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“I’m writing about data points!”

Last I checked there were over 800 hundred million billion pieces of written content floating around in cyberspace or near by. The number might actually be higher. I stopped counting to walk my dogs.

The point is that everything has been written. A lot. And over again. Which means there is nothing original left to say.

Therefore, the only vital form of writing left is copywriting. What I mean by vital has nothing to do with good. Just that, whether it is read or not, copy always has to be written. Those web pages won’t just fill themselves. Yet.

Guys and gals like us do it. We get paid, albeit triflingly, to make those paragraphs that live deep beneath the touts on a never-ending plethora of websites, which always needs to be refreshed.

Ah, refreshed! What a glorious word. It means for us steady or at least wobbly employment.

Clients demand content, and that takes the form of sentences. All kinds of sentences. Sentences just like the ones I’ve written here. Except they are ostensibly about something. Like Big Data. Or aftershave. Solutions.

And let us not forget infographics, which the Urban Slang dictionary lovingly calls “web pollution.” Or shiny white papers. Like non-alcoholic beer they are seldom selected by anyone but my lord, those are filled with sentences, too. Great big, slobbery ones! The size of great danes.

And we write them.

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“The arrow pointing up was my idea!”

Make fun of banners all you like but there they are. To the left. And to the right. Taking over! Some beseech us to visit fake news stories, which we call branded content or native advertising. Hail Hydra! Those are like whole new ways to write sentences.

Yes, when we go home for the Holidays grandma will still ask: did you do that commercial on TV? The one with the cat and the giant toothbrush. If we are smart we lie and say yes and that the cat got paid in freshly caught tiger shark.

But, alas, her days are numbered. Soon we will be showing off responsive web pages on our smart phones and everyone around the dinner table around the world will lose interest because nobody wants to read white papers on an iPhone or anywhere else for that matter. They will shake their heads and say they can’t believe we get paid for writing crap like that.

And we will say, “I know, crazy right?”

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“Hey, baby, let’s make an icon together!”

The other day I told someone that I had two fine Redwood trees in the backyard of my new home in Mill Valley. “Those are so iconic to California,” the person responded. At first I nodded in agreement but then I wondered aren’t palm trees more iconic to California? I suppose one could break it down using Southern and Northern California.

But that’s not the discussion we are going to have. Let’s take a fun but hard look at the “iconizing” of everything. Theses days, the word icon gets tossed around to describe just about anything. For example, someone says ‘those red apples are so iconic.’ To what exactly: The fruit category? Fall? Computers?

It’s gotten to the point that if we see something in the same place a few times (a billboard, a building, a homeless dude) it becomes an icon. The word “icon” or “iconic” has become overused in the same way the word “awesome” has. Hell, I’m guilty of doing it myself. Especially when it pertains to advertising. That typeface is so iconic! And this photograph… And that bottle… And this label…

If everything is an icon then what isn’t?

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Mundane, random and yet somehow iconic…

With popular culture usurping legitimate culture the matter has gotten exponentially worse. Maybe it started with Andy Warhol. A box of Tide became an icon. A can of soup. Now we can’t go down the grocery aisle without being bombarded by icons.

If ad agency folk are in the business of creating icons then clients are in the worse habit of declaring their brands to already be icons. How many times have I heard statements like “I don’t know, Steffan. We could never do an ad like that! Our brand is an icon.” Um, it’s fucking motor oil. Real brand icons like the classic Ford Mustang or Coca Cola bottle still resonate. But for every one of them there are countless poseurs. Poseurs we embrace like bogus celebrities.

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So many icons so little time…

Perhaps another taproot of icon-ubiquity was the advent of personal computing, when and where we all started clicking on icons. There, some little symbol represented a bigger property. More and more of them were added to our desktops and iPhones. Icons upon icons upon icons. The virtual world became an icon for the real one.

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The sublime adoration of anything…

(Author’s note: albeit altered, this post is a rewrite of a previous one.)

BRANDON MYCHAL SMITH, ALLISYN ASHLEY ARM, STERLING KNIGHT, TIFFANY THORNTON, DOUG BROCHU
That’s one word for it…

As a writer (and copywriter especially), I pay closer attention to words than most “regular” people. After years of alliteration, turning phrases and forcing puns I can’t help it. For me certain words are riper with meaning than others. Some words have more than one meaning, which I also find interesting, in particular when the people who use them altered their definitions. Like when real estate marketers use code words to mask unattractive features in their listings, the classic being the word “cozy,” subbing for tiny or worse.

“Cozy” is a very specific example. What about words that have changed in a broader context? For example, the evolution of the word “gay.” In the olden days it simply meant carefree and happy. The subtext of showiness and flamboyance evolved, rightly or wrongly, into the primary descriptor for homosexuals. But the word still wasn’t done changing. It has acquired darker hues. Not long ago “gay” started being used in a derogatory way to suggest something lame, overtly fey or just plain wrong.

