand conversation
Brands having conversations are like people pretending to be on the phone. You chat away, nodding and chuckling at imagined jokes – but then the phone rings and everyone laughs and points at you. For a brand, there’s nothing more disconcerting than when a real person answers back. Tesco wins the best brand conversation award for the Twitter exchange above, closely followed by this one:
Worst brand conversation
This was the year that Andrex launched a five-step guide to wiping your backside and asked us all to have a conversation about it. I wrote about it here: Conversation my arse
Brands doing feminism and getting it wrong. Sometimes it’s obvious and almost endearingly cack-handed, like Bic Pens celebrating International Women’s Day, or the recent IBM #hackahairdryer campaign. Other stuff gets celebrated widely, but is arguably worse. This Mindy Kaling article (last few paras) should be required reading for the Always and Dove marketing teams, who confidently tell the rest of the world how to do feminism, with the passion of a recent convert.
Non-trend, because it’s not something that happens much or gets shouted about. But there are examples of brands doing serious social good, without making a song and dance about it. This Ricoh Save The Memory project is a painstaking, years-long, open-source effort to rescue thousands of photographs lost and damaged in the Japanese tsunami of 2011. It’s properly useful, but it’s hard work.
This probably has to be emojis. I don’t actually mind emojis – they’re fun. What grates is the media consensus that any project or press release that contains the word ‘emoji’ is now automatically and hilariously innovative and ‘now’. (Before this, it was ‘selfie’, which still retains some of its talismanic power, although it’s starting to wear off.)
So Domino’s wins accolades for ordering a pizza by emoji. Dove solves everything by releasing curly-haired emojis. McDonald’s upsets copywriters everywhere with an emoji-only ad (above – the last emoji was added by a member of the public).
And the newspaper USA Today even included emojis to signal the tone of its stories – an experiment that has predictably been shelved.
All of this leads to horrified predictions of an illiterate, wordless future, but it’s mainly effective for its novelty value. Once someone has done an emoji-only ad, you really don’t need to do another.
Worst client of the year
The one brand that hasn’t done emojis is the Tokyo Olympics, where they would be quite appropriate. Instead, they win Worst Client of the Year for hanging their designer out to dry following pretty thin allegations of plagiarism, before launching another competition.
Fun project of the year
To prove that sports and branding can work together, this Logo Gym project by Studio Dunbar is pretty invigorating.
Punctuation of the year
The mood of the UK election night was captured in the transition from the first edition of the Daily Mirror to the second, the last lingering hope deleted with the question mark.
Packaging copy of the year
Always spoilt for choice with packaging copy. The prize has to go to Waitrose Cooks’ Ingredients. As @aljwhite pointed out, they are now starting to sound like Nicholas Witchell reporting on the Queen.
Mentions also for the most annoying bread in the world:
Washed down with some rugged wine (via @rhodri), which should have been called Man with a Vin.
And finally some cheese (via @betarish). I feel like I spent 11 months of this year making my way though the last line of this poem:
UI copywriting of the year
It’s not just packaging any more. One of the new frontiers for tone of voice is user interface copy. There is no error message or sign-up form that can’t be jazzed up with some chatty tone, like this error message:
Or this sign-up box:
This stuff extends to support services too. @howells tweeted this horror:
And there was a news story about Barclays threatening to give names and personalities to its new ATMs, including Sally and Jake. I’m not sure what Barclays’ demands are, but the nation will surely do anything to stop this from happening.
Worst naming project of the year
If it does happen, ATM Jake will have to compete with Storm Jake, one of a new front of branded storms that have been unleashed on the UK, following a competition by the Met Office to get the public to suggest names. To be fair, this stuff seems to be effective in raising ‘awareness’ of specific storms, which may have some public safety benefits. But you suspect it’s also about improving the Met Office’s social media metrics – metrics which it absolutely doesn’t need to have. Anyway, just like the US, we’ve gone with naming storms after people, which is simultaneously infantilising and sinister. It’s distressing enough for your house to be flooded, without it being by a storm called Phil. (Mind you, it’s better than a storm being sponsored by BMW and going on to take many lives.)
