Category Archives: Ill-informed advertising observations

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

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.



Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations, Stuff

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?


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations, London learnings

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.


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

“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.’


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations, Stuff

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.


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations