Category Archives: Ill-informed advertising observations

We all have an opinion about advertising campaigns. These are mine.

Fuelling anger

The Chief Executive of Consumer Focus reckons that 6 million UK households are currently experiencing fuel poverty, a figure set to rise to 9 million by 2016. That’s a lot of people thinking twice about putting the heating on, or having to make choices between eating and staying warm.

Just like petrol prices a few years back, the inexorable and dramatic increases in the costs of gas and electricity are causing anger and outrage as well as real hardship and, too often, premature deaths.

You’d expect the big energy companies to bear this in mind when briefing their ad agencies or approving the work they produce. They must be aware that the EDFs and E.ONs of this world aren’t amongst Britain’s best-loved companies. Especially as they’re French. So I can’t understand what makes E.ON think that this advert conveys the right message to its customers.

e.on advert

“I get money off my energy bills with E.ON. Great. More money for online shopping.”

Because that’s obviously the alternative. Not food, or clothes for the kids. Any money you don’t give to e.on can be added to that huge fund earmarked for Net-a-Porter. And what’s with that gratuitous inclusion of ‘online’? That just compounds the felony, as a simple ‘shopping’ would indeed suggest the weekly trip to stock up on life’s necessities. ‘Online shopping’, in contrast, still evokes the buying of treats and luxuries, especially when viewed in context with the image.

I think it’s insulting. But then it gets worse with that clunker of a strapline.

‘Helping our customers. We’re on it.’

To me, that comes across as ‘Helping our customers, you say? Worth a try, I suppose.’

Or: ‘We’ve heard about offering help to our customers , instead of remorselessly f*cking them over, and we’re going to give it a go.’

‘We’re on it’ doesn’t suggest an ongoing programme at all. The singular version – ‘I’m on it!’ –  is what an eager young intern says when asked to perform a challenging new task,  usually accompanied by a snap of the fingers. In fact it doesn’t even have the sense of a gradual process as evinced by its much-maligned predecessor, British Rail’s ‘We’re getting there’.

Essentially, the news from e.on is good. It is at last doing something positive for its  customers, probably as a reaction to the criticism that’s been levelled at it from all sides saying that existing customers are always ignored in favour of lucrative new ones.

But I think they could have conveyed the news in a far more sensitive and appropriate way. Meter reading: 0000001.

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Hurtz to listen

Hertz is running an ad campaign at the moment that includes some radio commercials. I say includes, but perhaps the entire campaign is being run exclusively on the radio, and maybe the campaign consists solely of just the one ad. This matters, because the quality of any other ads in the series – on the radio, in the press or online – may go some way towards mitigating the forty seconds of crap I heard last night. Here’s a précis of the set-up:

MIDDLE CLASS MAN: I’d like to hire a car please.

DODGY USED-CAR-DEALER-TYPE LONDONER: Yeah, what’cha after then?

MCM: Well, something a bit stylish and modern.

DUCDTL: Got just the thing. Lovely motor. Very spacious. Here it is!

MCM: But…but….that’s a VAN!!!!

See? The person wishing to hire the car had visited one of the less-well known vehicle rental businesses, perhaps in a desire to save money in these belt-tightening times, and the no-good scoundrel behind the counter had tried to rent him a van instead of a car. Because that’s what must happen: businessmen in focus groups often recount the times they had to turn up to an important meeting behind the wheel of a battered long-wheelbase Ford Transit or an LDV 200-series with a Luton conversion. It just doesn’t look good.

It’s clearly a false premise, though. Discovering that Ronnie’s Rentals doesn’t have the exact model you wish to hire is entirely possible. Finding that the car is in a poor state of repair or that its ashtray is full may be a familiar occurence. But the scenario of this ad is so unlikely that I suspect it won’t even begin to resonate with the target market. And I reckon this over-exaggeration of the possible negative consequences of trying to save a few quid is deliberate. It was done in order to put more space between that and the positive aspects of hiring a car from Hertz. The creative team must have struggled to find anything appreciably better about the Hertz experience, so they made the alternative seem absurdly nightmarish.

