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 19, 2011
I still haven’t read the comments on Agency Spy’s “story” about me leaving my job at Euro RSCG Chicago. But then a visitor to my own blog (by the name JT) had to go and sum them up for me! Thanks JT. I guess. His full assessment is posted in the comments of my last post. Look, I believe JT was trying to do the right thing. He seems to have put a lot of effort into his “two cents.” While I was not planning on rebuttal, here are my responses to the three primary criticisms levied at me –chronicled on Agency spy and summed up by JT:
1. “Steffan- you’re always pimping Altoids.” The last time I wrote or spoke about Altoids was last year, in a speech for the Outdoor Association of Puerto Rico in San Juan. It wasn’t the primary focus of the material but they had asked me to work it in. Other than that, I don’t recall any recent communications I’ve done regarding Altoids. Tell you what. Search my blog or twitter feed. If you find something vainglorious promoting Altoids send me the link and I’ll publish it with my humblest apologies. Here’s a promise: If everyone else stops talking about Altoids and me the conversation dies. Your call everyone else.
2. “Steffan- you’re always promoting your books and blogs.” I link my blogs to my facebook and Twitter account. Doesn’t everyone? If not, why not? It’s called connectivity. When I write a post it sends the link to both. In addition, within 48 hours of creating new material on my blog I’ll probably tweet it 2 or 3 times, so as to share the link with friends and followers. My favorite bloggers do the same. I try to write three new posts a week. Do the math. Seems like normal behavior to me. Otherwise, I tweet about the same silly shit you do: “Bears suck!” “Go Bears!” BTW, one of my blogs, The Rogue's Gallery is a showcase for OTHER people. Not me. The other blog, Sweet by Design gives away my latest book coupled with a contest to design its eventual paper cover and win an iPad. In none of my blogs do I make any money or try to.
3. “Steffan- you criticize other people’s work but what have you done.” Here I might be culpable. Though I mostly write about tendencies in modern marketing from time to time I do select certain campaigns and talk about them. I believe praising Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign is the most recent example. (Full disclosure: I am working on a story about another campaign, which I will share soon.) As for personal accomplishments (or lack thereof), I stand behind what’s on our website. I also think our campaign for Valspar paint was some of the best work I’ve ever had a hand in. Still, one of the things I’m most proud of from my last job was helping to build a good, decent agency from some pretty damaged material. We became viable and competitive, a real team. That we survived the crippling recession with minimal job losses is pleasant proof we did something right. Alas, I cannot put that in my “portfolio.” It was a mortgage on my creative reputation that I was willing to make. I’d do it again.
As I’ve already acknowledged, being part of the so-called “conversation” sometimes means getting your ass handed to you. Of course I get upset at the shit people say about each other and me. But I try not to contribute to any death spirals and I most certainly do not comment anonymously. In the end, I’m forever learning, just like everyone else! So, thank you JT and anyone else who cares to read and write on my behalf. Even the haters. It’s an honor.
January 17, 2011
Last year at this time I wrote about Martin Luther King’s inspiring Letters from a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of writing (his not mine) and on this day, when we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday, I urge you to read it or his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Despite all evil in the world, we are better because Dr. King was in it.
But it made me think…the line between hater and follower is razor thin isn’t it? Look at the craziness surrounding the tragedy in Tucson. Gun sights on Palin’s blog! Dark postings from the shooter! The finger pointing online is as reckless and hate-filled as that assassin’s gun. Yet, however uncivil, it is the “conversation” we are having. It is representative of how we think and feel. Therefore it is valid.
That is the blessing and curse of social media. As a writer and creative professional, it is the reality I chose to embrace, as much from necessity as desire. To do our job, one needs to be versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. And that includes vitriolic blogs. When I left my job last week the trade tabloid, Agency Spy posted about it. As of this writing it has engendered over 60 comments, which I have not read. Needless to say, I’m guessing they are not voting me into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Sometimes being part of the so-called conversation means getting your ass handed to you.
