August 7, 2014
I’m not sure what spurred the memory but the other night I got to thinking about a sophomore debating class I took at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Perhaps it was the latest flare up in the un-ending battle between Israel and some faction of the Arab world –this time Hamas. After all, here are two “sides” that have been warring (and subsequently debated on) for decades (seems a lot longer, doesn’t it?), with no apparent victor. Like “gun control” and “abortion” the “Middle East” is one of those debating class teeter-totters.
As I reflected on this class, it dawned on me how important it was in shaping my development as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is very worthwhile. (By the way, most of this very paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)
I recall one assignment in particular, because it forced all of us out of our comfort zones: We had to compose an argument for the opposite side of an issue we believed in. So, for example, if you were Pro-Choice you had to write an argument for the “Right to Life.”
It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming our young passions in all the wrong ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ignorant of or ardently opposed to was great preparation for a career in Adland!
After all, in my career I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about and will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I had to create numerous campaigns selling cigarettes, in my case Benson & Hedges. At another agency I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.
Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.
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.
Understanding meaning without understanding words…
Tim Nudd of Adweek asks if Beats by Dre “just out-Nike-d Nike” with a new five minute film celebrating the World Cup, which begins shortly in Rio. The answer is yes and the reason isn’t the game’s featured stars’ prowess on the pitch but rather what these athletes do before the games. Hence the film’s title, The Game Before the Game. The rituals, the cultural details, the family involvement. These are the things that make this film shine.
In particular, the riveting opening scene featuring Brazil’s Neymar Jr. engaging his father in a quiet but intense telephone conversation -apparently a pregame ritual. What I especially love about this scene is the use of sub titles. The intimacy of the words is made even more poignant by seeing them.
Not too long ago, in my previous agency, we proposed a concept featuring an Italian mother speaking to her child before sitting down to a bowl of our client’s pasta, which was a huge Italian brand. While the commercial was intended for an American audience, we wanted to highlight the client’s authentic Italian heritage by filming the dialog in Italian and using sub titles. We were filming in Italy with an Italian cast for that very reason: to be authentic.
The client vetoed the idea. In fact, they were vehemently opposed to it. The reason cited was that American audiences would be frustrated by having to read. Instead they preferred we find an Italian cast that spoke English well enough to deliver the lines.
What a fail that was.
In my opinion it is the use of sub titles that drew me in to the Beats’ commercial. Hearing the men speak in a very personal way, in their native tongue, is what establishes the films high level of integrity and authenticity. The filmmakers could have chosen another way to open the spot making it “easier” on foreign audiences. But they didn’t. They could have tried getting the two men to recite their lines in English. But they didn’t.
Conversely, what my provincial client failed to grasp is that we live in a global world. Hearing other languages is a part of our everyday lives, regardless of where we live. Why should commercials be any different?
To this argument, our client said their Middle-American target was not sophisticated enough to appreciate a commercial in another language. Bullshit. While I partially agree the average American may not have patience for a movie with sub-titles they certainly could tolerate a 30 second commercial. Plus, and this is key, the fact that the characters were speaking Italian would say a lot more about the pasta’s authenticity than the inane lines we had scripted. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, pun intended.
In 2014, l like to think most advertiser’s are “progressive” enough to get that American audiences can handle a foreign language being spoken in a TV commercial as well as the sub-titles (if necessary). Ironically, in other countries other languages (particularly English) are a part of modern advertising. Granted, English is the default language of the world.
Whatever. Are we still asking if “it’ll play in Peoria?” Are we that provincial? Are we that stupid?
Special update: super similar story via AdAge:http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/world-cup-marketers-air-subtitled-spots/293973/?utm_source=daily_email&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=adage&ttl=1404854361
When it comes to evaluating ad copy, it’s not purely about judging the meaning of words. In order to truly assess copy properly, I also need to see what it looks like in a layout. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing or adding a word or two in order to accommodate the layout should not be viewed by the writer as a concession. it’s also a part of creating good copy. Seeing your words “in-situ” provides explicit proof that what you’ve written is correct. The perfectly rendered paragraph in a Word document is seldom right the first time in a layout.
This notion predates technology. If anything, word processing tools have made it even more pronounced. Now we can see finished looking ads before they are produced. (Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad.)
For me, visually orienting words is equally necessary in my other writing, like this blog. While I write and rewrite these words in Microsoft Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I preview a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you will see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were not apparent on a white screen is a mystery.
Looking at words adds more time to the editing process, which I suppose is anathema in the modern world. New content is the key to new readers, or more views anyway. Therefore, many bloggers crank out content as fast as they can. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up paragraphs or suture a proper segue.
I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not, I treat each story and every block of copy as if it were being looked at as well as read. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.