Worrying TOV development of the year
Speaking of UI copywriting, tone of voice has made its way onto road signs this year, in an experiment designed to increase public safety and reduce examples of road rage. I started and never finished a long blog post about this. The short version is I think it will briefly decrease and then steadily increase road rage.
Interesting TOV development of the year
This was also the year in which tone of voice guidelines went viral. The weird thing about the Warwick University backlash was that it’s not that extreme an example of the genre. But it doesn’t take much to produce a backlash these days.
Smart design move of the year
This was a smart way to reframe a two-star review from The Guardian.
Technology of the year
I like this story about how the humble whiteboard proved critical to negotiations with Iran.
Stupid job title of the year
Director of Modernise, Southwark Council.
Brand Darwin Awards Inaugural Winner
I wonder if there should be a Brand Darwin Awards, for brands that shoot themselves in the foot, and then the head. This year’s goes to Paypal for telling kids everywhere there’s no Santa (wrongly, because there is a Santa).
Brand psychopath of the year
I’ve argued before that brands are like psychopaths, ticking most of the boxes on the Hare PCL-R checklist. Even psychopaths deserve awards, so here goes:
The first of three winners is UBS for its grim ‘good father’ campaign (via @zarashirwan). See ‘Conning and Manipulativeness’ and ‘Shallow Affect’.
HSBC (the alleged money-laundering bank now threatening to leave the UK) ticks 'Lack of Remorse or Guilt' for advising us all to eat leftovers:
And AirBnB goes heavy on ‘Grandiose Self-Worth’ for its misjudged (and later withdrawn) hotel tax campaign, whose tone of faux-innocent entitlement is typical of too many brands today:
Two great design projects
Many more where these came from, but two that spring to mind are these ‘nostalgia for the future’ NASA posters:
And there was a particularly fine D&AD Annual cover this year by David Pearson et al.
Long copy of the year
An entire novel on a double page spread.
Short copy of the year
This obituary. You learn a lot about Doug from these two words. No nonsense, enjoyed a joke, everyone knew him. Short copy can say a lot.
Creative project of year
One of them anyway. I loved the Partick Thistle mascot by David Shrigley. A collaboration between the art world and football could have been patronising or gimmicky, but this was done in the right spirit – the mascot (Kingsley) captures the cheerful angst of watching your local team. The media tried to create a ‘backlash’ story against it, full of quotes from aghast tweeters, but most were actually joining in on the joke.
Image of the year
The most powerful image of the year was the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Kos, which doesn’t need to be posted again here.
On a more surreal note, this was a real thing that happened in the UK:
Line of the year
It’s already become over-familiar after being quoted by Cameron and others, but in a year bookended by Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, ‘You ain’t no Muslim bruv’ was a concise and humane rebuttal of a whole narrative.
To end on a happier note:
Festive greetings to one and all. (This is a pic from last year, from Sale Appliances in Southend. Henry is one of the great underestimated brands.)
Thanks to anyone involved in all the tweets and links above – I’ve tried to cite sources where I can.
NB: If you liked 2015, you might like the prequel: Rough notes on 2014
Following last week’s news that the North Korean government has launched 310 new slogans, I wrote a comment piece for The Guardian on what makes an effective slogan, including my top five best and worst examples – both political and commercial. I could easily have picked different lists on any given day. You can read the whole piece here.
Andrex, the toilet paper manufacturer, has recently updated its packaging and branding to incorporate its new, trademarked ‘Andrex Clean Routine’: a five-step guide for doing the one thing in life for which we all previously hoped we didn’t need a five-step guide.
On the plus side, this marks a step away from the ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign that saw Andrex attempting to start a national conversation around the vexed question of whether you are a ‘scruncher’ or a ‘folder’ when it comes to the one activity in life that we all previously hoped would never become the subject of a national conversation.
It’s still hard to believe the Scrunch or Fold campaign really happened, but it did. This was one of the TV ads.
It even inspired the first and only Asbury & Asbury Vine: an art house creation that I think showed promise.
