Tag Archives: copywriter

Progress. At a price.

I was round my mate Geoff’s house the other day. He likes his gadgets, does Geoff. Old gadgety Geoff.

His latest was a Sonos sound system. Working via your home’s wi-fi, it lets you play music from your iTunes library and also from sources outside your house, such as Spotify and LastFM. The sound was deep and loud and rich, and the remote control was insanely easy to use. (This part was critical. Geoff’s previous foray into this area involved a system so complex that finding a song – any song – would take him ages standing in front of a huge screen and jabbing buttons on a paperback-sized remote control. The impenetrable operating instructions effectively excluded the rest of his family from ever selecting their own music.)

When I can next justify it financially, I thought, I’m going to get one of these Sonos systems.

Then last week I started noticing their ad campaign. No easy matter, as the adverts are discrete and understated virtually to the point of invisibility. But they got me looking for a stockist in Basingstoke, where I was working at the time, so the campaign worked to that extent.

The instore demonstration was pretty compelling. The guy showed me how the remote worked, talked me through the various systems and explained how to get the best out of it. Although my iTunes library probably wouldn’t be up to the job, he cautioned. Why ever not? Well, apparently when you import CDs to iTunes, it rips them at a less than optimal setting. For purposes of speed, I guess. For the least compression and hence the best quality, I would have to import all my CDs again on the Apple Lossless setting. Hmm.

Another thing that perplexed me was the set-up of the speaker. I belong to a generation conditioned by everyone from hi-fi mags to the Melody Maker to position speakers six to eight feet apart. That was the way to replicate a live performance and the best way to enjoy any stereo effects created in the studio. Mono? Pah!

How to listen to music

But here was a £350 system with only the one speaker. A backward step, surely? Not so, said the people at Sonos when I’d mentioned this very point on Twitter. Each Sonos system in fact included two speakers, left and right. You couldn’t separate them – separates are so last century – so the way to enjoy stereo sound was simply to buy two systems! You turn the left-hand channel off on one and place it to the right, and do the opposite with the other and bingo, stereo sound. (“You want to take a passenger on your motorcycle? No problem – just buy another motorcycle!”)

I thought about the number of times I actually sat down in the precise way recommended by speaker manufacturers and hi-fi buffs and realised that I didn’t any more. Not much, anyway. So the lack of true stereo might not be such a big deal after all. OK, I thought, I’ll take it. Just one problem – that store didn’t have one in stock in my choice of colour. (There are two: Apple white and Apple black.) But their Camberley store did have one. I got them to reserve it and headed back to the office.

During the afternoon, doubt started to creep in. £350 is quite a lot to pay for something which would involve me doing days and days worth of ripping. The ‘sound in every room’ sales schtick wasn’t that convincing either when I realised I pretty much had that already. And there was that whole back to mono thing. But on the other hand, the sound was truly amazing and the idea of using that chunky little remote control to summon up music from pretty much anywhere was  difficult to resist. So I made a deal with myself. If I get work for next week, I’ll buy it. If not, I won’t.

I checked my emails. Yay! I had work for the following week. A couple of days, anyway. So that evening found me in the Camberley hi-fi store, punching my PIN into the terminal and looking lovingly at the box of music that was about to be mine. I checked with the salesman. “It’s got the manual in there, I take it?” Manuals are a waste of paper, he glumly told me. There’ll be a CD-Rom in the box. I nodded. I prefer manuals. This idea that a manufacturing process involving polycarbonates and aluminium and a reading process that required a £500 computer and a semiconductor laser was somehow better than printing a little booklet was unconvincing.

“And the remote and everything?”

He shook his head. “There’s no remote. The remote is optional.”

That sounded odd. How am I meant to operate it without the remote? He told me it was done via an app on my iPhone, iPad, Android phone or a desktop interface. All very well for me, as I’m never far from my iPad. But Mrs Bravenewmalden doesn’t have any of those things. Well, she’s got a PC but there was no way she, or anyone else for that matter, would be prepared to sit down in front of a computer just to skip ‘Octopus’s Garden’.

“How  much extra is the remote control?”

What the salesman said next brought to a sudden end my brief flirtation with Sonos. “£280.” My jaw made a rich, room-filling sound as it crashed to the floor. No, that wasn’t a mistake. The remote represented 45% of the total cost of the system.

