Bot chat etc.




I did an interview with Creative Review this week about chatbots, writing and technology:

It’s a follow-up to the article on copywriting and social media that I wrote for their May issue:

And references this earlier piece about rearranging slogans:

On a different note, I briefly talked to Design Week about the Mars family archive

This concludes the links for today.

Article. Botconference. Links.


I’ve written an article for the May issue of Creative Review about the effects of social media on copywriting – and more broadly about the intersection of writing and technology, where interesting things are happening. You can read it in the magazine, or it’s just been republished on the Creative Review blog.

On a related note, chatbots aren’t a new technology, but are becoming a bigger thing. (See this article about Facebook.) While there are many doom-laden headlines about this being the end of copywriting as we know it, bots are a useful tool for writers – or at least a nice thing to play with.

In a rudimentary experiment, I created a Twitter bot called @botconference, which tweets soundbites from a conference without the need for the actual conference. Occasionally, they border on the insightful. 


I created it using cheapbotsdonequick, which I discovered through Russell Davies and his @taglin3r bot, which creates corporate taglines. This is a half-serious example of bots as a creative tool. A common technique in creating taglines is to disrupt the language by ignoring conventional grammar. This is hard for humans to do as we instinctively follow the rules, but bots are naturals at it. You still need a writer to decide which ones work (and most don’t), but it’s good for generating possibilities.

Some more links mentioned in the Creative Review article:

Bots and humans, by Russell Davies

Why copywriters could fare well in the age of robots, by Russell Davies

Cleartext by Morten Just

Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe

More about Siri  

Taste the mixed feelings



I've written a post for Creative Review about the new Coca-Cola Taste the Feeling campaign.

You can read it here.

(Top image: 1939. Bottom image: 2016)

Review of the year 2015

‘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

Shutupblud (1)

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

Trend of the year (runner-up)


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 of the year (winner)


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.

Trend of the year (winner)


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

Someone loves you

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

Doug died

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

Get them while they're hot


We’ve put four new Pentone mugs in the shop today.

Pentone is our not-entirely-serious system for dividing written language into different ‘tones of voice’ in the same way that Pantone does for colour.

The new mugs include:


Pentone Yorkshire
A rewritten version of our previous Pentone Yorkshire mug. Perfect with Yorkshire Tea. Or just a good way to patronise a northern friend.


Pentone Scouse
One half of Asbury & Asbury is from Liverpool, so we are allowed to do this.


Pentone Dad
Don’t look at me in that tone of voice


Pentone Mum
You’ll buy it and you’ll like it.

All mugs are English fine bone china, hand-decorated in the UK, dishwasher and microwave proof, white on the inside (important for making tea) and a good, satisfying size.

There aren’t that many of them, so please factor rarity into your purchasing state of mind.


Pentone Boxset
There is also this bumper boxset of 30 tones. But don’t pour tea into it.

Read me writing about Read Me

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). 

An appreciation of the 45-day tweet

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 13.43.56

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

Here’s my word-by-word appreciation.

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.

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

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

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

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 and the fourth wall

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

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

Chivas_David Abbott

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


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

Text sells

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 09.52.56

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

30 tones of voice in 30 days


Yahoo! have recently been releasing a logo a day for 30 days, in the run-up to the launch of their rebrand on 5 September.

It could have been an interesting idea if it had been handled as a genuine exploration of the brand – enlightening the public about the thinking behind it and involving them in the process.

Unfortunately, it’s been executed on such a bizarrely simplistic level that it comes across as a parody, no doubt reinforcing everyone’s worst preconception about branding – namely, that it’s just a matter of superficial visual decoration, like picking out a new set of curtains. (That’s the standard analogy anyway – do people still pick out sets of curtains? I suppose they do.) 

Ben Terrett writes about it well over here (branding not curtains).

Anyway, the whole exercise was crying out for a copywriting treatment, so I had a go at writing 30 tones of voice in 30 days. It’s not entirely serious, although anyone reading from Yahoo! is welcome to use this as a starting point. I have a feeling we may see a bit of ‘Defensive’ in the next few days. 

You can read the whole thing here:

UPDATE (5 Sept)

Yahoo! has now unveiled its new tone of voice. Judging by the quotes from CMO Kathy Savitt, they have gone with Surreal Defensive.

