Driving my daughter to school the other day she became perplexed by a commercial on the radio, specifically the hurried voice over at the end of it. You know what I’m talking about. The legal copy advertisers are obligated to run warning consumers about certain claims, mitigating the ancient notion of caveat emptor (buyer beware). Here, the voice over is noticeably sped up to fit all the information into as small a space as possible. Like you, I’ve become jaded by this chip monk-sounding gibberish. Sometimes I don’t even hear it.
Naturally, my children are more curious. And I don’t blame them for laughing. The sped-up VO is patently ridiculous, helping neither the advertiser nor the consumer. It’s an industry practice started some time ago, likely mandated by a government consumer watchdog. For all I know Ralph Nader is to blame.
“I don’t get it,” my daughter said. “Those men at the end of the commercial are forced into telling us the commercial isn’t telling the truth?”
I nod. “Something like that.”
“And that’s what forced the people who made the commercial to make the guy talk so fast in the first place. So nobody could understand him?”
“Yes… Sort of.”
“But that’s crazy, Dad!”
“Try reading the microscopic type they use in print ads. It’s even worse.”
My daughter crinkled her nose, as if smelling something disagreeable. “Wouldn’t it be better if nobody lied in the first place?”
“Of course,” I stammered. “But advertising is different.” Immediately, I hated my answer. But I had nothing better. Thankfully, music returned to the radio. I turned it up and we drove away from the question.
January 22, 2013
A couple years ago, Pastor John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago (now retired) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism, which I had the privilege of attending. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.
While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well. We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?
In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.
But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with… what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?
I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it of copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at gyro in San Francisco. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I wrote two screenplays. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.
So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog a modicum of credibility. Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? Hell, I barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?
According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of intense personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…
To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.
His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ we are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’
I promise. Just as soon as I complete this post, rewrite that presentation, and edit some copy…
(Special thanks to friend, Anne Ross for reacquainting me with this post and Buchanon’s brilliant sermon. It is a lesson I have yet to master.)
January 21, 2013
When I was in college, I took a course on rhetoric and debate in 20th century America. In it, we looked at numerous famous speeches made by famous people: Lincoln, Jefferson, King, etc. (Learning from great persuaders how to fashion a rational and emotional argument would later become highly useful in my career as a copywriter –both as a writer and presenter.) During that semester, no document we studied was more powerful than Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
I am not being glib when I say the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is one of the finest pieces of long copy ever written. Certainly Equal Rights is a big idea. I like it better than King’s more famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not because of content (both are awesome) but because of circumstances. King was alone in a jail cell when he wrote it.
On this, the anniversary of what would have been MLK’s 84th birthday; I think it a fine thing to reexamine this seminal document. An excerpt follows. The full text is linked below it.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
My perspective on Cisco’s new ad campaign. I’ll be blunt. It’s not a commercial yet. It’s what we call a “rip-o-matic.” As such, it’s nicely done. But still.
For those unaware (or is it unawares?), a “rip” is a video put together by an agency to sell the “big idea” to a client. Often referred to as a manifesto or mantra, they are considered du rigueur in pitches and in the delivery of new campaigns. I have made dozens in my career. We all have. Anthem videos are a great tool and I won’t sell them short. However, they are not commercials. They are more like commercials for commercials. In a presentation we might use such a video to explain our strategy or set the stage for a new tagline.
Speaking of taglines that is another reason I’m nonplussed. Theirs: Tomorrow starts here. Gee whiz, I was wondering about that. Aren’t you weary of companies stating the future is right here right now? Trying to own the future is like saying you’re cool. Show me. Which is what the creative should have done in lieu of a pedantic anthem.
Allow me a tangent. Certain random pieces of copy drive me bonkers. Not because they are loathsome clichés or shilling too hard but, oddly enough, because they are precious and unique. To a fault. Like when millennial hipster John Krasinski applies the made up word “coolish” in an Esurance commercial. Here it’s the phrase “The Internet of Everything.” I think they’re going for childlike wonder but it makes me cringe. In both cases I suddenly become aware of the copywriter and that bothers me. Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe “The Internet of Everything” is coolish.
So, I’m wondering why Cisco and its famous ad agency opted for a piece of Wikipedia-like show and tell instead of good stories and remarkable feats. Perhaps the brand team fell in love with their baby too soon and birthed it prematurely? Lord knows it’s hard denying a client who loves something even if it isn’t cooked yet.
My guess is the real advertising will come soon enough. Maybe tomorrow, which I’m told starts here.