Tag Archives: london copywriter

Not, I’d say

Remember Shreddies’ knitting Nanas? Launched in 2009, the idea was that hundreds of Nanas lovingly knitted each Shreddie to ensure they were all absolutely perfect. The campaign highlighted Shreddies’ unique design and taste. Some found it off-putting (‘yeuch, wet wool touched by olds’) but the campaign was a success and lasted for years.

But then it eventually ran out of steam, or yarn, and something new was needed. And this is it.

‘Shreddie…OR TOOK THE BOYS BACK TO SCHOOL, (A DAY TOO EARLY).’

So the campaign idea is that you should have Shreddies for breakfast or you’ll end up doing daft things or be otherwise unprepared for the day. It’s basically a twist on the famous Weetabix campaign from the late 1980s that’s just been resurrected in a new spot by BBH. Instead of ‘Have you had your Weetabix?‘ the line is ‘Shreddie or not?

It isn’t a bad thought. Weetabix obviously rate it. McDonald’s tread the same path, too, with ads featuring people wearing mismatched socks because they didn’t start the day with an Egg McThingy.  And to be fair, the TV commercial from Shreddies’ agency McCann is reasonably amusing.

But these posters. Oh my. You might conceivably get half-way to work before remembering it’s a Sunday, or drive to the park to walk the dog before realising that you remembered the dog lead but not the dog. But is parents taking their children back to school the day before terms starts a recognised phenomenon? Why does the ad just talk about boys? Why is A DAY TOO EARLY in brackets? Why is the opening bracket preceded by a comma? Couldn’t they have got a copywriter involved at some stage of the approval process?

Things take a turn for the worse with this next execution. That old chestnut about people deliberately missing tube trains because the copy on a cross-track poster was so captivating might hold some truth. I doubt it, but you never know. But is it even remotely likely that someone would dwell for so long while taking in just 10 words of text that their bus would come and go before they’d reached the end?

I admit that I spent more than a few moments staring at it. But that’s because I couldn’t believe the arrogance of it. I’m ambivalent at best towards the idea of breaking the fourth wall in advertising. It often reeks of smart-arsery. (I warmed to the Oasis campaign after some initial hesitation.) But this is self-congratulatory bollocks. Now you might say hey, we’re in adland here, Mr Literal!! Take a relax pill!!! I’d say you can think about what your ad is going to say for LONGER than seven seconds and STILL have fun. You might even sell some cereal.

I realise I’ve probably blown any chances I’ve got of f’lancing at McCanns, remote though they were. But bloody hell.

Mind you, the campaign does inadvertently have one redeeming consequence. Because every poster site displaying one of these Shreddies ads means one less showing you-know-who.

image courtesy @zacharyking

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Born in ’54

2014 is the year I turn 60. No, I can’t believe it either. I wanted to know who and what I share my anniversary with, so here are twenty or so examples of others celebrating their 60th birthday this year.

SUNSILK SHAMPOO

Unilever first launched this famous shampoo in the UK. Now it’s the biggest name in haircare and is sold everywhere. A 1960’s ad campaign for Sunsilk featured a jingle composed by John Barry that was subsequently released as a pop single. Don’t look it up; it’s awful.

UNIVERS

Univers is described as a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface and was designed by a Swiss guy called Adrian Frutiger. Frutiger also came up with, er, Frutiger. Alas, Univers isn’t on the WordPress menu so you’ll have to settle for whatever this is. Palatino?

THE GEODESIC DOME

A strong yet lightweight structure consisting of a lattice of interlocking icosahedrons, patented (but not invented) in 1954 by American hippy hero R Buckminster Fuller. The best examples in the UK can be seen at Cornwall’s Eden Project.

SLIDING DOORS

Not the movie, the actual thing. One breezy day in 1954, a couple of Texan dudes noticed that the wind was always blowing swing doors open. So they set about inventing the world’s first automatic electric sliding doors. Today it is estimated that there are lots of sliding doors everywhere.

THE MOGEN CLAMP

A tool used in circumcision procedures and invented by Brooklyn rabbi Harry Bronstein. Bronstein’s invention had an inherent design flaw in that the very act of applying the clamp made it impossible for the circumciser to see what he was doing. So Rabbi Bronstein is probably known as ‘that goddamn bastard’ by the various men who lost more than was religiously necessary.

PHOTOVOLTAIC PANELS

Also enjoying its 60th birthday is the photovoltaic or solar panel. Back in 1954 you needed a whole square yard of solar panel to power a single domestic light bulb. Today it’s more like 0.836 square metres.