On the logo:
“You’ll notice a chisel to our logo that’s very architectural. What we’re saying is our logo is the foundation upon which our brand and products and user experience will continue to be built.”

On the animations:
“It might be an exclamation riding on a Segway, or riding on a pogo stick or swinging on a Tarzan vine.”

Instagram didn’t get the tone wrong

I hesitate to raise the Instagram topic on here. The controversial terms and conditions and subsequent ‘clarification’ have already received wall-to-wall coverage elsewhere.

But there’s a writing angle to the whole thing that needs some airing. The whole story is already being co-opted as a case study in the importance of clear communication and getting the tone right. This worries me, because that’s exactly what it isn’t, at least not in the way that’s being suggested.

This was the main offending paragraph in the terms and conditions:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

There is nothing wrong with the tone of this paragraph. It scores highly on clarity, using plain language, active verbs, personal pronouns (us and you) – all the things writers go on about every day.

There is a lot wrong with the content of the paragraph, at least according to thousands of Instagram users. But that’s not a language issue – it’s a policy issue. Any writers trying to use this as an example of the importance of ‘tone of voice’ are misinterpreting the problem. To an expert in tone of voice, every problem looks like a tone of voice issue.

The situation isn’t helped by Instagram’s disingenuous ‘clarification’, which tries to imply that this was all a miscommunication caused by ‘confusing’ language.

Again, this statement from Instagram has been hailed in various places as a good example of crisis communication – clear and helpful in the way the Ts and Cs weren’t.

But again, this is completely wrong. The Ts and Cs were absolutely clear, even if their content was controversial.

By contrast, the ‘clarification’ is slippery, mealy-mouthed and contradictory.

Here’s how it starts.

Thank you, and we’re listening

Yesterday we introduced a new version of our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service that will take effect in thirty days. These two documents help communicate as clearly as possible our relationship with the users of Instagram so you understand how your data will be used, and the rules that govern the thriving and active Instagram community. Since making these changes, we’ve heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean.

Note the spectacularly passive-aggressive headline. The ‘Thank you’ attempts to characterise all this as a friendly exercise in helpful feedback, rather than a furious outcry at being taken for a ride. Note also how the objectors are characterised as ‘confused and upset’, as though they are bewildered lost sheep. As far as I could see, the objectors weren’t remotely confused and, far from upset, were very angry.

It goes on:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone.

This is the most disingenuous part of the whole piece. Again there’s that emphasis on ‘eliminating the confusion’, as though all this is down to the language being unclear. Then comes the massively patronising ‘Legal documents are easy to misinterpret’. The clear subtext is ‘You’re all getting het up because you don’t understand this complicated legal stuff – don’t worry, we’ll try and speak more slowly this time.’

The next paragraph relates to the main offending lines in the terms and conditions quoted above.

Advertising on Instagram

From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

This sounds pretty good at first – the blunt honesty of ‘Instagram was created to become a business’ (actually a meaningless truism) and ‘To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.’ But there’s some really slippery stuff going on. Note how ‘it is not our intention to sell your photos’ isn’t the same as saying ‘we won’t sell your photos’. Despite the forthrightness of the tone, the message is still unclear – will you or won’t you?

Then there’s the continuing insistence that this is a problem with 'interpretation', culminating in the Orwellian ‘We are working on updated language’.

A reminder – here’s the offending paragraph:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

And here’s what they’re saying now:

To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos.

The language here doesn’t need ‘updating’, it needs retracting.

I won’t go on through the rest of statement, but the whole thing reminds me of a politician talking in confident, clear-sounding language – full of ‘let’s be clear’ and ‘we're listening’ – without actually being very clear at all. It’s tonally beguiling, but fundamentally deceptive.

If anything, this whole episode is a demonstration of the slippery charms of tone of voice. The terms and conditions were an example of clear language being used to convey information as simply as possible – it just happened to be controversial information.

The ‘clarification’ is an example of tone of voice being used to obscure and mollify. Almost like a filter applied to a photo, giving it nice fuzzy edges and an air of authenticity.

Given that the clarification has been largely well received, this has become an interesting case study in the power of tone of voice – but one that should make writers, me included, feel pretty uncomfortable.

Communicashun over-accommodashun, yes?

You will by now have seen the video of Joey Barton being interviewed by the French press (above).

And you will surely have seen the Shteeve McClaren interview from his time in Holland:


Both videos are brilliantly entertaining, but they got me wondering about the motivations behind this evidently illogical way of talking.

