Category Archives: Ill-informed advertising observations

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

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

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…


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

What would you do with free texts for life?

That’s what T-Mobile is asking in its latest campaign. So, what would I do with free texts for life? Well, I suppose I’d, you know, carry on texting people. But without worrying about any possible charges. ‘Cos all the texts would be free. For the rest of my life.

That the right answer?

Well, yes, but it’s hardly the most fun or imaginative. T-Mobile’s agency must have countenanced such a prosaic response from the public, because the ads feature a few alternative suggestions. They’re supposedly provided by Ordinary Members of the Public.

I guess the suggestions are meant to make you stop and think to yourself ‘yeah! Now you come to mention it, I could use my free texts to do something like that! Something specific that I hadn’t previously thought of! And still haven’t, but it’s early days! I have a lifetime to think of an actual purpose for my free texts, something far more defined and ambitious than just texting people! Kyuh.

It’s so easy to criticise. Off we go then

In one of the ads, the reply to the question ‘What would you do with free texts for life?’ is ‘I got everyone together for a picnic by the river. Cancel the table for four.’

You couldve picked some level ground!

You could've picked some level ground!

Awww. Lucky them. Or unlucky them, depending on which restaurant you’d booked and whether or not the rain held off. At least they have the mandatory VW camper van standing by.

(I hope to make the ubiquity of these vehicles in ads the subject of a future blog. Please feel free to refer me to any examples.)

But the answer is hardly in the spirit of the question. Faced with the intoxicating prospect of a lifetime of free texts, all this person could do was arrange baps on a blanket for three mates. Surely that’s something he could have done before this offer came along? He seemed to have managed the restaurant booking all right.

There’s a weird thing going on with the tenses, as well. The question is ‘what would you do?’ Future. We’re asked to hypothesize, to wonder. But the answer given is retrospective. ‘I got everyone together for a picnic by the river.’ Past.

Until, strangely, the ‘Cancel the table for four’ part. Then it’s, ahem, back to the future. So you’ve had the picnic, but you still haven’t cancelled the restaurant? And you with your lifetime of free texts? Shameful.

How did the Beatles, U2 or Oasis ever get their show on the road?

One of the campaign’s other ads is quite fun too. It poses the same question, but this time we can see the respondent delivering his answer to camera, as it were.

Let’s remind ourselves of the question.

Isnt it obvious? Why, Id...

Isn't it obvious? Why, I'd...

This guy’s brainwave is:

He'd text all the musicians he knew and they'd start a superband

There are a couple of things that annoy me about this. (Not greatly, mind you. I’m only doing this to fill in time before The News comes on). One is the assumption that we’ll look at the ad and think, yeah, that’s a bit like me, I know LOADS of musicians, and they’re all waiting for me to arrange them into some sort of superband.

Another is the word superband.

A third is the idea that the only thing…the ONLY thing…that has so far stopped our lad from forming a ‘superband’ is that he didn’t have enough texts left.

It wasn’t the absence of talent or time or ambition or a common musical direction. It was a lack of texts. I find that unbelievable.

Finally, I’m in two minds about the guy in the ad. He looks friendly, honest, open and non-threatening. But then I blink and suddenly he looks like a cardie-contained mixture of the unutterably gormless and the insufferably smug.

Right, The News is about to start. See you anon.


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

It’s not about you. It’s about us.

As a rookie copywriter, I would show my work to the CD and he would often say “It’s OK, rookie copywriter, but it needs more yous in it.”

The received wisdom at the time was that the frequent use of ‘you’ would help convince the reader that what they were reading was actually about them; that the advertiser had their needs and interests at heart.

Now it’s all us us us

There seems to have been a bit of a shift in recent years, away from ‘what can we do for YOU?’ to ‘This is us. OK?’.

The first use of this I came across was Macmillan, the charity that supports people living with cancer.

Any problems with that?

It’s bold. It’s friendly. It’s green. Mostly, it’s giving a personality to a previously stuffy-sounding charity. Written out in full it would say “We do everything from changing your sheets to lobbying the government. We do this for you because we are Macmillan and it’s what we do.”

Good line. We’ll take it

But what’s this? It seems we are no longer just Macmillan. We are now some wine company, too.

There’s less of the sense of the friendly greeting in Blason’s line. It’s a bit more shouty. Written out in full it would be: “Pissed, are you? Grinning like a frog? That’s down to us, that is. We made you that way. We are nice to drink. We are addictive. WE ARE BLASON! GRRR!”

Incidentally, notice how both Blason and Macmillan have full points after their names? Bad practice, according to long-dead ad guru David Ogilvy. And surprising in Macmillan’s case. Their logo was created by a design agency, and design agencies are generally virulently opposed to punctuation.

That’s another blog, though.

We’re all it it

The age-old bank (and before that, building society) Abbey (and before that, Abbey National) has recently changed its name to Santander. Just why is far too dull to go into, and in any case I don’t know, but they too have gone down the ‘we are’ route for their new brand:

Are you? I’m so happy for you.

