Within a few months of each other, two large, nearly full commercial airplanes tragically went down killing every soul on board. The first jet presumably disappeared over the Indian Ocean and, unbelievably, has yet to be found. It may never be found. The second, of course, was almost definitely shot down by Russian Separatists over Eastern Ukraine. As I write this, the world is rightfully growing more and more furious at the Russian government for enabling this horrible byproduct of a petty, ego-driven war.

Both tragedies are variations of every air traveler’s ultimate nightmare. I don’t know which is worse: disappearing from the face of the earth or being blown off of it.

That they were both jets from the Malaysia fleet, defies comprehension. What are the odds? Thankfully, the chances of anything going tragically wrong on an airplane are tremendously long. That two worst-case disasters like these befall the same carrier, one after the other, is mind boggling.

Before continuing I want to draw attention to the following: I’m writing the next few paragraphs with respect and compassion for the hundreds of people who lost their lives and the thousands of others whose lives have been altered forever. Still, it won’t be enough for some readers. You may claim: too soon! Perhaps. I beg your pardon.

But as an advertising professional, attuned and trained to servicing brands of all kinds, I can’t help but wonder what this double disaster means for the relatively tiny Malaysia Airlines. While I don’t think the company will go out of business I cannot imagine it will be good for business either.

Does logo now evoke sadness and death?

Do you believe in karma, good or bad? If so, can brands have it, lose it, or gain it? In Adland we talk about brand personality all the time. We shape brands for a living. With the advent and proclivity of social networks, corporations are necessarily behaving and speaking more and more as people do, with souls and consciences (or lacking them).

When a person is deemed bad news people stay away from him or her. Malaysia airlines have had a stunning amount of bad news. Will people stay away? Though one event (and perhaps both) wasn’t an accident, I think most reasonable people realize the two tragedies were entirely coincidental. Still, who wouldn’t think twice about booking passage on Malaysia? We know flying is ranked near or at the top of every phobia known to man. People associate it with all manner of intangible fears. Flying on ‘cursed’ planes? That can’t be good. And what if trouble does come in threes? Will the next Malaysia aircraft to take off be the third one to go down? God forbid.

Superstitions aside, brands do go through awful things. Remember the Tylenol murders? Most recover eventually, but the short-term losses can be significant, from a sales perspective as well as from the inevitable insurance claims. MH 17 knowingly flew over dangerous skies. They will pay dearly for that.

You might rightfully consider these questions arrogant and morbid but mark my words they are being asked, in so many ways, by the owners and operators at Malaysia airlines. I’m guessing marketing by the airline has been halted until further notice. For obvious reasons, a brand associated with tragedy will shun advertising. It’s too self-serving. At this sensitive stage just seeing the logo makes people cringe.

Crazy good!

For the past few days, even longer, I have been working on a manifesto for one of our (hopefully) new clients. Actually, I’ve been working on two. Even more actually, I’ve been working on manifestos for 25 years, since becoming a copywriter.

Nothing suits me more. For like many a creative soul, I am by nature a show off. And this is the way I can do it. I know I am not alone. Most copywriters get off on writing manifestos. At least they’d better. Writing such documents is at the heart of what we do, and can do, for our clients.

Most of you know what I’m talking about. For those unawares, a manifesto or mantra or anthem is the bringing to life in words the highest and most noble aspirations of its subject matter, aka the brand.

Yes, it is advertising copy but in the best sense of the word. Think Apple’s great script to the modern world: Think Different. Consider the lines that first and forever defined Nike to a generation: Just Do It. We know these iconic tags because we fell in love with the manifestos. Frankly, neither line would have lasted this long, or even gotten out the door, if not for their beloved manifestos.

The power and glory of a brilliant manifesto cannot be overstated. They raise the hairs on the back of your neck. They make CMO’s smile. They win pitches. Most of all they change things: attitudes, behaviors, even lives.

At least the good ones do.

Alas, we’ve all heard or, God forbid, written our share of shitty ones. They can be purple or redundant or both. They get long pretty damn fast. They turn into cheesy rip-o-matics. Yet, in a weird way, even the bad ones sound pretty good. They are like pizza that way.


Because we slave over them. Into these haloed paragraphs we put everything we know or think we know about writing, about persuading, about life. Here you won’t find speeds and feeds, racks and stacks or friends and family call free! None of that. For these are the best neighborhoods in Adland. No thugs allowed.


Adweek’s Tim Nudd is right to praise this new campaign for American Value City/Signature Furniture –as much for what it is not (direct response crap) as for what it is (mildly entertaining). Few genres of advertising annoy like discount furniture advertising. The screaming. Those spinning dollar signs. Ugly ass products as far as the eyes can see. Kudos to agency Translation for not doing that.

But I want to focus on a detail from the campaign, a feature of the copy, which hopefully invites an interesting discussion. It points to something as a copywriter I’ve wrestled with a long, long time. Listen to the commercial.

Every spot begins essentially the same way. In the one above (my favorite), the lead actor states, “I love this new bed from American Signature Furniture…” He then goes into his bit, which is actually kind of funny.

But here’s the thing. Few “normal” people would use the store’s proper name in a conversation. They’d just say, “I love our new bed!” By overtly stating the client’s entire 3-part name, the actor breaks the so-called wall between the viewer and the narrative.

I doubt the copywriter would disagree with me. While it’s entirely possible the writer tried to sell a more “real” sounding piece of copy and failed I have another theory: that the line is intentionally commercial because the creators believe it’s funnier that way. Obviously, it also appeases the client to hear their name right up front but that just might be a lucky strike extra.