Andrex has become a great case study in modern marketing, because it represents the logical outcome of two dominant trends: the mission escalation trend and the conversation trend. Both are waves of brand thinking that have swept all before them in recent years, and it’s not exactly Andrex’s fault that they have been caught up in it. It’s just that the nature of their business means stretching both trends to breaking point.
First, there’s the mission escalation trend. This is the homeopathy of marketing. It involves taking the functional purpose of any given product, diluting it to a slightly more abstract level, then diluting it again and repeating the process until you reach a level of abstraction so remote that any sense of specific purpose has been lost entirely. So if your product is a bar of chocolate, it’s not about giving people something chocolatey to eat, it’s about giving them a tasty treat. And it’s not about giving them a tasty treat, it’s about giving them a treat in a wider sense. And it’s not about the treat as such, but the enjoyment you get from that treat. And it’s not about the physical enjoyment, but the emotional enjoyment. And it’s not about the emotional enjoyment, but joy itself. And it’s not about experiencing joy, it’s about believing in joy. And now your brand purpose is more closely aligned to Buddhism than it is to chocolate.
There’s an obvious appeal in this for marketers and creatives, because it gives everyone a bigger field to play on. With a rationale like that, Cadbury’s can move away from talking about milk and cocoa and show drumming gorillas instead, because it’s all about joy. But that was a decade ago and the trend has had diminishing returns ever since. It’s the reason Burger King has ended up with ‘Be Your Way’ as a strapline: an idea so abstract that language itself no longer makes sense.
In the case of Andrex, you can see they have consciously gone through the same process – we’re not about toilet paper, we’re about Clean. We are answering one of the fundamental needs of human existence. Our mission should be to own ‘Clean’ in the same way that Google owns ‘Search’. (I’ve been in meetings like this and Google always comes up.)
That’s what leads to this on Andrex’s website:
As an incidental point, I really wish they hadn’t put ‘bottoms’ and ‘openly’ so closely together in a sentence.
But the key part of that sentence is the word ‘so’ and what comes after it. Having established this higher purpose, we are now going to have a conversation about it.
The word ‘so’ implies some kind of causal link, but there’s no real connection. We’re going to have a conversation because that’s what brands do. Alongside mission escalation, the second big trend is Conversation.
Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.
Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.
But it doesn’t stop brands trying to start a conversation, and this has clearly been the thinking at Andrex. At some point early on, someone must have said “Look, I know it’s all about conversations these days, but do we really want to have a conversation about, you know… what we do?” And after a while came the reply: “Absolutely! It’s time to do away with the embarrassment around this subject and tackle it head on! So what if it’s a bit icky? All the more reason to have the conversation! This is an opportunity not a problem!”
Except it really isn’t, for two reasons. First of all, even if you’re going to talk about it, it’s a seriously limited conversation topic. OK, it’s important to wipe properly and be clean. That’s a single message at best, not a conversation. The most gifted conversationalists of all time would struggle to make an evening out of it. Peter Ustinov would get to 30 seconds before gently steering things towards the weather.
But even if there was more to be said, it really doesn’t have to be said. Every human instinct tells us this is an unenjoyable subject to discuss. The original marketers of Andrex took this as a self-evident truth. Andrex didn’t build itself into the biggest toilet paper brand in the UK by initiating a conversation about wiping brown stains from between your cheeks. (I’m really sorry about this post.) It showed us puppies. It told charming stories that emphasised the product benefits of softness, strength and length. There was no need to go into the details of why strength was important, because we all know why strength matters in toilet tissue. No need to spell it out. Look at the nice puppy.
It’s that kind of proper, big, traditional advertising that built Andrex to the point where its marketing people can afford to sit around in meeting rooms talking about starting conversations. Strangely, you could even argue that the traditional advertising approach sparked something much closer to a genuine conversation. People still talk about the puppy today, whereas no one is having a conversation about scrunching or folding. That campaign has been and gone, remembered only in the way you can’t shake off a bad dream.
But this post isn’t really meant to be criticising Andrex. As I said earlier, they’re just following the same trends that have swept up countless other brands in recent years. Mission escalation and conversation. (You could add a third, which is infantilisation, given the way the campaign encourages us all to be more child-like in discussing these delicate matters, and adopts the voice of a boring parent trying to engage us in an awkward conversation while we wince and edge away.)
