“If you had my life you’d be tired too.”

Driving my daughters home the other day, I had on a sports radio channel (much to their chagrin) and it featured a Dos Equis commercial for The Most Interesting Man in the World. Everyone knows the advertising campaign, done by Euro RSCG in New York. When it first came out, this witty, unexpected idea took the world by storm, garnering much deserved praise from Adland as well as from everyone else with ears and eyes. Among its many virtues, The Most Interesting Man in the World was so unlike anything else in its category. While Miller Lite and Bud Light kept trying to make three dudes on a couch funny, Dos Equis eschewed all that in favor of an urbane, older rogue living a robust life of magnanimous proportions. A man of action, he spoke little but when he did it was fantastic: “I don’t always drink beer but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.” And the kicker: “Stay thirsty my friends!” Brilliant.

But… half way through the 60-second spot, my 12-year-old daughter makes a comment from the back seat: “The most interesting man doesn’t seem so interesting anymore.”

Excluding the much-deserved praise, I won’t criticize advertising done by my previous agency. Yet my kid’s observation made me curious: When does something get old? We are all familiar with the term, “jumping the shark” pointing to an exact time and place something heretofore wonderful becomes suddenly not. The term was coined over an episode of Happy Days. In it, a water-skiing Fonzie jumps a shark too prove his cool. Game over. Happy Days were no longer here again.

But many great things don’t implode so obviously. Rather they fade away like a summer romance. Something changes and we move on. More important things replace the cute lifeguard.

There’s a great episode of the Simpson’s where Bart becomes famous for one of his catch phrases: “I didn’t do it.” The whole world, Springfield anyway, seizes upon its boyish exuberance. Everyone in town begins using the line to get out of blame and then just for a laugh. “I didn’t do it” gets plastered on tee-shirts. Bart goes on Conan. Soon, however, everyone gets sick of the line, including Bart. His fame dies and he learns how transient such things are.

Despite its ever-growing legions of critics, we must note, ironically, that even after 20 years the Simpson’s franchise keeps chugging along.

Everything else has an expiration date, a point where the content isn’t good and/or appreciated anymore. Unfortunately, most people, places and things don’t realize this until it’s too late. Just ask Michael Jordan or Brett Farve. Look at certain long running TV shows. When Desperate Housewives first aired we were captivated. Now its stars are more famous for their real botched romances and, indeed, real housewives have become more popular. Ad campaigns are no different. After more than ten years my beloved “curiously strong” Altoids campaign is anything but. It may be sad but it is inevitable. One day something is “curiously strong” or “the most interesting” and then it isn’t.

Back in the day, when creatives presented ideas the question was always asked: Does it have legs? We’d answer in the affirmative, showing dozens of executions based on the core idea. But maybe all that that proved was we could beat a dead horse. Popular culture doesn’t like repetition. Familiarity breeds contempt. The moral: Try something else, my friends!


Caveat Emptor, baby!

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.


My home office, not a “closet.”

My last post was a rebuttal of sorts to a comment made on this blog challenging my ability to create a gay main character in my new novel, Sweet by Design. I replied, tartly, that I’d been doing it for years, citing the campy Altoids campaign as evidence. They didn’t call it “curiously strong” for nothing.

Yet, the blogger’s challenge is a fair one. And damn intriguing.

A reader and contributor to this blog, Charletta Lynn Barton, an African American, provided great insight into the possible motive behind my heckler’s jibe. Actually, several comments on the post are worth reading. Another commenter, Bryan Carmody pointed out that straight actors have been portraying gay characters forever. And vice versa. Can you say, Rock Hudson? This got me thinking…

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Tom Burrell on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Tom, as many of you know, is the founder of Burrell Communications, one of America’s first advertising agencies devoted primarily to the African American consumer. He is also black.

Tom Burrell

Among other things, I debated with him whether an advertising agency could (or even should) be an expert on African Americans in the first place. Was that not racism in reverse –that only black people can sell to black people? I was trying for idealism but probably came across as naïve. Still, I think in a perfect world a good writer should be able to understand and then write for any segment of the population. Including blacks. Including the opposite sex. Including gays. That’s the job.

His response was not surprising. “It’s not a perfect world. Not only are black people woefully underrepresented in agencies but they are portrayed incorrectly by them as well.” I’m paraphrasing Tom but those were his points and they were good ones. Still are.

Yet, part of understanding people from other cultures is to walk in their shoes. While that is not literally possible it is possible in literature. And art. And copy. Moreover, I think it’s critical we try and that we try to get it right. Empathy comes via sharing experiences. No other way. Writing is one of them.

And so I endeavored to be empathetic to gay life. I have that right. Maybe it’s even an imperative. We have a black President. We almost had a female President. And, if the current scholarship on Abe Lincoln is to be believed, we may have already had a gay President.

As my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner (who is gay) once told me: “It’s not a lifestyle; it’s a life.”

I invite you to read Sweet by Design. Did I get it right? And just as important, Is it a good read? Let me know. The story comes free. And I’ve added various interactive elements to make it more entertaining, including a design contest in which the winner gets an Ipad! Work has already been submitted, and, as fate would have it, by an African American: Sweet by Design (the first cover!)

My previous novel, The Happy Soul Industry

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