TRANSISTOR RADIOS

The original transistor radio was called the Regency TR-1 and entered the US market costing £29.45, or about £250 in today’s money. Surviving examples are much sought after by collectors but rarely by music fans. I mean, look at it.

1717 ARLON*

Discovered in 1954 but actually born much, much earlier, 1717 Arlon is a small asteroid with its own tiny moon. It’s visible to the naked eye, but only if you’re viewing it from a spaceship that’s cautiously threading its way through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
* Asteroid shown may not be 1717 Arlon

NUCLEAR STUFF

1954 was a big year for all things nuclear. America launched the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, while Russia built the first ICBM, opened the first nuclear power station and exploded its first hydrogen bomb. Thanks, 1954!

NON-STICK FRYING PANS

Widely and wrongly believed to be an offshoot of NASA’s space program, the trusty non-stick pan was actually invented in France by one Marc Gregoire. However, it is true that US scientists one day saw Marc’s frying pan and thought to themselves ‘wait a minute – space travel!’

WEIRD CULTS

Scientology was founded in 1954. With their belief that everyone on Earth is descended from the souls of murdered aliens, they make practitioners of the Wiccan pagan religion, also founded in 1954, seem positively rational. Tom Cruise is a famous Scientologist, while Alan Whicker was a Wiccan*.
* Wasn’t

THE BLACK BOX

The guy who can probably claim most credit for the invention of the modern flight recorder is an Australian called David Warren. There are two things we know about the black box. One, they aren’t black and two, we’ll probably never find the one from flight MH370.

BLOOMSDAY

The annual Dublin event (read ‘pub crawl’) celebrating the life of Irish writer James Joyce. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce’s book Ulysses. Have you ever read Ulysses? Neither have I.

LOVE HEARTS

When I was growing up in the 60s, these iconic items of confectionery carried messages like ‘Groovy’ and ‘Swing it’. There’s currently a competition to dream up aphorisms for their 60th anniversary, so expect to see lots of OMGs, WTFs and ROFLMAOs. DYSWIDT?

1954 MOVIES

There were some good ones, like On The Waterfront and Rear Window, as well an abomination called The Silver Chalice, starring Paul Newman in his first role. When the film ran on TV in 1966, Newman took out ads in the trade press begging people not to watch it. His plea inevitably backfired.

MUSIC OF 1954

Mantovani, Dean Martin and Max Bygraves were the year’s big hitters. Bill Haley briefly lit up the charts with Shake, Rattle & Roll, but it wasn’t until 1955 that rock ‘n’ roll really took a hold. The number one when I was born was ‘Cara Mia’ by David Whitfield. I considered adding it to my party’s playlist. Then I listened to it.

THE ROUTEMASTER

Who doesn’t love the iconic Routemaster? Apart from people in wheelchairs, I mean? Some 2,876 Routemasters were built between ’54 and ’68, with 1,280 still in existence. They’re still operated on the ‘heritage’ routes 9 and 15 – plus there’s a phantom Routemaster that occasionally ‘appears’ in W10.

MONSTERS OF ‘54

Specifically, Godzilla and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of whom made their first appearance that year. Godzilla dealt with the prospect of humanity unleashing something beyond its control, i.e. atomic weapons. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was just a monster movie, although a 2014 remake is slated to be about the pollution of the Amazon.

FALSE NAILS

Artificial nails had been around for centuries, but the type used today came about by accident when US dentist Fred Slack broke a nail and used the tools of his trade to make a false one. The rest, as nobody says, is history.

THE ELECTRIC TOOTHBRUSH

The first one was called the Broxodent and it was invented by a Swiss dentist named Dr Phillipe-Guy Woog. Dr Phillipe-Guy Woog never met Dr Robert E Moog, or who knows what we’d have been subjected to whilst brushing our teeth.

SUBARU

Subaru is part of the Fuji Manufacturing Corporation. Not a lot of people know that. Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster. Not a lot of people know that, either. And in the US, Subarus are popular amongst lesbians. Who the hell knew that?

FAMOUS DUDES

Simpsons creator and massive Zappa fan Matt Groening was born in 1954, along with John Travolta, Neil Tennant, Denzil Washington, Elvis Costello, Ang Lee, James Cameron, Ray Liotta, Annie Lennox, Angela Merkel, Arthur Smith and Jermaine Jackson.

Arthur Smith provided the comedy for my 40th birthday party. He was brilliant.

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How to ruin an ad

We are deep into the 1980s and advertising agency de jour Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) has just presented its solution to the latest brief from its client, Parker Pens. Like previous executions in a long-running campaign, the ad takes the form a 48-sheet poster.