The real point of this post is that, in following these trends, Andrex usefully takes them to their logical conclusion and shows up their inherent absurdities. When a certain way of thinking about brands leads you inexorably towards Scrunch or Fold or a five-step arse-wiping programme, there is something wrong with that way of thinking about brands.
It’s a great case study in modern marketing, and one worth having a conversation about.
The January issue of Creative Review takes music as its theme and I’ve contributed an article about advertising jingles: that enduringly effective commercial art form where music and copywriting meet.
In the course of researching the article, two of the first jingles that came to mind were ‘For mash get Smash’ and, inevitably, Go Compare. As the campaigns are nearly three decades apart, I was surprised to find the same copywriter associated with both. His name is Chris Wilkins and, when I got in touch to ask some questions, he sent some enlightening answers.
For the full article, you’ll have to subscribe to Creative Review. But they’ve allowed me to reproduce the Q&A here (an edited version appears in the magazine).
Chris Wilkins started out as a copywriter at JWT in the 1970s and went on to be joint creative director with John Webster at BMP. While there he won D&AD Silvers for his work on Cresta and Smash (although the jingle itself preceded his involvement) and was also involved in Pepsi’s ‘Lipsmackin’ campaign, created with Dave Trott. In 1985 he founded Davis Wilkins with Siân Davis and later sold the company to TBWA. Since 2005 the pair have worked as creative partnership Chris & Siân Wilkins, with notable successes including the jingle-led Sheilas’ Wheels campaign, and the operatic Gio Compario character for Go Compare.
Here are my questions and Chris’s answers:
Why do you think jingles work?
I think they can work in a couple of ways. They can act simply as an ID badge for the brand – a role which goes back to radio, I suspect, when music could add a distinctive ‘colour’ in a non-visual medium. ‘For mash get Smash’ is an example, as is the Pepsi ident, ‘Lipsmackinthirstquenchin’. These are really both traditional ‘stings’ – rather than jingles – serving primarily to glue the brand name to the preceding message.
Jingles act most powerfully as mnemonic devices. Just ask yourself – how much Victorian religious poetry can I recite from memory? Not so much. Now ask the question in a different way – How many Christmas carols can I sing along to? The music makes the words memorable, particularly through repetition.
What makes a good jingle?
There’s a phenomenon known in the neurology trade as an ‘earworm’ which refers to a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and no amount of conscious voluntary effort can banish it. Good jingles take up residence in your brain. They are ‘catchy’ with all that word’s association with contagion.
This is not just the case with advertising themes, of course. I recently found myself repeatedly humming an old TV series title track which I knew really well, but I couldn’t attach it to a programme. (It turned out to be The Rockford Files.) This is why it’s crucial for the brand property to be tightly knitted into the fabric of the jingle.
You cannot mentally sing along with Sheilas’ Wheels or Go Compare without mentioning the brand name. A lot of current advertising seems to start with a ‘borrowed’ song which is grafted arbitrarily onto whatever product message happens to be next on the creative to-do list. That’s just lazy.
Do jingles work better for a particular type of brief?
Jingles work most happily when there is a simple, single-minded message to be communicated. (Mind you, since that should be the case with all advertising briefs, you could argue that a jingle should always be considered as an option.) There is some research which suggests that people don’t take in rational sales messages that are sung to them, but there is also research suggesting that people don’t respond much to rational sales messages anyway. It’s an emotional business, and music has always been pretty good at stirring emotions.
You could argue ‘For mash get Smash’ was already a great line without the need for music. How did that come about?
When I moved to BMP in the early 1970s, to work with John Webster – sadly, no longer with us – the Smash campaign already had its musical pay-off. You’re right, it is a strong line anyway, so why set it to music? Well, times were different then and I think we were still very much under the spell of the Americans. The Madmen tended to sign off their films with a little musical ‘sting’ – almost as a parting gift to the viewer. Webster, in his own account, remembers briefing the composer, Cliff Adams, who happened to be sitting at his piano. Cliff said, “You mean something like this?” and played the four notes which, it is rumoured, were to earn him more in royalties than the rest of his TV work put together. When I wrote the first of the Martians scripts, the jingle was already a household property.