Nothing about what we can expect from this new company, with their dual typefaces and mystifying logo. The Macmillan friendliness is completely absent. If anything, ‘We are Santander’ sounds a bit table-thumping.

We are not just soaps and quizzes. Honest

Next up is ITV1, who evidently are now football united.

Of course you are, dearie

They have some screen idents that explain this claim in more detail. Next time it’s on I’ll pay more attention, but it looks like it means ITV1 will show some of this season’s Champions League matches. Bully for them.

We are not Stoke Poges

Apparently, we they are a ‘leading usability research, interactive design and accessibility agency, with strategic consultancy expertise and training services’. Nothing very Londony about that. Anyone quizzing them for the name of the best sushi bar in Shoreditch is probably better off looking elsewhere.

News just in! ‘We are London’ has a rival. I know who my money’s on:

Are we not men? Definitely not. We are photogirls.

A new addition to the list: The Woodland Trust. As to why their agency felt that a big logo wasn’t enough to tell readers the name of the advertiser we can only guess. And why they allowed that yellow blob to undermine the tree idea is another mystery. I’m also stuck on the random brackets. But anyway. We are…


And on to the rest:


Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 12.41.51

Perhaps the worst rebranding ever.


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Dubious advertising claims…or *are* they?

Try putting it out. Go on.

Try putting it out. Go on.

I thought this was a ludicrous thing to say the first time I read it. Come come, surely you cannot expect us to believe that this charcoal will never go out? What, ever? What if I deprive it off oxygen? Inundate it with water?

Then I realised that there’s a big difference between going out and burning out. So it’s not as absurd a claim as I first thought. And me a copywriter. Tsk. Although you could be picky and ask what kind of crap charcoal it is that does go out.

Specially formulated for washing-up that just goes on and on.

Specially formulated for washing-up that just goes on and on.

This is more like it. Fairy Liquid is historically supposed to last longer than all of its rivals, but the makers of this washing-up liquid, found in our Greek villa, clearly want to muscle in to the top of the ‘longest lasting’ spot and stay there.

Of course, the Greek writing around the logo may contain a sneaky caveat. It may read ‘Just because it’s called ENDLESS doesn’t mean it won’t run out at some point’.

It reminds me of the song Shirt by the marvellous Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. At 3:47 you hear Vivienne Stanshall saying ‘Good morning, can I have this shirt cleaned express, please?’ The lady shopkeeper (played by Neil Innes?) says ‘That’ll be three weeks, dearie.’ An exasperated Stanshall says ‘Three weeks? But the sign outside says 59-Minute Cleaning!’ Then comes the most beautiful, argument-settling response in the history of customer complaints. ‘Yes, that’s just the name of the shop, love.’

So they could call it Endless and justify the name on the grounds that it’s just a name. After all, who takes the name Fairy Liquid literally?

Postscript: There being no dishwasher at the villa, it was a close call as to whether the washing-up liquid would last as long as our holiday. But on the penultimate day, the maid partly replenished the bottle from an enormous tank of the stuff kept under the sink. So technically it turned out to be endless after all. Not that I spent my holiday obsessing about washing-up liquid…

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Norwich Union has become…Prudential?

After what seems like months of telling us that Norwich Union is renaming itself Aviva, the company has at last come out with its first stand-alone advertising campaign.

Gone are all references to Norwich Union. Instead, the company seems to be referencing a highly successful poster campaign from another financial services company. Unintentional, I’m sure. The Prudential campaign dates from the 1990s, so no one working in advertising now would have been alive to see it.

An ad from Avivas new poster campaign

An ad from Aviva's new poster campaign

An ad from Prudentials old poster campaign

An ad from Prudential's old poster campaign. Pic courtesy


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Down wit da yoot

I came across this poster from the NHS the other day.

And say 'you what?' to misguided youth-speak.

Here’s the copy close up:

It has a clear anti-smoking message and is quite clever in the way it talks directly to youngsters but doesn’t harangue them about the dangers of smoking. Instead it makes them think about the other members of their family who may smoke, with a subtext that says ‘hey, don’t end up like your old man’.

The problem I have with this ad is in the headline. Not the double negative; I can live with that. It’s that no skater would ever refer to a 360 as being a ‘360 spin’. It’s just a three-sixty, plain and simple. What’s more, doing a 360 is a doddle. Even I could do them, when I did that sort of thing. A kickflip is harder. A heelflip harder still.

Pedantry? Not really. Not if your target audience takes one look at the poster and decides the writer hasn’t got a clue what he or she is talking about.

The agency responsible is Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, for whom I have loads of respect. I’m anticipating a rebuke from them pointing out that an actual skater came up with the headline,  the ad researched well everywhere and that six weeks after its run, all young smokers had quit. And their dads.


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