“I’m your favorite campaign.”

My opinion, the best advertising of 2010 is the “Mayhem” campaign for Allstate. Yes, I once worked at Leo Burnett but that just makes me happier and prouder making this choice. Besides, I like to think of myself as an early adapter to this campaign. Back in June I applauded the introduction of “Mayhem” even when others didn’t.

The others were wrong. Actor Dean Winters and his “Mayhem” character have already ensconced themselves into popular culture. And unlike other popular advertising characters (Can you say ‘Flo’ from Progressive?), Mayhem is smartly written and deftly produced. Some eight or ten spots later, not only does the campaign have legs but the work is getting better and better. Have you seen the holiday commercial? It’s hysterical.

I know there have been more famous marketing creations in 2010. Early on, Old Spice and Nike knocked campaigns out of the park. But those brands moved on. Mayhem, on the other hand, keeps on wreaking havoc, making it a big, enduring idea. The others, however brilliant, were one-offs. A solo homerun, no matter how far it’s hit, is still a one-point affair. (Granted, advertisers like Nike and Old Spice have demonstrated they are very capable of hitting numerous solo homeruns! As of this writing AOR for both brands, Wieden & Kennedy was deservedly selected agency of the year by Adweek.)

My one quibble: no Mayhem on Allstate’s website. Nor could I find any digital work highlighting Mayhem. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, Mayhem is what prompts us to buy insurance not where we go to buy it. Still, if the campaign wants to become the penultimate case study they’re going to want/need some digital credentials.

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.