Why did you choose a jingle/music-led route for Go Compare and Sheilas’ Wheels? Did the client come to you with that in mind, or was it your idea to go in that direction?
The client brief for what became Sheilas’ Wheels was simply to create a car insurance brand aimed at women. The name, the brand, the idea of a jingle was ours. Even the big pink ‘Sheilamobile’ was designed by Siân Wilkins, my art-director partner.
During our 35-year-long careers in advertising, neither Siân nor I had ever done a full-on jingle campaign. We wanted to devise a brand with ‘Girl Power’ (echoes of the Spice Girls) which led to our creating a ‘real’ singing group, styled on the 60s Motown sound.
We cast three brilliant session singers and – on the back of the advertising success – they actually toured the country as an act. The spin-off for the client was terrific. When one commercial asked women to post online videos of themselves dressed up and performing as our ‘Sheilas’, we had over 11,000 responses (some 240 from men) just for the prize of a guest spot in a commercial.
The brief for Go Compare was to make the brand front-of-mind in a market of four pretty competitive comparison sites. The success of Compare the Market’s Meerkats had spooked everyone else. We were lucky, because our brand name was already a call to action, so we hit on the idea of using another call to action from WW1 – the song ‘Over There’ about US troops coming to the rescue in Europe.
We unearthed an old recording of the great Enrico Caruso singing the song, which inspired the notion of using an Italian operatic tenor and we had originally intended to cast an actor and have him mime to the track. We were lucky, as it turned out, to find Wynne Evans, then Principal Tenor at Welsh National Opera, who could not only sing, but was a great physical comic.
As well as being successful, the Go Compare campaign famously annoyed a lot of people. What’s your reaction to that?
Yes, it was voted Most Annoying Campaign in the marketing press for two years running. But, to put this in context, the year before the campaign broke Go Compare posted a loss of £4m. At the end of the campaign’s first year, they posted a profit of £12m. We went on to make fifteen increasingly ‘annoying’ films over the three years we worked with them.
Similarly, our campaign for Direct Line with that little red phone on wheels and its strident bugle-call jingle, was also voted Most Annoying. Direct Line grew to become the country’s leading car insurer. It’s funny how much you can achieve when you stop checking over your shoulder for the D&AD jury, and start working out how to make your clients rich.
Jingles are often seen as ‘unsophisticated’ and outdated – what’s your view on that?
There are fashions in advertising, as in every other form of ‘creativity’. Currently, there’s a powerful groundswell pulling advertisers towards social media and there’s this desperate optimistic belief among some clients that Facebook and Twitter are freebie media for business to exploit. Problem is, the wonderful professional skills out there – musical skills included – are being bypassed in favour of mass mediocrity. A million competent ukulele players on YouTube still don’t add up to one Mozart.
Would you say you have a musical ear? How important is it for copywriters to have a sense of rhythm and the ‘sound’ of words?
Siân and I are not particularly musical but we’ve been wonderfully well served by the musicians we’ve worked with – particular the guys at Yellow Boat Music whose ingenuity created a whole raft of musical styles for Go Compare, ranging from Baroque Chamber to Moroccan Folk.
We’ve also evolved a secret trick for writing lyrics which composers can work with. If you want to write a great jingle, write it to an existing tune. That way, it will have an inbuilt ‘lyrical’ structure to it. Then, when you hand the words over to a composer – and here’s the secret bit – don’t tell him what your tune was. That’s what we did with Sheilas’ Wheels and the legendary film music composer, John Altman, took it from there.
Particularly with Smash and Go Compare, you’ve produced work that has entered the nation’s collective memory. How does that make you feel?
Do you have any favourite jingles (either your own or someone else’s)?
Of my own stuff, I’m quite proud of rhymes like ‘With just a few clicks / Save your spondulicks’ and ‘It’s where you go ter / Insure your motor’ for Go Compare. And I was also pretty happy with ‘If you had a name like Florence / And you needed car insurance’ for Sheilas’ Wheels.