It turns out there's a linguistic term for it – communication accommodation. This takes place when any individual consciously or subconsciously adapts their speech pattern to reflect the person they’re addressing. This usually takes place in subtle ways – mimicking the inflection or using similar vocabulary. When speaking to non-native English speakers, you might also slow down and soften your regional accent, in a reasonable and helpful attempt to make yourself understood.

To some extent, this is what Shteeve And Joe Le Barton are doing – speaking more slowly to make themselves understood, and bringing their accents more in line with the accent of their target audience. For all the mockery they attract, there is a sweet and appealing side to what’s going on – they are trying to help.

But in each case, this is clearly an example of communication over-accommodation: adapting your speech patterns in a way that is so extreme that it becomes condescending and counter-productive.

I wonder whether the term ‘communication over-accommodation’ might come in useful in a branding context too. This may be stretching the analogy, but many brands are continually engaged in a form of communication accommodation – adapting their native language to suit what they perceive as the preferences of their audience. While the default position for a business might be to use formal business-speak and insider jargon, the ‘communication accommodation’ instinct rightly leads them to adopt a more informal, accessible tone in their outside communications.

But in so many cases, it goes further than that. From trying to be personal and accessible, brands end up over-accommodating to the point of being condescending and counter-productive. It’s one thing to stop saying “Please find enclosed herewith the information requested”. It’s another to say “Hiya! Look inside me and you’ll find that gubbins you were after!”

I realise this is one of those posts that takes a topical event and says, 'When you think about it, that's a bit like branding, isn't it?'. But it is a bit like branding, isn't it? There are many Joey Barton and Steve McClaren brands out there. Good instincts, bad execution.

Meanwhile, and on a slightly different note, I'm continuing to document the gap between What you think your Tone of Voice is and what your Tone of Voice is. Joe Le Barton is the latest addition at the foot of the page.

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

What you think your Tone of Voice is and what your Tone of Voice is

Picture 3

More examples here.

(This is something I was moved to create while pondering the gap between the Tone of Voice to which a brand aspires and the reality it usually achieves. See previous post for more reflections on wackaging and the trouble with copywriting.)

Late Victorian crowdsourcing


Today’s Guardian carries a story about Kraft Foods, who have set up a new company to handle their snack food products. As is often the case these days, rather than getting the professionals in to come up with a name, they launched a crowdsourcing-style competition. The result is Mondelez, where the ‘monde’ suggests ‘world’ and ‘delez’ supposedly suggests 'delicious'.

It doesn’t immediately strike you as a great name. The pronunciation is ambiguous and it sounds slightly like a French xxx-rated site.

The tone of the Guardian article is certainly wry and the comments so far suggest the name will draw mockery, not just on its intrinsic merit or lack of it, but also for the fact that it was crowdsourced – the winning suggestion came from two employees.

But it’s worth noting that, when it comes to naming, crowdsourcing is nothing new.

As long ago as 1890, a Macclesfield breadmaker called Richard ‘Stoney’ Smith launched a national competition to find a name for his new flour and breadmaking business. The winning entry came from a student called Herbert Grimes. And it was Hovis.

Like Mondelez, it comes from a contraction of two foreign-language words. In this case, it’s the Latin hominis vis, meaning ‘strength of man’.

It’s a great name, for which Herbert Grimes won £25. Not bad money in those days, although he may have negotiated more had he known it would still be around in 120 years.

The story is proof that crowdsourcing is far from the newfangled practice it’s made out to be. In many cases, it's really a fancy name for a competition.

There’s another interesting footnote on Hovis. The runner-up in the naming competition was ‘Yum yum’, which would have set a very different tone for the brand. It suggests that a tendency for slightly grating, infantilising brand language was also alive and well in 1890.

The picture at the top of this post (sourced here) shows the gravestone of Richard 'Stoney' Smith in Highgate Cemetery. It's a fascinating irregular shape and there is something satisfying about a Stoney stone, especially as it commemorates a man whose stock in trade was ground flour.

UPDATE: This article has subsequently appeared in a revised form on the Creative Review blog. Commenter Ben Millar notes that £25 would equate to £2,400 in today's money. Not to be sniffed at.

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.

Wackaging and the trouble with copywriting

It’s not exactly new for people to moan about brands and the way they talk to us, but there seems to be a gathering storm right now when it comes to packaging copy in particular. In the last few days, I’ve come across a few notable instances.