Some fuss guaranteed

This is borne out by what’s said in the ‘positive’ section of the radio ad, the bit where we get all serious and real-worldy. The voiceover reassuringly informs us that a car can be hired from Hertz with a minimum of fuss. So there will be some fuss, you say? Despite your 94 years of experience in renting cars, it’s still a bit of a fuss to hire a car from Hertz? Expecting the process to be free from fuss is an unrealistic expectation, is it?

I detect the hand of a nervous client here. Or maybe the RACC had a problem with a previous version of the script, the one that alluded to a 100% guaranteed, entirely fuss-free transaction in every Hertz location and on every occasion. I can understand that. In which case, the solution would surely be to not mention fuss at all, wouldn’t it? In fact, why are we even in the territory of fuss at all – the commercial was supposedly about the inability of some car rental firms to provide customers with cars to rent.

Clients can be a pain and briefs can be flimsy and the RACC can be heavy-handed, but there’s no excuse for lazy writing.

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Sort-of integrated campaigns

Have you seen this ad recently? You probably have. It’s everywhere right now. In the press and on 6-sheet and cross-track posters. Maybe other places too. In the ads, a woman or occasionally a man has been handed a parking ticket from a traffic warden. But instead of being cross about it, the motorist is happy. The traffic warden looks happy, too. Everyone’s happy.

In another execution, the happy motorist is shown with the ticket in one hand and talking into a phone that’s held in her other hand. There are smiles all round.

The phone bit made some sort of sense, in as much as it was an ad for a phone company. An ad for a phone company featuring someone using a phone wouldn’t be a bolt from the blue; a crazy juxtaposition making all your cognitives go into dissonance overload.

But it didn’t help me make any more sense out of the overall concept. And in any case, what could she be saying into the phone?

“You’ll never guess what happened, Mum! I got a parking ticket! Yes, another one! Well, they say good things happen in threes!”

According to the headline, there are ‘no nasty surprises with You Fix’. Did that make things clearer for me? A bit, maybe. Perhaps the motorists haven’t really been given tickets. Perhaps, in some inverted adland version of reality, the motorists are actually giving parking tickets to the traffic wardens. Fuck knows. Despite the posters and ads being all over the place, I soon decided not to bother trying to decipher them. It’s probably to do with some clever network joke that people in my demographic wouldn’t get.

I mentioned this to a friend the other day and he told me what the campaign’s all about. Apparently,it’s based around a TV commercial in which an actor dressed as a traffic warden gives fake parking tickets to other actors dressed as motorists. The drivers pretend to be upset, then pretend to be overjoyed when the ‘parking ticket’ turns out to be a £10 note. No nasty surprises. See?

It’s quite a good idea, if a tad derivative (although lifting stuff is officially Not A Crime Any More in advertising). Showing the absence of something is always a tricky brief to crack.

No, it’s not the idea that irks me about this, or the creative strategy. It’s the assumption that everyone who sees the posters or print ads will have seen the TV ad and will thus get the joke.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Not everyone watches Emmerdale or X-Factor. To make doing so a precondition of understanding your ad campaign seems, well, a bit wasteful.

It’s not a one-off, either. I was recording a radio commercial recently and questioned whether the call to action – which involved people texting a certain word to a particular number – was being said with enough clarity by the voiceover. The client, who shall remain nameless, said it wouldn’t matter if some people couldn’t hear it. They’d probably be able to read it on one of the posters.

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You want hard-working advertising words. That’s why we’ve identified two more.

I say ‘we’, because I wasn’t alone in spotting this comparatively recent trend. The estimable Tom Albrighton over on ABC Copywriting did all the heavy lifting back in May. Quick on his feet, that Tom. All I’m bringing to the table is a few more examples.

I’m talking about the ubiquity of the two words ‘that’s why’ in advertising copy. As Tom says, it follows the formula:

At A, we know how important B is. That’s why we C, which gives you D.

Or: You know this? That’s why we have this

It’s cropping up everywhere. It’s like every copywriter in town has been on the same course. Which would be strange, because copywriters don’t go on courses.

Here’s a few examples I’ve half-heartedly collected over the past two weeks. There are loads more out there.

