Conversation my arse


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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 16.20.43

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.

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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.

Long copy isn't back

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 10.29.38

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 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.

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.

Another successful consultation

You may remember I blogged a while back about a Brent Council online survey regarding the branding and messaging for its new recycling initiative. The one that led me to reflect that, in many instances, "consultation is a hollow, life-sapping, time-wasting distraction for people who are too lazy, lily-livered and feckless to make even the smallest decision for themselves." The full post is here.

Well, you'll be pleased to know the consultation exercise is now complete and the new initiative has been launched. After much consideration, they've gone with 'recycle more' in a friendly lower-case font, against a green background (interesting innovation there), along with a picture of an ethnically-balanced group standing cheerfully beside some bins.

Picture 5

Good work, Brent. I'm glad we were able to help.

The consultation curse

I think it was Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, who said that the word ‘consult’ comes from a contraction of ‘to con’ and ‘to insult’. Yesterday, I came across an archetypal example of what he meant, courtesy of Brent Council. They have launched an online survey regarding a new logo and messaging for their waste collection service.

Here are the first two questions:


Have you had enough time to think about those? OK, here are the next two questions:


There are 17 questions.

This is the last one:

Picture 10

One final question – does this survey make you feel that carrying on living is important, or not important?

It so accurately sums up everything that is wrong with ‘consultation’ that I wondered if it was a parody.

I suppose it should be said that consultation can be a useful and necessary thing, especially when you present people with a limited range of viable options that have meaningful differences between them.

More often, consultation is a hollow, life-sapping, time-wasting distraction for people who are too lazy, lily-livered and feckless to make even the smallest decision for themselves. (I offer no opinion on which camp Brent Council falls into – I’m just describing two ends of the scale here.)

It doesn’t help when the questions you ask are almost literally meaningless. Take those first four questions. Precisely how bad would a logo have to be to make you feel that recycling is unimportant? “Yes, I’ve seen the data, I understand we’re creating mountains of waste for future generations, I get that we’re destroying natural resources unnecessarily… but ever since I saw that logo, I can’t help feeling it doesn’t really matter.”

I haven’t even mentioned question 16 of the survey, which asks you to choose between 15 (fifteen) very slightly different copy messages. They might as well include an extra question asking people to come and sit at their desk for eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, and pick up their shopping on the way home.

Like reality television, consultation exercises are usually a carefully manufactured gesture towards openness and involvement without actually being anything of the sort. Scott Adams had it right - they're not just neutrally pointless, they actively express a thinly veiled contempt for their audience. Like so many online surveys, this one is hosted on SurveyMonkey. You can't help feeling the clue's in the name.

Thanks (I think) to @daisymcandrew who pointed this out on Twitter yesterday, retweeted by @66000mph

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.

Plain offensive

How would you describe the language on this front page? The “pure terror”, the “snarling mob”, the “terror written across her face”, the “steaming gang of masked rioters”?

A few words probably spring to mind – but “plain” is unlikely to be one of them.

Strange, then, that the Daily Mail has been singled out for praise today by the Plain English Campaign. (Yes, it’s National Plain English Day.)

True enough, the words themselves are plain. No one is going to misunderstand “mob”, “gang” and “horror”. But maybe it’s a sign that plain words don’t necessarily add up to plain talking.

Perfectly straightforward language can also add up to some of the most insinuating, sly, offensive writing imaginable.

Still, let’s forget about that and poke fun at a footballer for misusing the word ‘literally’.

RSVP to the Conservative Party


Dear Conservatives

Thank you for your invitation to join the government of Britain.

This is a bit awkward, but I think I may have received this in error, along with the rest of the British public. The way I understood things, it's us who are meant to invite you to form a government, not the other way round.

I appreciate you were probably intending to be inclusive and empowering with your invitation, but it's actually a bit creepy and presumptuous when you think about it.

My invite goes out on 6th May. If you haven't heard anything by the 7th, assume it's all off.

All the best

Nick Asbury



Following the State of the Union address last night (Obama's not Steve Jobs's), I notice the press are still using Wordle as a way of visualising political speeches. It's a bit tired now and I think they should stop.