Firstly, there’s Wackaging, a new tumblr dedicated to examples of 'wacky' packaging copy. It’s run by Guardian journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Ella’s Kitchen (the children's food brand) comes in for a particular battering.

Picture 1

The tumblr has inspired this cheerfully-titled coverage in The Times...

Wackywackaging well as getting a mention in this article by Eva Wiseman in the Observer, about the weird form of baby-talk that has become the default position on our supermarket shelves. Here’s an extract:

At some point brands stopped wanting to make us sexier and richer, and instead just wanted to be our friends. It's as though they all decided to babyproof their packaging, sanding down the corners and hard consonants, replacing "complicated" photography with crayon illustrations, including little jokes to break up the monotony of reading their calorific intake info. "A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the fryers at Burts," said a crisp packet to me recently, possibly in a regional accent. "Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle!" Our fwend's shoes. Carry on. "But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is palm-oil cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to orangutans." The awful thing about this one is that it makes me want to harm orangutans.

Finally, there’s this article by Lucy Sweet in Sabotage Times. Charmingly titled “F—k you, talking smoothies” it lays into Innocent, Boden, Pret A Manger and Dorset Cereals with a ferocity apparently born of years of pent-up frustration.

As I say, none of this is new. I remember Simon Hoggart writing years ago about the ‘infantilisation’ of modern culture, using the example of coffee cups that cheerfully tell you ‘I’m hot’. The arguments about Innocent are also well-rehearsed – they continue to take a lot of the flak that should really be aimed at their imitators.

But all of the above sightings come clustered in the space of a few days. You have to wonder if there is a tipping point coming.

Anglianwater Historians may one day explore the link between this mailing and the recent riots. (Spotted via this blog post by Oliver Wingate.)

I think there are three possible interpretations for what's happening. Defenders of brand writing might suggest it’s just Guardian writers being typically knowing and cynical, and that most people out there love this stuff.

Possibly, but that sounds like wishful thinking.

You could also argue that these are aberrations – over-enthusiastic copywriters going too far. There's nothing wrong with the basic principle that brands should aim to be friendly, human and informal with language – it’s just a tricky thing to get right. All the more reason to pay good writers to help out.

An appealing argument, and possibly valid.

The third possibility is that the basic philosophy we espouse as copywriters is problematic in some way. The kind of chummy, childish copy that infuriates people isn't an aberration, but the inevitable outcome of the principles we advocate to our clients every day. Ditch the formality, talk like human beings, write as though you're talking to your mum or best friend. You're not a business talking to a mass audience, you're a person chatting to another person.

All of which sounds fine, but is it really? Isn't it overlooking the fact that business and brand communication is a very particular kind of discourse? Yes, there’s a writer at one end and an individual customer at the other, but both are working in a special context. The writer is representing a brand and business – both abstract concepts that are hard to pin down – and the individual customer is just one part of a mass audience that varies so greatly that no single member can be taken as representative of the whole. Writing in that context is a subtle and shifting discipline.

I suspect there is also a thesis to be written about the wider loss of respect for 'business' and a rise in the status of the individual in recent decades. What matters, these days, is 'you'. Personal expression takes precedence over everything else. Business doesn't sit well with that – it requires you to subsume your personality into a greater whole. The only way for business to respond is to pretend it's not about business at all – hey, we're a bunch of people, just like you.

But there is a more old-fashioned, romantic notion of business – one that finds a certain nobility in impersonality and collective enterprise. Yes, a business involves a collection of people, but it also has a separate existence beyond that – it's a representation of an idea. Its interactions take place at a more formal, abstract level than everyday human interactions, and that is how it should be.

It certainly seems that the more we tell businesses to talk like people, the more people are objecting. And it may be no coincidence that these dissenting voices are getting louder at a time when tone of voice guidelines have never been more prevalent.

The first step to changing things might be to acknowledge the obvious – that businesses aren't people. They occupy a different place in the world. For a brand to position itself as our best friend is a straightforward category error. That doesn’t mean a return to staid formality in business language, but it could involve a more rounded recognition of a business’s place in society – in particular the fact that not everyone encountering your brand is a cheerful co-enthusiast. So don't write like you're talking to your mum – write like you're a representative of a brand talking to your customers. And if you can't do that in a charming and interesting way, pay someone who can.