'Find healthy'? Let's not go there.

One ad. Three that's-whys.

Oh, so that's why!

This is a bit of a non-sequitur, in my opinion.

Basically, we wanted to increase profits and hurt the competition. That's why we were compelled to make our products look and sound desirable. Otherwise we'd have just thrown together the first thing our designers came up with.

It's Sidney again, still looking for healthy. Hang on, wasn't he 88 in the previous ad? Time flies when you get old. (That's why you should try and enjoy every day as if it were your last.)

Cheerio!

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Ads from 21 years ago

At precisely 9.44pm on a hot and humid July 30th 1990, Georgia Mills took her first lungfuls of air in a maternity suite at St George’s Hospital, south London. Over the course of that busy weekend I made frequent trips to and from the hospital, was on the phone virtually non-stop and generally performed lots of new-dad duties.

I also found time to do something a bit unusual. I taped the day’s news onto the VHS recorder and gathered up a selection of Saturday’s newspapers. Then I stuffed them all into a thick black plastic bag, the kind photographers keep light-sensitive paper in, stuck a label on it saying ‘Do not open until 31st July 2011’, and hauled it up into the loft.

Fast forward to last Saturday evening and I’m in the garden with Georgia, her mum and younger sister. It’s Georgia’s 21st birthday and we’re drinking champagne while she opens cards and presents. Eventually she gets to the black bag and we all have a chance to peruse the contents.

There’s a Guardian, a Daily Star, a Daily Telegraph, an Express, Mirror and Sun. There’s also the VHS cassette and – I’d forgotten about this touch – all the congratulatory cards we’d received from friends, relatives and neighbours.

Had Georgia been born a few hours later the papers would have been of greater historical significance as they would have been full of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which kicked off the first Gulf War. As it was, the two parties were still having talks in Saudi Arabia aimed as resolving their crisis. This news occupied one column inch in the broadsheets (my, were they broad).

The main news in most of the papers was the peaceful resolution of a siege in  London’s ‘Tokyo Joe’ nightclub, although the Guardian went for ‘Trinidad gripped by chaos’.

I’m interested in this sort of stuff from a historical perspective. I especially enjoy reading the adverts. They’re a window into a world that can be strangely reassuring and utterly alien. Here’s a small selection, together with the front page of the Telegraph.

As a radio news bulletin, the front page alone would occupy more than 20 minutes of airtime.

Retro's nothing new, you know. Here's a retro ad for a fax machine, which is pleasingly ironic.

A rare colour ad. For £5,995 you got a stereo radio/cassette and 'special 'jazz' graphics'.

After 21 years, this is still very recognisably an ad for First Direct.

Whatever happened to Metro? Or Rover? Or the team responsible for this confection?

All that speed! All that power! To think, today's socks have about as much computing power

Finally, an ad from 1990 that you could easily run today without changing much.

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We provide our own emphasis

One of things I don’t like about the Daily Mail – apart from the misogyny, the homophobia, the jingoism and racial intolerance, the bile, spite and malevolence, the rejection of anything new or different, the small-mindedness, the crass populism and the utter, utter hypocrisy – is the underlinings.

They turn up in headlines like this:

‘So, who has got the fattest legs in showbiz?’

‘It’s official: immigrants do come from overseas’

‘How faceless Brussels Eurocrats plan to steal our children’s faces’

The sub-editors use these underlinings literally to underline the DM’s agenda. Each one says “You know those prejudices you’ve got? Well they’re well-founded. You’re not racist or irrational. Those dark thoughts and fears you harbour are in fact completely normal. Everything’s alright with your head. You’re amongst friends here. We’re like peas in a pod, you and I. And there’s nothing wrong with good old British peas, unlike swarthy, swan-eating foreign peas.”

Underlinings are ubiquitous in advertising copy, too, though their presence is driven by commercial rather than ideological reasons. “Can you just emphasise the price?” asks the client. “The price is a big selling point. And the phone number, can you put that in bold, along with the web address, and make sure they’re mentioned up front. And somehow draw attention to the ‘offer closes’ date. Oh, and underline the free set of steak knives. In fact, could you emphasise everything and makes sure it all gets mentioned first?”