Some time ago, popular culture, in particular advertising, embraced its fakeness as part of the fun. Actors happily began occupying the twilight between spokesperson and character. The many great Old Spice commercials are famous examples.

Let’s go back even further. In the early 90’s, prior to grunge music and the genesis of mumblecore, being realistic was all-important. Call it a cynical reaction to shoulder pads and hair metal. Not looking commercial in commercials, especially in commercials, is what many of us creatives in Adland aspired to.

But everything cycles doesn’t it? Eventually the idea of trying to be real in a TV commercial became patently absurd. Actors began breaking character to address viewers directly. Then this ironic pose became a defining characteristic. It has now become ubiquitous in popular culture.

Fallout from all this is when the actor playing a husband talks to his wife (and us) at the same time. Like in these commercials for American Value Furniture. No surprise given people nowadays consider themselves brands. That’s my theory anyway. What do you think?

Tim Nudd’s Adweek review:

Dude’s gotta dream…

New, new things and advertising go hand in hand. Often lovingly. Look at Apple. Yet great things are not always created by marketers. The creators do not have the resources to advertise. Nor do they have product to keep up with potential demand. Mostly they have only the desire to make something special. I’m sure they dream about commercial success but first things first.

Well, I have such a thing in my possession. It’s fancifully called the Faraday Porteur. In short, it is the prettiest electric assist bicycle you will ever see. With lovingly tooled steel frame, bamboo fenders(!) and a classic Brooks saddle the Porteur is a true bicycle, in look, feel and temperament. But she is belt driven (no greasy chain) and stops via disc brakes. Most impressively, it has an electric assist mechanism that has been marvelously realized. I cannot speak to the technology involved but when climbing the steep hills out of Sausalito to the Golden Gate Bridge, I flick a switch and it as if God himself is helping me pedal. Flick it again and I feel His invisible hand pushing me forward.

Postaer’s Porteur. Number 42 in the world!

You say electric bikes are cool but hardly remarkable. I say you need to see this one. Everyone that does is blown away. I pull up to a coffee shop in Mill Valley and within moments a small crowd gathers around me. And given where we live this is a crowd accustomed to seeing great things, especially when it comes to technology and craftsmanship. Yet there they were. Agog.

They ask questions: Where is the battery? Is that a rubber chain? When I point out the discreet motor and how easy it is to engage, pure joy. Not unlike when people first experienced the iPad. People are attracted to it. The familiar design of a classic bicycle made new via technology. it’s like Bike 2.0. I recall how those around me –it really- were compelled to just touch it. One fellow, a nearby storeowner, was so enamored I let him ride it up a side street. I wanted him to feel what I felt. I wanted to share the experience.

The Faraday bike is the brainchild of bike maven and engineer, Adam Vollmer. I don’t know him from the proverbial Adam but last year I came across the above video and then found his website: Long story short, I put down a couple hundred bucks on a hunch that his machine would make me smile, if not change my life.

It already has.

The “ad” scientist…

One of the things I’ve come to disdain about our business is how damn serious we take it. Not the craft itself, which I think is beautiful and even pure, but rather the extemporaneous crap we built around it over the years. Stuff like process and proprietary tools; the things we fill our slides with that come before we actually do what we do, which, for those who’ve forgotten, is create work that gets people to think and/or behave in a favorable way to our clients. I was going to say: we make ads; but I realize that “advertising” has become an outmoded term. Still, we are always selling something, even if it’s just a philosophy or an idea. Yet, because of this variable I accept, begrudgingly, that advertising isn’t all we do.

Whatever your take on the matter, you must agree we have complicated what we do beyond what is necessary to doing it well. This is why briefs are no longer brief. This is why Cannes has become a cluster fuck. This is why I am writing this post.

By definition, planning and strategy are the progenitors of creativity. The agency gets an assignment and we formulate a team. The left brains give us facts and insights. The right brains turn them into ideas. In a healthy agency the two sides work together. Part of this is collaboration. Part of it isn’t. Each assignment predicates a different balance of both. Inviolate in all this are the people. The better the people the better the outcomes.

Yet, as obvious and true as all this seems (to me anyway), agencies (not just mine, not just yours, all of them) have endeavored to codify every step we take in getting to our outcome. We call it our process. Basically, process is how agencies mitigate the fear involved with taking a risk. We create the illusion of proof to support an idea. This insight divided by that challenge equals a solution. Ta da!

Another bit of reverse alchemy occurs when we justify an idea after the fact. True story. My one-time creative partner at Leo Burnett, Mark Faulkner devised the brilliant green color that to this day represents the iconic Altoids’ campaign he and I created so many years ago. Taken for granted now, in the campaign’s infancy it was questioned. After all, the client reasoned, the product was white not green. As was the packaging Altoids came in, with red piping.

Altoids 1

I recall vividly my longwinded reply to this client. I stated that Mark’s color scheme evoked the “industrial strength” of a bygone era, like battleships and tough guy locker rooms. I talked about the “steam punk” phenomenon, likening the color to a powerful nostalgia “locked up” in every tin’s DNA. I said a lot of shit that day. And I’m pretty sure everyone in the room bought it. Everyone, that is, accept my partner. Mark rolled his eyes at me (not the first time) and stated where the color really came from: “I chose it because it looked cool.”

It looked cool.

In the end Altoids became a billion-dollar brand and the campaign a perennial award’s show favorite because he made it “look cool.” All that came afterwards –a textbook full of complicated nonsense- had less to do with Altoids’ success than Mark’s divine intuition. Food for thought next time we pray at the altar of agency process. For though we have made our agencies into churches of organized religions, divine inspiration often has nothing to do with it.


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