This was meant to be a really brief post to tell you about Wackaging.

Mr Blog meets Little Chef


For the past few weeks, Venture Three’s bright and breezy rebrand of Little Chef has been attracting warm reviews in various corners of the internet, including Creative Review and Brand New. I’ve been meaning to post for a while to say that the writing half of Asbury & Asbury played a small part in it.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t me who was involved, but Mr Blog. He received an email from Venture Three late last year, enquiring as to whether he also did any copywriting. After giving it due consideration, he was happy to oblige. (Mr Blog and Mr Tweets then had to sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement, which Mr Tweets did surprisingly well to honour.)

The Little Chef rebrand is based on the idea of ‘Wonderfully British’, so there’s a natural affinity with Mr Blog. His contribution, it should be said, was limited. He spent a couple of days playing around with different copy approaches, which Venture Three then put into the mix and took forward.

As you’ll see, the finished work isn’t quite Mr Blog in tone, but demonstrates he can turn his hand to more informal and populist copy when required. (Click images to enlarge.)




It was a great project to be involved in, and proof that doing things for fun (like Mr Blog) can sometimes be a productive business strategy.*

NB: For anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about, Mr Blog was a six-month Asbury & Asbury project documenting the various ‘Mr’ shops on Britain’s high streets – more details here.

* You might argue that blogging about Mr shops every day for six months to win a couple of days’ work isn’t that great a strategy. It would be a harsh argument, but a fair one.

Ken Clarke TOV Guidelines (leaked excerpt)


NB: This extract from Ken Clarke's revised Tone of Voice Guidelines found its way into my inbox. I pass it on without comment.


Until now, the Kenneth Clarke verbal brand (‘Ken’) has been defined under the strategic banner of Blokeish CharmTM.

This positioning has proved very effective over the years. However, it has recently been noted that this Tone of Voice does not sufficiently ‘flex’ to cover all circumstances, particularly when discussing issues such as serious crimes and prison sentencing.

As a result, we have developed a new positioning that more fully reflects Ken as he is today and aspires to be in future.

Please note this is an evolution rather than a revolution and should be thought of as a subtle shift in the continuing journey of the Ken brand.

We define the new positioning as:

Apologetic Tactful HumilityTM

The new Ken, henceforth referred to more formally as Kenneth Clarke, is characterised by hyper-sensitivity and tact, to an extent that could be construed as 'embarrassing' and 'laughable'.

We have mapped out the new positioning using this illustrative Language LandscapeTM:

Please note this new brand positioning is to be brought forward immediately – and certainly in time for Question Time tonight.

Local copywriting for local people


There seems to be an emerging trend for local dialect copywriting.

This blog mentioned the cockney cash machines a while back.

Now Spar has released a range of wine labels written in everything from Scouse to Geordie and Brummie.

So the Scouse Label talks about: "A totally boss bottle of Merlot which smells o' blackberry, choccie, a brew and toffees. Juicy and complex like, this bevey is top wi most scran 'specially me ma's scouse. Tellin ye, this is deffo a bevey that will leave youz and youz mates made up over yez Sayers pastie."

And the Somerset Label says: "Alright my luvver, eers one helluva Merlot. Be stinkin hummin a sivvies thar be bleddy ansome wi yaw croust or oggy. Purfect ta share wi yaw pardy as i' aiin ta eavy. Mygar be a purdy wine! Churs!"

No, I have no idea what that's about either.

The whole thing gets a pretty sniffy write-up in The Guardian – a bit harsh for what is really a bit of harmless fun.

That said, the local dialect does seem somewhat gratuitous in both projects. It's not as if the wines come from Liverpool or Somerset, and there's no real need for cash machines to speak cockney in what is now one of the most multicultural cities in the world.


It would be much better if the use of dialect actually bore some relation to the product itself – for example, a mug typically used for Yorkshire Tea might carry some copy in a Yorkshire accent. That kind of thing. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all.


It would be nice to hear of any other sightings of this trend in action – feel free to email or stick them in the comments.

UPDATE: The wine labels were featured on Jonathan Ross on 30 October – you can see it here for the next week or so (about 5 mins to 8 mins in). Imagine they'll shift a few bottles off the back of that.

Tone of voice goes nuclear



Respectable banks offering you 'moolah for ya sky rocket'.

This is a strange time to be a copywriter.