This ad features a pen that, unusually in an era of shiny silver and gold pens, is finished in matt black.

The poster ticks all the right boxes. Just seven words, lots of standout, nice pack shot, and a headline that completely wrong-foots the reader. You’re expecting it to say ‘clever’ or ‘smart’ or ‘gorgeous’; anything but ‘dull’. By confounding our expectations, the ad encourages you to look at the image, reread the headline, complete the equation ‘dull = not shiny’, then study the caption and make a mental note to try the pen out next time you’re in Smiths. Job done.

The client loved the ad and ran it. It picked up a few awards and probably shifted loads of pens.

The following is what could have happened had the Parker client been one of those people who likes to ‘improve’ ads.

And what could have happened had the agency been one of those that doesn’t stick to its guns…

“I like it,” says the client, ‘but I’ve seen research stating that people don’t like negatives in ads. Can we turn the headline round and make it a bit more positive?”

“Sure”, says the account director. “I’ll get the creatives straight onto it.”

“Much better,” says the client. “Very strong. But I’ve been discussing the ad with my team and some very good points were raised.

“The advert doesn’t make any mention of price. The pen you’ve chosen is quite expensive, so I was wondering if the ad could reflect the fact that Parker make a range of pens. You know, to suit every budget. We don’t want people to think we only make pricey pens!

“Also, and this is probably my mistake, I neglected to mention the matching presentation case the Parker 25 set actually comes in. And the guys in Brand went ape about the lack of a logo! Can you add the logo, and our Royal Warrant?

“Oh, and we’re in October now. People will be thinking about Christmas. Could you just add a nudge in that direction? Thanks”

“No problem,” says the account director.

“Brilliant! You guys rock. And that’s so true, about Christmas and Parker. Well done.

“You know, I was wondering if we could perhaps capitalise on that whole Christmas giving thing? I only ask because Parker offers an engraving service. That would be such a neat idea at this time of year. Plus I went on this advertising course where they kept going on about how the ‘offer is king’. So let’s just push this engraving idea, shall we?

“Otherwise it’s fine. Although we could perhaps big up Parker a bit. They don’t throw out these royal warrants willy-nilly, you know. We shouldn’t undersell ourselves.”

“Of course not,” says the account man. “I’ll see what the studio boys can rustle up.”

“Perfect. Looks like you’ve got everything in there.”

*reads for several minutes*

“Good. Very good. Although…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I showed the previous ad to Mrs Client, and she pointed out that it didn’t really shout ‘Christmas’ enough. Could you just make this one a tad more seasonal, do you think? Then we’re just about there, I reckon.

“Oh, and following on from that ‘the offer is always king’ thing I was telling you about, I had a bit of a brainwave about how we could drive sales by offering another of our products at the same time. It’s all about driving sales at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

“Ha ha ha, of course it is. I’ll ask the studio…”

“And the pens look a bit all over the place. It’s not immediately apparent who they’re aimed at. Could you group them according to whether they’re male or female pens?”

“A fantastic suggestion! I’m on the case.”

“We’re getting there. We’re certainly getting there.”

“That’s great news. I’ll…”

“Although, looking at it, there is rather a lot to take in, isn’t there?”

“Eh?”

“For a poster. Aren’t they supposed to have a maximum of eight words or something? That’s what you told me, I distinctly remember. You’re ignoring your own advice!”

“But…”

“Don’t worry. I have a solution. Instead of a poster, make it a press ad. That way you can get in a few more sales points. And a list of dealers. I know! Duh! Let’s make it a direct response ad and sell pens off the page! You know, I think we’re going to end up with something really quite different.”

“Yes, I think you might be right.”

“Brilliant! Anyway, must dash. I’ve heard a rumour that our share price is slipping…”

About this article

I found this piece in a very old edition of Creative Review. Although when I found it, it was called ‘the latest edition of Creative Review’.

I kept the magazine because I thought the piece was a funny and telling demonstration of many truths. How ideas are precious things, how the desire to ‘improve’ an idea is part of many people’s make-up, and how a willingness to please (or appease) a client can result in poorer and less effective work.

I lent the magazine to a creative director who thought it would be good for a talk he was delivering on the subject, and that was the last I saw of it. However, he had kept the visual elements of the piece, and these he kindly emailed to me. Unfortunately I don’t remember the author of the text that originally accompanied the visuals – I think it might have been the ex-CD of CDP, John O’Donnell. I hope my words have maintained the spirit and, hopefully, some of the wit of the original.

Resources

A (relatively recent) history of the Parker Pen Co, Wikipedia’s entry on Collett Dickenson Pearce, and some of their ads

Text © Kevin Mills 2013

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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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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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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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