“So, that’s two motorcycles.Thank you sir. Now I suppose you’ll be wanting some handlebars, yes?”

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Filed under Anecdotage, Modern life is rubbish, Stuff

A rubbish idea?

Driving down the M1 recently I saw the following message on one of those giant dot matrix signs:

BIN YOUR RUBBISH
OTHER PEOPLE DO

Having precious little else to do, I thought about that for a while. The wording of it. (Not, for once, the punctuation or clumsiness of the language.) Normally, an anti-littering message will be along the lines of PLEASE TAKE YOUR LITTER HOME WITH YOU or simply NO LITTERING. This particular sign appeared to be using basic psychology to persuade people not to chuck litter out of their windows. Perhaps it was an example of the nudge theory we’ve been hearing about.

Will it work, though? Would the thought that you’re in a shameful minority encourage you not to litter? On the one hand, we like to belong and to conform to certain behaviours. On the other, some of us are utter twats and will remain that way no matter what we read on road signs.

Blogger Pete Faint is strongly of the opinion that the signs won’t work. But I’m hoping they have a positive effect, because the motorway and A-road verges that I’ve looked at during traffic delays are in a terrible state. It’s not all the fault of drivers. Lots of ripped plastic sheeting seems to have ended up on roadsides from nearby farms. Crop farmers use huge quantities of the stuff to wrap their bales of hay or corn or whatever, and some of it gets blown away to festoon trees and hedgerows for miles around. But mostly it’s fast food packaging, magazines, sweet wrappers and drinks bottles, right up to bigger stuff like furniture and pallets. Plus puppies in sacks.

In any case, how would anyone know if it’s worked or not? We’d only know if they did a split test. Signs would go up along one motorway that’s just been cleared of all litter and along another one that hasn’t. After a year, you look at the results. Instinct tells me that the Highways Agency doesn’t think like that, though. I could be wrong. Incidentally, this guy had a novel approach.

The ‘litter creates jobs’ argument

I was coming home on the Tube with a colleague once when I noticed him drop his copy of Metro on the floor of the carriage. I pointed out that he’d dropped it, and he responded that it was OK, he’d finished reading it. I tried to convince him that he was littering, but his opinion was that dropping Metros was acceptable because “they have people at the end of the line who are paid to pick them up.” He must have thought I’d find this difficult to believe because he added  “I know because I’ve seen them.”

It almost sounded like he’d made some sort of point. Without all those Metros to pick up (along with all the paid-for newspapers that are now being left behind on public transport, since the coming of Metro has conferred legitimacy on the dropping of just about anything), the newspaper picker-uppers wouldn’t have a job to do. Well, not THAT job. But using that argument, it would surely be better from an employment perspective if we were all to commit more crimes (extra police and judiciary) and cause more collisions (extra jobs in manufacturing, insurance and auto repair).

The other point to bear in mind, and I think it’s a valid one, is that I hate Metro. Especially its laughable claim to be ‘apolitical’.

Anyway, what do you think? About the motorway signs? Think they might stand a chance? I’m itching to hear your opinion.

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Filed under Modern life is rubbish, Stuff

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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Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

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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Filed under Anecdotage, Ill-informed advertising observations

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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Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations, Stuff

Having one less digit in a digital age

Along with date of birth, height and occupation, there used to be a space on the old-style British passport that noted the bearer’s ‘distinguishing marks’, or signes particuliers. Most people didn’t have distinguishing marks, or in any case not distinguishing enough for the UK Passport Agency.

I’m sure many applicants struggled to think of something that would have separated them from the herds of run-of-the-terminal, undistinguished passport holders. ‘Endearing smile’, ‘freckle configuration reminiscent of Ursa Major’ or even ‘mammoth tits’ might have been put forward. Not good enough. These peoples’ passports carried the crushing word ‘none’.

I, though, did have a distinguishing mark. On my passport it stated ‘TOP JOINT, FOURTH FINGER, R.HAND MISSING’. My pride in this was almost enough to counter the bouts of hilarity whenever anyone saw my passport photo. Like middle names, passport photos are guaranteed to provoke mirth regardless of how ordinary they are.

