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July 2012

Stop writing self-absorbed packaging copy and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead.

Milk-cartonThis is a thought I’ve had for a while – not an original one, but something that I don’t see any brands pursuing in a big way. I’ve always hoped to build a relationship with a suitable client who might be interested. But I’ve recently decided the best thing is to blog about it, throw it out into the world, and see if anyone else thinks the same and/or wants to follow it up.

The premise doesn’t need much explaining. Packaging copy annoys a lot of people. It’s frequently overly familiar, infantilising and navel-gazing. I’ve written before about the rise of ‘wackaging’ and plenty more people have noticed and documented the same trend.

The problem is, from the point of view of the client, packaging copy is hard to get right. The safest approach is to give straightforward, concise information about your product, but it feels like an opportunity missed. But try injecting any form of personality, and it can quickly ring false, or fall into the same over-familiarity trap as every other brand. In the end, you're trying to give personality to something that is by its nature impersonal and mass-produced. There are a few exceptions, but generally it’s a losing battle.

This is frustrating, because packaging ought to be a great platform for writing. You have a blank canvas on which to write in a more relaxed, discursive way than conventional advertising allows. You often have a captive audience in a receptive state of mind, idly reading the cornflakes packet over breakfast, or the crisp packet over lunch, or glancing at the copy on the toothpaste tube while brushing their teeth. With such a great chance to engage and entertain audiences, why do brands end up annoying them so much?

The argument of this post is that brands are missing a trick by thinking too narrowly about the possibilities. Packaging is indeed a great platform for writing, but there’s no rule that says the writing has to be about the product that the packaging contains. Rather than writing at length about the simplicity of your ingredients or the lovely folk who work for your company, why not use the space as a platform for writing that people really want to read? A short story, a poem, or a thought piece by a great writer? It may not relate directly to your brand, but if people enjoy it, they’ll make the emotional connection.

In 1986, the American writer Judith Chernaik approached Transport for London with the idea of putting poetry on spare advertising space on tube trains, and Poems on the Underground was born. It’s been massively successful and introduced millions of people to great poetry. What’s to stop a Kraft Foods or Unilever from launching a Poems on Your Packaging range, spanning everything from breakfast cereals to shampoo? What about a specially commissioned Carol Ann Duffy poem with your cornflakes, or Michael Rosen with your Cheerios? A thought for the day from Alain de Botton on your loaf of bread, a traditional haiku on your toothpaste tube, or a leisurely Clive James essay on your smoothie? It could be a great way to introduce people to interesting writing, and would spare us all the chummy copy about how simple-and-not-at-all-mass-produced your product is.

This isn’t a new idea. Plenty of children’s brands feature jokes and puzzles to turn the packaging into entertainment, albeit of the heavily branded kind. The original and best example is the jokes you used to get on ice lolly sticks: no overt brand message, just a nice joke because there was space on the stick to write one.

But as far as I’m aware, the principle has never been applied on a bigger scale, or for a more grown-up audience. I’d love to see the big brands commissioning new work from our best poets, novelists, journalists, philosophers and comedians – and it feels like an open goal in the current climate. There are obvious upsides – you’ll be seen to support the arts; you can encourage literacy in kids and families; you can pitch it at a populist or higher brow level; you can turn the packaging into collectable items; you can run serialised stories to encourage brand loyalty; and you’ll be able to claim this whole territory as your own, before anyone else does.

So there you go. Stop writing self-absorbed packaging copy and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead. It’s easier to have these ideas than to make them happen, but it would be nice to see some version of it one day.

PS: If anyone knows of brands that have done this, I’d be interested to hear about them. Another example that comes to mind are the missing persons ads you get on milk cartons in some countries, which aren’t an example of creative writing, but do use the canvas for a socially useful purpose. I’m sure I’ve seen a project that involved printing news stories onto milk cartons as well, but can’t remember where.

PPS: Some readers may know I run a project called WrapperRhymes, which features poems handwritten onto food packaging. This is a different idea, but maybe there’s a connection in spirit – the idea of packaging as a vehicle for unexpected creativity.

Image by kashley with thanks to @huntaround

Diamond Bob

Picture 4
I've just had a piece of writing published on the poetry and cultural review blog Eyewear. It's called Diamond Bob and is a collision of two texts: the Barclays Strategic Report 2011 (Chief Executive's Review / Citizenship section) and the traditional protest song Diamond Joe.

You can read it on Eyewear.

Sometimes you feel an urge to write something quickly in response to news events and this kind of collage of found texts feels like a natural way to do it. Not strictly a 'found' poem as it involves some creative intervention and arranging. But not a fully authored poem either, as you're acting more as an editor than a writer.

I did something similar with Corpoetics a few years ago, which rearranged the words of corporate websites, including Barclays:


That said, the most socially useful piece of writing I've done in response to recent events was filling out my application form for a new account with the Co-operative Bank.