But there have been some great jingles over the years. Dave Trott knows how it’s done – his ‘Gertcha’ spot for Courage beer and his ‘Ariston... and on...’ were classics. But my all-time favourite has to be, ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’. That was written in 1948.
Thanks to Chris for his answers – you can read the entire article in the January edition of Creative Review.
This isn’t exactly a comprehensive review of the year, more a trawl back through things I’ve tweeted or favourited over the past 12 months – Twitter can be a useful mental archive that way (when it’s not being used for retrieving lost property, as in my most shared tweet of the year).
One of the common themes is mortality (please keep reading). This was the year we lost great advertising writers including David Abbott (The Economist, JR Hartley and countless others) and Julian Koenig (Volkswagen ‘Think small’), and stars of design including Wally Olins, Massimo Vignelli and more recently Rodney Fitch. I wrote about David Abbott here and reviewed Wally Olins' last book for Creative Review (subs only). Also recommend New York Times on Julian Koenig and Michael Johnson on Wally Olins.
One writer happily bucking the trend is Clive James, who recently admitted to being “in the slightly embarrassing position where I say I’m going to die and then don’t.” His ‘Japanese Maple’ won widespread praise this year and he continues to write lucidly and arguably better than ever as he approaches the end.
Death has a way of leading to great writing. In the bleak aftermath of the MH17 flight, these notices in Schiphol Airport (via @jessbrammar) were a civilised, secular piece of corporate writing.
More recently, the sudden death of cricketer Phillip Hughes saw collective grief expressed through a powerful symbol. Hard not to be moved by #putoutyourbats
Such genuine expressions of grief put into severe perspective the trend for ‘sadvertising’ that has been noted by a few commentators this year – referencing ads that aim to make us cry rather than laugh.
For example, there’s Dove challenging mothers and their daughters to confront their inherited ideas of body image (quite moving to watch, but always in the uncomfortable knowledge that you’re being sold a brand positioning).
Then there’s the camera rising from the trenches of the First World War and that big Sainsbury’s logo appearing in the sky (in the Christmas ad that at least moved the conversation on from John Lewis). Whatever you think of it, it’s hard for brands to associate themselves with issues so real and emotionally charged without at least a whiff of self-interest surrounding the whole thing. (At the other end of the life cycle, this was also the year that a detergent brand live-tweeted the birth of a new baby.)
Then again, for all that we feel uncomfortable with brands intruding on the serious issues of life and death, sometimes life and death intrude on brands. This Costa coffin (in which a woman who was a great fan of the coffee chain requested to be buried) has a jarring and, let’s face it, blackly humorous effect. But there’s something moving about the way people form such an affection for brands – albeit not the kind of connection Costa can place at the centre of its next ad campaign.
Even more affectingly, there was this story of a son keeping his dead father’s memory alive by racing against his digital ‘ghost’ on Xbox (worth reading the whole thing here). Again, not something Xbox can easily turn into an advert (although it’s not out of the question).
Before leaving the subject of life and death, I was pleased this year to come up with a line for this bench plaque, dedicated to the very-much-alive Ben Terrett – backstory here.
So, on to lighter things. Packaging copy continues to entertain and amuse, usually not intentionally.
This was the year of tomatoes with the unmistakable aroma of, erm, tomatoes. (via @whatsamadder).
Leading edge chocolates for chocolate eaters who mean business.
And the most middle-class copy ever for Waitrose (via @will_jkm)
There was also some good stuff, like this Cultivating Thought project for Chipotle, which uses packaging as a platform for interesting writing – would love to see more brands doing this, rather than chatting away about a product you’ve already bought.
Now the quickfire round:
Bob Hoffmann hailing the Golden Age of Bullshit at Advertising Week Europe. Uncomfortable applause all round.
Best TV ad
Not strictly TV, but a 6-hour pre-roll on YouTube for Virgin America (created by Eleven in San Francisco), imagining a deathly boring competitor called BLAH Airlines. A well-worn strawman strategy, but brilliantly done: advertising as high commercial art.
Best press ad
This Unlaunch ad for the VW Bus (actually 2013 I think).
And this Nothing happened ad for Ecotricity.