Copywriters generally end up accommodating at least some of the clients’ wishes because, well, we like to eat. The result, though, is all too often deeply unattractive ads and, worse, a patronising shoutiness that doesn’t trust people to read the ad ‘properly’.

I challenge you to check out the current top 10 titles on the Amazon best-selling fiction list and find any examples of underlining, emboldening or italicising used as a means of emphasis. OK, the literature vs advert comparison is slightly disingenuous. Books want you to get involved; ads want you to get online, get on the phone or get down the shops.

Occasionally, I suppose, the way to get people to do that is to yell and hector them. After all, the market stallholder doesn’t outsell his rivals by adopting a Sergeant Wilson-style sales patter: “I say, would you mind awfully looking at the rather generous price of my splendid tomatoes? In your own time.”

But not all ads need to shout and nor do they have to tell you how to read the copy. If it’s expressed well, the voice in your head can detect the importance of a message or the uniqueness of a proposition. It knows when to invest copy with whimsy, breathlessness, charm or urgency. It can also tell when a word needs emphasis.

I was reminded of this the other day after reading that the Metropolitan Police were introducing a new ‘101’ number for non-emergency calls. Presumably this will replace the distinctly unmemorable number they launched a few years back with the same purpose in mind. But I kept the little door-drop because I liked the way it allowed people to provide their own emphasis:

Admit it: your inner voice put an inflection on ‘has’, didn’t it? Then you read it again and emphasised both ‘is and ‘has’. See? I rest my case.

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Energy ad fail

EDF Energy are the new sponsors of the London Eye, as anyone who has been with 100 metres of the Eye won’t have failed to notice. Their branding is everywhere. (They’ve sneakily hidden the stainless steel plaque that commemorates the life of the chief engineer of the project, who died shortly after its completion. Presumably on the grounds that it mentions the name of the original sponsors, British Airways.)

Anyway, EDF Energy support a low carbon future, which is nice. ‘Supporting a low carbon future’, their strapline noncommittally  asserts. They obviously like to be seen as taking the issue very seriously.

Which makes me wonder how on earth they can reconcile that with the sentiment expressed in their latest ad. An after-dark trip on the Eye, the ad states, is ‘lavish – like taking a cab to the corner shop.’  Lavish? Selfish, more like.

How many people failed to spot the contradiction here?

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Stumbling over copy

I’m showing my copy to the account director. I watch closely as she reads the text. I like to think that I can tell exactly whereabouts she is on the page simply by observing her reactions.

That little nod means she’s reached the part in the opening paragraph that resolves the slight sense of intrigue contained within the headline. Smaller, almost imperceptible nods mean she’s mentally ticking off the product’s key selling points. And that half smile must be in recognition of the little gag I put towards the end, which neatly refers back to the headline. I begin to smile myself.

But what’s this? She doesn’t hand the copy back. Instead, she narrows her eyes and picks it up off the desk. She holds the sheet of A4 a few inches further away from her, as if she’s suddenly having trouble focusing on the words. She frowns and her lips start forming an O.

“All OK?” I say brightly, conveying, I hope, an air of finality.

“Yes,” she replies. I’m just having trouble with this word.” She mentions the word.

“Really? I quite like that word. I thought it made a nice change from the usual.”

“Maybe that’s it. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I stumbled over it.”

There it is. The stumble word. We can’t have people stumbling. In copy, everything’s got to be smooth and level and free of any linguistic obstacles. Gently undulating is acceptable, but molehills, potholes, sudden twists or turns; these are verboten.

The nice flat plains in the south of Australia's Northern Territories are interrupted by this unsightly stumbling block, Uluru.

Were you expecting ‘forbidden’, there? That’s what I had in mind, then I changed it to verboten at the last minute. It sounded stronger, more absolute. But did you…stumble? Did you stare at the word with a look of bafflement, shake your head and go back to Twitter?

I think copywriting that sometimes uses the unexpected or the unfamiliar – even, in the right circumstances, the unheard of – can enhance the experience of reading it.