Less controversially, the word “random” has evolved. Random once just meant something “out of order or sequence.” Somewhere along the way this largely mathematical term became poetic slang for silly, weird or (like the word gay) just plain wrong. Saying something off topic, seemingly out of the blue, is random. An odd observation or a joke that misfires is random. In the cra-cra life of a teenager just about everything is random. In 2011, Disney even named one of their teen TV sketch comedies, “So Random!”

But “random” isn’t just for young people. I like using it as well. For me it’s a way to make fun of something without being (totally) offensive. Yes, random can be the runt of the litter. But it can also mean something unexpected or quirky. Usually, it’s all of the above.

On a base level the slang meaning of “gay” and “random” cross paths. (Those shoes are so random. Those shoes are so gay.) Obviously, the former is a lot less mean spirited than the latter. One is offensive to more than just shoes.

Reexamining this essay I can’t remember why I began writing it in the first place. Did I have a larger point to make? As is it just seems so… random.

In a previous post I wrote about my longtime reluctance to criticize new ad campaigns. Obviously, that misgiving does not apply when it comes to praising them. If I see something I like I’m delighted to write about it here.

And so I have. And so I will.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been captivated by the ad campaign promoting the FX network’s upcoming penultimate Simpsons’ marathon, where they will be running every Simpsons episode ever made, all 552 of them, from start to finish. Fittingly, the theme: Every. Simpsons. Ever.

Though all the campaign pieces are funny, without doubt the anthem commercial is the hero. It brilliantly imagines a world decimated by some unspecified apocalypse; each vignette beautifully depicting the ruins. The detail within these tableaus is stunning, as good as any you’ll find in a big budget genre feature. Better than many, actually. In each scene is also a cleverly situated television set and on that TV a classic bit from a Simpsons’ episode is playing. Oblivious to the spreadingdecay, someone (or thing) is watching. The takeaway: while the world may be ending who gives a crap there’s a Simpson’s marathon!

It’s just the kind of humor we have enjoyed from the show itself: biting, dark but somehow always joyful. (I won’t rhapsodize about the Simpsons here. Suffice to say it isn’t the longest running sitcom in television history for sucking.)

As in every Simpsons ever it is the details of this commercial that truly make it spectacular. When Mr. Burns utters, “Release the hounds!” we witness a group of feral dogs running up the street. Upon seeing Lisa’s crooked teeth for the first time her dentist screams “There is no God!” The transpiring Apocalypse backs him up. While Homer insanely yells for his burrito two deer idly graze outside the TV shop. Against a black screen a big yellow super comes up: “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.” Homer pops up emitting a prolonged girlish scream.

Hmmmm… awesome-y.

FX knows their target too well. For this is every fanboys’ wet dream of a TV commercial. Dystopia and The Simpsons. I can hear Comic Book Man now: “Best. Spot. Ever.”

Second commercial pretty stellar as well…

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The face of criticism. it ain’t always pretty.

It dawns on me I haven’t critiqued an ad campaign in quite a while. I could tell you that’s because nothing out there strikes my fancy. And there are periods of time when it does feel that way. Yet, I write about countless subjects that do not require a witness. You’d think if I’m going to host a blog about advertising that I’d write about it. Often.

So, why my ambivalence?

Truth be told I think most criticism is folly. Let me tell you a story. In college, I aspired to be a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it was still a relevant publication.) In pursuit of this goal, I reviewed albums and concerts for both school newspapers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Highlights from this period include the resounding thumbs up I gave to the Replacements and Violent Femmes. (If not for me who knows where these two bands would have wound up?) Anyway, I also reviewed plenty of local talent, including a hair band called Whiz Kid. Whiz Kid played Lover Boy and Head East covers for drunken sorority girls (and the men who loved them) at various venues around town. For 2 bucks a head one got 3 sets of music.

Like almost every novice critic I rejoiced in ripping no-talent outfits to shreds. Whiz Kid was no exception. I might not be up on that stage but I had my pen, which was mightier than any guitar. So, I wrote a story, making fun of their lame music, silly matching outfits and ridiculous big hair. I used every bit of my marginal writing skills to tear them a new one. And then I promptly forgot about it.

Not Whiz Kid. A couple weeks later I ran into the lead singer at an after-bar party. He asked me why I’d so cruelly laid into his band. I said, no disrespect, brother but you sucked. I mean Lover Boy… Give me a break!

The vocalist did not punch me. Instead he hit me with something far more lasting. He told me the reason Whiz Kid played shit music was to get gigs, which he needed in order to pay rent and put food on the table for his wife and new baby. He told me none of the bars in town hired original talent unless they were famous. Whiz kid was not. He had to sing Working for the Weekend because that’s what 19-year-old girls (and the men who loved them) paid money to see.

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They actually did an original tune… sort of.

From that night on, I abandoned my ambition to write criticism. I had been stifled by the truth. Whiz Kid was literally working for the weekend, every weekend, in order to survive. I felt I had no right to criticize them for doing so. I was not aiding culture in any way. I was merely hurting this band.

And so to this day it takes an especially notable campaign for me to write about it, in particular if I’m considering a negative opinion. Obviously, I still do criticism. But only after giving the matter serious consideration. And I always remember Whiz Kid.

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