Worst print ad
This Cobra campaign, which is apparently based on the fact that Cobra is an anagram of BraCo, so let’s imagine a company that makes bras and... and... sorry, I resign. (How that brainstorm should have ended.)
Best exhibition graphics
Enjoyed these simple, writing-led graphics that completely make sense of the Design of the Year exhibition (by Ok-RM).
Most heroic filler copy of the year
This description of curtains is one of the most stoically professional pieces of writing ever crafted, taken from the IKEA website.
Best non-commercial writing project
Pop Sonnets: reimagining pop songs as traditional sonnets. Lovely idea, skilfully written.
Best national slogan
Only one contender: this wonderfully evocative Ivory Coast team slogan for the World Cup. I wrote an analysis of all 32 slogans for Creative Review, including Brazil’s ‘Brace Yourselves, the 6th is coming’, which proved painfully prescient when they got hammered 7-0.
Burger King’s new strapline was another milestone on the continuing journey into pure abstract thought that is currently being undertaken by all global brands. By 2019, all brands will have replaced their straplines with a steady, mantra-like hum.
Brand extension of the year
Protest branding of the year
The $urreal: a mock banknote and social media campaign protesting against rising inflation in Brazil and the increasingly ‘surreal’ prices of everyday goods.
Protest song of the year
Bit obscure, but in a year of continued austerity while the rich get richer, I liked this 64-year-old singing a 17-year-old’s song.
Plagiarism of the year
Image of the year
Has to be the one at the top of this post, from Ferguson. Sadly, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ are also the most memorable slogans of the year.
There ends this incomplete and impressionistic review of 2014, which nevertheless took ages to write.
If only there was an efficient way of keeping track of an entire year in diary form.
I’ve written a review of Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy in this month’s Creative Review. You can read it here if you’re a subscriber or buy a print copy.
The book is by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood and is a smart overview of writing for advertising and design (which, as the authors argue, could be better described as ‘brandwriting’). For anyone starting out, I think it’s the best practical primer out there. And for anyone more established, it’s worth buying for the many examples it includes – indeed, it would be nice to see an extended version consisting purely of examples and lots more of them. Even in the days of blogs and online archives, it’s useful to have a physical book that you can dip into for inspiration and reference.
The book is available from, among other places, Best Little Bookshop (a UK-based alternative to Amazon).
A short post to say I’ve written about the late David Abbott in the July edition of Creative Review. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it here. (The article is an adaptation of this earlier blog post.)
It’s been an unhappy time for copywriters, with the further news that Julian Koenig has passed away – most famous as creator of the ‘Think small’ Volkswagen Beetle ad. (Art director George Lois has maintained for years that he came up with the line, but seems to have a chronic habit of making similar claims.)
Koenig doesn’t appear in the D&AD Copy Book – possibly because the VW ad predated D&AD by a few years, but maybe also because he was dismissive of awards and classed his trade as pure salesmanship (which it was – just very good salesmanship). There’s a nice obituary in the New York Times.
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.
Implants a subliminal message into the first word of the tweet, enticing readers into an RT- and fave-friendly social state of mind.
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.
Important to get this into the first three words of the tweet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.)
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
I’ve written a piece for Semionaut
on poetry in commercials.
The link is here—please share your thoughts,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
FOR SALE: BABY SHOES (PINK FELT, 0-3 MONTHS). NEVER WORN.
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:
BABY SHOES (PINK FELT, 0-3 MONTHS). NEVER WORN. $6.99.
6. We’re pretty close here, but every ad needs a call to action:
BABY SHOES (PINK FELT, 0-3 MONTHS). NEVER WORN. $6.99. CALL ERNEST 07491 0921830.
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?
BABY SHOES (PINK FELT, 0-3 MONTHS). NEVER WORN – WE HAD A BOY! $6.99. CALL ERNEST 07491 0921830.
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.
JUST THE CUTEST BABY SHOES (PINK FELT, 0-3 MONTHS). NEVER WORN – WE HAD A BOY (MILO, HE'S THE GREATEST)! $6.99 – MILO WILL ACCEPT NO LESS! CALL ERNIE ON 07491 0921830.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.