That’s doesn’t mean being wilfully obscure or peppering your copy with impenetrable jargon. It just means occasionally straying from the everyday, the overly familiar and definitely the clichéd.

I thought about this the other day when I came across this poster for Fitness First, ostensibly encouraging people to join their gyms. Health clubs tend to pour most of their ad budgets into January for obvious reasons, though it would be interesting to see if this campaign makes a blind bit of difference to FF’s membership:

 

Try not to look at it for too long.

Now this poster isn’t in any way a shining example of the adman’s craft. I think that possibly every element of it could be improved. But the thing that stood out for me, as I casually took it in while padlocking my bike by the train station, were the words ‘our members are fitter than yesterday.’

Fitter than yesterday. I”ve never heard that expression. A search on Google (UK) yields just three examples, none of which uses the phrase as a figure of speech. So whoever approved the copy for this poster – and it must have gone through SOME sort of approval process – wasn’t unduly concerned about it containing a phrase that might have made people ‘stumble’.

I thought it sounded quite cool. It contained a truth. It required a teensy bit of thought. The words made me think, ever so briefly, about fitness, age, decay and mortality. Had I not heard the sound of my train approaching, and had the rest of the ad not been such a complete fucking disaster, I might have made a mental note to book an appointment at the nearest gym.

Sometimes, it’s good to stumble.

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“Late again, Williams?”

The good thing about working in advertising – forget the long lunches, the exotic shoots, the opportunity to write eye-catching advertisements; these are all the stuff of urban legend – the really good thing is that most London agencies start work at 9.30am rather than the usual nine o’clock.

A 9.30 start is just late enough to miss the worst of the rush hour. It means that in theory you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast before setting off for work. In practice, it means you set the alarm to go off at the last possible moment and end up scoffing a Danish at your desk when you finally do arrive. But still.

I’ve worked full-time at three London agencies and have been lucky enough to haul myself in for a 9.30 start at all of them. The most recent was a place called DraftFCB.

It wasn’t always called DraftFCB. It used to be known as Draft, and before that it was called Draft London, and before that it was called Lowe Live, and before that it was called Lowe Direct. Today it’s known as FCBInferno.

But the agency I joined in 1997 was Lowe Direct.

Lovely place. Nice people. Good work. Linen hand-towels in the bathrooms. And a 9.30 start. How civilised.

Anyway, fast forward to 2007 and the latest name-change stroke re-branding stroke merger is announced. Draft is to merge with the famous old Madison Avenue agency FCB. (Foote Cone and Belding, or Foot Crushed and Bleeding, as no one called it.)

I can’t talk too much about the actual merger because there were, you know, issues. Headcount issues. We all had to sign something, and then most of us also had to leave and find other work. But before all that kicked off, we had one of those ‘this is going to be GREAT!’ pre-merger meetings.

There’d be an expanded client base.  Opportunities to deliver incisive strategic initiatives. Amalgamated and streamlined things. Shiny stuff, across the board. Shorter queues for coffee, because of the issues you won’t be allowed to talk about. And guess what! The agency we’re merging with start work half an hour later than we do!

Draftfcb’s spacious offices in Victoria. Note how spacious they were. All that space.

This was good news. This was almost unheard of. Everyone looked at each other with broad smiles and secret thoughts about how they’d spend their extra half-hour. 10.00am was very nearly lunchtime!

After the meeting we all headed back to our desks, or content creation modules as they were now known. There was general anxiety about the merger, tempered only by the welcome news of the later morning start.

“That extra half-hour’s going to make all the difference,” said someone. “Getting in at nine has always been a killer.” People nodded.

“Wait,” I said. “You’ve got it wrong. You’ll be starting half an hour later. Ten o’clock.” As soon as I said it out loud, doubts started to gather.

And sure enough, I was the one who’d got it wrong. The official start time of the agency I joined in 1998 was 9.00am. Apart from when I’d turned up early for pitches or for other genuine worky reasons, I’d been exactly half an hour late, every single day, for the previous 10 years. 

And the headline of this blog? That relates to an art director I used to work with, an amazing character called John Williams. Yep, he knows all the jokes.