Popular culture is vulgar and wonderful at the same time. (Have you played Left 4 Dead?) Advertising has always been a reflection of that. In turn our creative ideas shape popular culture, taking it in wonderful and vulgar directions. Often simultaneously. As we move from mass media into more personal territory, the distinction between what is inspired and what is cruel, stupid and downright creepy blurs even further. Last year, Diesel won a Grand Prix in Cannes for its Be Stupid campaign from Anomaly of New York, work that championed bad behavior in the name of self expression. I found the ads vulgar and wonderful at the same time. Didn’t you? Is that, then, the current definition of brilliant? It was rewarded as such.
Such questions are a cornerstone of this blog. And I hope it is with this same inquisitiveness that I create and/or look at work, deciding what to make and how far to push it.
Ideas begin crude. Refining them is our craft. Lately, however, the refining process has altered. Instead of polishing words and pictures we keep in some of the crude. We think it honest. In this way our craft is reflecting a self-disclosing popular culture. Crude is real. It also happens to be promotional (Whopper Sacrifice) and direct (Be Stupid). Ironic for all our digital savvy how blunt we’ve become…again. Fifty years ago we said let the buyer beware. Now we say let the consumer decide. I say what’s the difference? What goes around comes around, right? Damn right it does.
October 11, 2010
I think I was about five years into my first job as copywriter when I became self-conscious that I was manipulating the truth to better serve my clients. It didn’t stop me from doing it but at least I was aware.
Up until then, I’d been learning how. Sometimes the trick was one of omission: removing a word like it was the “wrenched ankle” in Operation! Other instances required fancier solutions. Lots fancier. That warhorse of Ad land, McCann Erickson had a great expression for the art, calling it the “Truth Well Told.”
Using words to enhance a product’s attributes is an accurate definition of copywriting. It is also a pretty good description of lying. Skilled copywriters write with motive.
There are as many examples as there are stars in the sky. The sentence you just read; that’s one. Since there is no way to quantify the amount of stars in the sky there is no way to disprove my statement. If, by chance, someone from legal were to question it, I could do any number things to keep the exaggeration intact. For example, adding the word “likely” creating the softer “likely as many.” Still too strong? Then try “probably.” And so on. Copywriters treat adverbs like fabric softener. Serious authors tend to disfavor adverbs because they mitigate a sentence’s integrity. We like them for the very same reason.
Or we can play the percentages. Let’s say you have a bullet point about a product stating it cleans up to 52% of all stains tested. That doesn’t sound so good does it? How about saying, Product X cleans over half of every stain on earth. “Over half” sounds more impressive. “On earth” evokes magnitude. It’s the same mediocre truth but now it’s just well told.
Skilled copywriters know how to create myths about products so that they enthrall consumers. Altoids aren’t just strong; they’re “curiously strong.” Mythmaking is how we help create cult like status for brands. Yet, mythos depends on an inherent strength about a product as opposed to a weakness. Therefore, it is truth-based. In most cases a good story sells a good brand: Nike, Apple, Levis, etc…
As a longtime copywriter and even longer-time human being I certainly have given this topic a lot of thought. In some respects it is the driving force of this blog. Yet, for the most part, I don’t fault advertisers or their agencies for mastering the “truth well told.” After all, I believe in caveat emptor. I don’t think the market place should be impeded from selling with motive in order to protect the naïve.
Where it can go sideways is when we take our sharpened capacity to create myths into real life. Adroitly manipulating the truth to satisfy one’s agenda at home or at work is far more controversial than putting goods and services on an unearned pedestal. When Bill Clinton told the world he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” he was technically telling the truth (they never had intercourse) but he, of course, was lying.
If we continue to tell the truth our way it becomes our truth. We lose objective reality, becoming self-serving to the extreme. That’s okay if you’re a stick of gum. Not so much if you’re a husband, father or son.