My phalange shortfall

See? There’s nothing remotely amusing about this, my first-ever passport photo

So how did it come about, this 33.33% deficiency in the pinky department? Well, I lost the top of my little finger in a car door accident.

This explanation normally makes people grimace briefly, before they recover and say “well, at least it was quick. Clean break and all that.” Then I go on to explain that it wasn’t the result of a car door being closed, but being opened. Their expression changes once more.

The car in question was a 1950’s Ford Prefect (registration FBD 528). This wasn’t part of some classic car restoration project. It was the family car. Yes, I really am that old. But at the time, I was very young. Just turned three, in fact. I had two older brothers who sat in the rear of the car, while I had to sit on my mum’s lap in the front. (No seatbelts to get in the way back then.)

A Ford Prefect, the inspiration behind the eponymously-named character from HHGTTG

We had stopped off at a shop on the way back from a day out to pick up some shopping. I waited on the pavement for my mum to get in first. I was leaning against the car with my hand splayed out against the central door pillar. Then one of my brothers opened the back door. My fingers were caught between the door and the pillar; as he opened the door it slowly sliced off the ends of two fingers.

I believe I may have uttered some expression of astonishment.

My father: lawbreaker

My memories of the actual incident are largely derived from others’ testimony, but I do have a strong recollection of my dad breaking the speed limit for perhaps the first time in his life to get me to A&E as quickly as possible.

The subsequent operation to reattach my fingers was only a partial success. The top of my third finger hadn’t been completely severed and was stitched back more or less as good as new.

The pinky fared less well. Perhaps the surgeon was a bit mean with the stitches. Whatever the reason, I had to revisit the hospital a fortnight later for the fingertip to be permanently removed.

People rarely notice its absence. I can be friends with someone for years before they suddenly stare open-mouthed at my hand. Or I’m in one of those my-scar-is-bigger-than-your-scar pub conversations, and I have to think of something to trump their Glasgow smile, AK-47 exit wound or Great White leg injury. That’s when I nonchalantly raise my little finger to looks of general incredulity.

Spot the difference

Curiously, the people most likely to notice are those who themselves are short of a digit or two. I have no idea why this should be. I certainly don’t go round looking at people’s hands to see if they have their full complement of fingers.

Some disadvantages of little fingerlessness

  • Not being a world-class drummer like Terry Bozzio. The thick end of the drumstick sits just where my stump is. (I think that might be a unique sentence.) So when I hit the drums hard, it starts to hurt. I know Rick Allen of Def Leppard managed to continue playing after the amputation of his entire left arm, but that’s different. He had the advantage of being talented.
  • In cold weather, my little finger starts to feel cold before the rest of me. In fact it gets bloody cold. My mum, bless her, once knitted me a pair of gloves with a foreshortened little finger. Awww.
  • If I used all ten fingers to touch-type it would potentially reduce my overall speed by as much as 10%. Luckily I only use two fingers, which itself is 100% more than I use to play the piano.

P.S. The picture above this one was taken with the Mac’s built-in camera, which produces a reverse image. Hence the little finger appearing to be on my left hand.

P.P.S. I reserve the right to blog about stuff that’s personal to me. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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Filed under Anecdotage, Stuff

The rudeness gag

Chemical drums of the type that may have been used by Trafigura when they allegedly sprayed loads of Africans with horrible toxic loathsomeness

Chemical drums of the type that may have been used by Trafigura when they allegedly sprayed loads of Africans with horrible toxic loathsomeness

The alleged toxic-waste dumping trading company Trafigura has been in the news recently, along with the alleged press-freedom hating, injunction-loving writmeisters  Carter-Ruck & Partners.

You probably know the background. Carter-Ruck had obtained a ‘super injunction’ preventing The Guardian from reporting any details of a parliamentary question about its client (who turned out to be Trafigura), tabled by an MP (who turned out to be the Labour MP Paul Farrelly).

As the newspaper said: “The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.”

The paper was also forbidden from telling its readers why. Just that there were “legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involving proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret”.

Pretty comprehensive stuff. But Carter-Ruck’s injunction could have gone further, preventing the Guardian from disclosing the fact that it had been served with an injunction in the first place.

I know this, because a ‘supergag’ like this was once clamped around me. And not in an exciting alt.sex way.