He strolled into reception one morning at about 10.15am, bleary of eye and over of hung. Just as the lift doors were closing, the managing director jumped in and barked ‘Late again, Williams!’

Without missing a beat, he said ‘Yeah, so am I.’

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Reading made easy

Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee

Chapter One – First Light

  • I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.
  • The June Grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept.
  • I had never been so close to grass before.
  • It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight.
  • It was a knife-edge, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

Did you have any trouble reading that opening paragraph from Cider With Rosie? You shouldn’t have. I made it easy for you by splitting the text into handy bullet points.

Laurie missed an obvious story-telling trick

Using bullet points in this way makes heavy blocks of text easier to read and digest. Without them, the dense forest of words looks intimidating. It creates a fear in the would-be reader that, were he to embark upon the ordeal of reading the text, he would only get as far as the fourth or fifth line before realising that he’d completely forgotten what was said in the first.

The utter refusal of authors to employ bullet points in this way shows complete contempt for their readers and probably explains why the vast majority of them remain unknown and unread. Can you imagine how much more popular the long-forgotten novel Peter Pan might have been if its author, one J M Barrie (?), had started the book like this:

  • All children, except one, grow up.
  • They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this.
  • One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother.
  • I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’
  • This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.
  • You always know after you are two.
  • Two is the beginning of the end.

See? The very idea of that reasonably promising opening being expressed in a solid block of black type goes against every grain of common sense.

Have I made my point?

You can sense that I’m being sarcastic here. And if you know me at all you can probably tell that I have recently experienced some sort of conflict involving the enforced deployment of bullet points.

Yes, and yes.

I had written a booklet setting out the design and copy guidelines that designers, art directors and copywriters should adhere to when creating material for a new advertising campaign.

The logo should always appear bottom right. Headlines should always be in Helvetica. That sort of thing. (Obviously it went into a little more detail than that.)

I’d used a mixture of bullet-pointed copy where it was appropriate, and regular copy where it wasn’t. But the client decided that all the copy should appear in bullet point format. So all the sentences that were designed to flow together, forming a narrative that makes sense to the reader, were summarily disconnected and made to stand alone.

The result of this was:

  • The copy in some bullet points was quite long because it had originally been a longish sentence
  • But not in others
  • As each sentence was honoured with its own bullet point, readers were likely to infer that each ‘point’ was invested with equal importance
  • They clearly weren’t
  • Narrative copy doesn’t work like that
  • Then there’s this irony
  • Mixing long bullet points with short little staccato ones created on the page the sort of design chaos that the guidelines were in part trying to prevent
  • And you had bullet points beginning with But and However and And

You could argue with some justification that as the booklet was aimed at designers it should be completely idiot-proof. Designers, it is often thought, think excusively in visual terms and have at best a nodding acquaintance with the written word.

Help for designers. Image courtesy leaeva.com

Well, maybe so. There’s no shortage of appalling design to lend weight to that theory. But the worst offenders aren’t going to pay attention to any copy, whether it’s in paragraphs, bullet-points, tattooed on their foreheads using mirror writing or personally set in second-coming type before their very eyes by Neville Brody dressed in a tutu.

A tutu

Neville Brody

Bullet points are great for lists of things. Dos and don’ts,  for example. Or when you want to show a number of different sizes of things: figures look confusing and illegible when expressed in flowing text.

They work best when there’s between three and 10 bullets. As mentioned, they should all be about the same length. Put a full stop at the end of the last one or not at all. No one will mind. Make sure the leading letter of each word can’t be added together to spell TITFEST. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

Are there any opening paragraphs that could benefit from being given the bullet(s)? Well, that chap Dickens wrote some titanic sentences. Perhaps we could rework the opening sentence of:

A Tale Of Two Cities

The following book is set in the:
  • best of times
  • worst of times
  • age of wisdom
  • age of foolishness
  • epoch of belief
  • epoch of incredulity
  • and many more enticing dichotomies
As the story unfolds it will be seen that contrasts continue to take centre stage as the protagonists:
  • had everything before them
  • had nothing before them
  • were all going direct to Heaven
  • were all going direct the other way
In summary
The period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Hmm. That still needs a bit of work…

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