Just what we all need. Another credit card

I’d picked up some freelance from a big American finance company who had recently set up operations here in the UK. My job was to write the copy for a direct mail pack that was to launch a new credit card. Yes, I know we all hate credit card mailings and that this makes me worse than Radovan Karadzic, but it was the recession, OK? (The previous recession, not this one. How I miss the previous recession.)

Oh, for the bucolic recessions of yesteryear. Image courtesy Picture post

Oh, for the bucolic recessions of yesteryear. Image courtesy Picture post

Anyway, this company had the bright idea of offering credit cards to all the people who previously had been refused a credit card. The client had bought mailing lists bulging with such unfortunates. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that these people might have been refused a credit card for a very good reason. Perhaps for one of the following:

  • They were profligate fools who had run up enormous debts then tried to hide or run away
  • They were convicted felons or permanent residents of mental institutions
  • They had no money. Literally, no money at all. Really, really bad risks
  • They were bankrupts or had county court judgments against them
  • They were all of the above, and what’s more they share more neurological characteristics with molluscs than with sentient humans

That’s what I thought too. Still, I wasn’t going to suggest anything like that to the client. “You want to offer a credit card to people who you know for a fact are amongst the worst credit risks in history? Are you fucking mad?” I wish I’d said that. Or even “OK, but you do realise that a strategy like this is financially unsustainable and, around 15 years from now, will help bring down the entire global economy? Just thought I’d mention that before we talk about whether you want a 4-page leaflet or a 6-page roll-fold.”

Instead I wrote the mailpack and, in my own small way, contributed to the inception of the great steaming pile of shit we currently find ourselves wading through.

Reader’s voice: Can we get to the bit about the gag now?

Of course. So, as part of my contract with the client I had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA. A fairly standard document, signing it would merely confirm my undertaking to the client that I won’t tell the world what I’m working on or HOW UTTERLY STUPID IT IS.

But this NDA was a bit different. Because amongst all the clauses and subclauses was the injunction that I refrain from telling anyone that I

An example of an NDA. Hang on... curse my piss-poor typing!

An example of an NDA. Hang on... curse my piss-poor typing!

had signed the NDA. What did that mean? It meant that I couldn’t tell anyone what I was working on, and that I couldn’t tell them that I couldn’t tell them what I was working on.

So if, as would quite often happen, another freelancer were to ask what I was up to, the only permissible response would have been to stand there in total silence. It was gag-enforced rudeness.

Unless, of course, this client’s all-embracing NDAs were well known in the freelance community. In which case, a reaction of total silence would immediately signal to the questioner who you were working for, and they’d nod sympathetically. Learning about this, the company concerned might then have introduced another clause into the NDA:

6.3.0 (c) The Contractor shall not respond to enquiries about his/her current employment status with a period of sustained silence. Should the Contractor be quizzed to this effect, he/she should first deprive the questioner’s brain of oxygen until such time as the questioner does become dead before terminating his/her own life using any of the prescribed methods set out in Addendum 3.9, page xxiv.

You laugh but it could happen, according to a mentally unhinged conspiracy theorist I’ve just imagined.

In fact, the funniest thing about this whole episode occurred a few months later. I called the company to try and get a sample of my work and they said they couldn’t send me one.  Why ever not, I asked.  Apparently it was company policy not to supply ‘contractors’ with samples of their work. Er yes, but see my previous question: Why ever not? Confidentiality, they replied.

“Hang on,” I said, “you can’t send me samples of my own work because it’s confidential?”

“Yes. Completely confidential. Didn’t you read your NDA? You’re sworn to secrecy.”

“But how can it be confidential to me? I wrote every word. It’s all on my computer.”

“Then you must delete the files immediately. The work undertaken by us in the UK is completely classified. We don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”

“The wrong hands? But you’ve just bulk-mailed it to millions of people you’ve never even met. Skint and unreliable people. Not to mention the molluscs.”

“Eh?”

The yankee buggers wouldn’t budge. Which is probably just as well. After all, who wants physical evidence of their role in the world’s most dramatic financial collapse since 1485?*

For a more enlightening piece about the Kafkaesque world of media gagging, read Afua Hirsch in the Guardian.

*Or whenever

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