Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thin Is Just to Slay: Letterplay with Poems

I've recently come across a couple of fun items that play with movie titles. Artist Austin Light removes one letter from the title of popular movies and illustrates the result, with a catchy little blurb explaining the new movie's premise. The results are hilarious.

And Teleclub's agency Y&R Zurich has added an extra letter, in the form of a brand logo, to movie titles to create a strong ad campaign with the tagline "We won't ruin your movies."

I thought it would be fun to apply this concept to poetry, so I played around with William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say."

Thin is just to slay

I have beaten
the plumps
that were sin
the icebox

sand wich
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgiven men
they were delicious
so sweet
and so bold

(Find the original here.)

I probably picked that poem because I've recently started following @justtosaybot on Twitter and I can't get enough.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Taglines: a punctuation parable.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”--Oscar Wilde

Punctuation is important. Grandma, especially, thinks so.

I started out writing a post about Whirlpool’s brilliantly-punctuated new tagline: the beauty of the comma placement; the deliberate lack of period that gives the phrase a double meaning.

Three choices make this phrase wonderful. 
  1. The choice to make "every day" two words, rather than one, makes "every" an adjective that modifies "day," rather than "everyday" an adjective that modifies "care." It's deliberately not "everyday care."
  2. The choice to use a comma puts this phrase in the imperative mood, making "care" a commanding action verb. (Linguistics Girl has a great post explaining this.)
  3. The choice not to use a period, which goes a long way toward reversing the grammatical effect of the first two choices, giving the phrase two meanings at once. Without a period, the tagline isn't wholly a statement. It can do double duty, conveying both "everyday care" and "every day, care." If it had a period, the imperative mood would be much stronger, leaving the "everyday care" message in the dust.
The new campaign is about the everyday care that families give one another, and also implies the kind of care Whirlpool appliances give to our laundry and dishes. (Whirlpool's new Every Day Care Project web page and supporting assets do a wonderful job of conveying this sense.) The double meaning of the tagline is brilliant. It reminds me of another tagline's precise word and punctuation choices.

Grammar Girl has a great discussion of the grammatical implications of the use of "different," rather than "differently," in this famous Apple slogan. The use of "different" allows the phrase to mean both "think about different kinds of computers" and "think in a different way." 

A colon punctuating this phrase, "Think: different" would have emphasized the first meaning, "think about different computers." Without the period at the end, the slogan would lose some of the weight of the imperative mood; it wouldn't be as strong a command. As it is, the phrase conveys both meanings beautifully.

It was my intention to praise Whirlpool, and their agency, for this carefully-wrought phrase, perfectly punctuated to pack in double meaning.

But when I went on Whirlpool's web site to take a screen shot of the tagline, I found it used WITH A PERIOD.

Come on, Whirlpool. Make up your mind. Every day, care ... about punctuation. 

Let's Eat, Grandma image thanks to Modern Austen.

There are other ways to make taglines work harder. See How to Make Words Do More Work.

Monday, November 3, 2014

No Entry: How TV ads are like web sites

In modern web design and content strategy for the web, it’s important to remember that there is no longer any such thing as an entrance to the site, especially if you’re doing your  SEO well. Any page can be an entry to the site and must therefore provide a warm welcome to visitors (and location awareness, and brand identity, and and and).

The same rule applies to television ads. 

Creative agencies should think the same way about modern television advertisements, understanding that the viewer might enter the ad at any point. TV viewers get up to change the laundry, wash the dishes, or check on the kids; we return to the set mid-commercial. Ads lose some or all of their effect if they rely on viewers to watch from the beginning. 

At my house, we watch a lot of football, but even I (one of the rare breed who enjoy watching advertisements) use the commercial break as a chance to chat about that last play, or finish making guacamole, or get another beer. Often, my attention will be attracted to an ad partway through. This creates an opportunity for the ad to have an effect, but that opportunity is lost if the ad doesn’t pay off the partial view. If the ad relies on a setup that I missed, that’s a fail.

This Dodge ad tells the story of the Dodge brothers, John and Horace, but if you’re not paying attention at the beginning, or you’re not listening carefully to the voiceover, you’re not going to get it. And while the remaining material isn’t bad—revving engines and drag-racing imagery are still appealing, especially to a muscle car aficionado like me—letting the viewer lose out on that story is a big miss.

I do enjoy advertisements with a big reveal at the end, but are they really as effective as an ad that delivers its message no matter where the viewer picks up the thread? It depends on the placement, the saturation, and the content. 

Placement: In football games, for example, an ad that runs during a timeout is more likely to get beginning-to-end attention than an ad running at halftime, because viewers know the game will come back on again any second and are more likely to sit still for commercials.

Saturation: If the ad is running several times during a given program, using a build-up will work better. Viewers whose interest has been piqued will likely watch from the beginning the next time the ad airs.

Content: It comes down to this: Is it a great ad that appeals to its audience? (Guests shushed me during the Budweiser horse-and-puppy ad.) Then it will get watched. But considering the audience’s entry point is critical in making an ad effective for television viewers. 

Guacamole photo by stu_spivack (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.
Family watching TV photo by Paul Townsend from Bristol, UK [CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sent from my phone: I don't care to proofread.

    "Note: Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse any typos."
    "Typed with big fingers on a very small keyboard."
    "Sent from my phone. Please forgive any grammatical humors."

    You know what? No. You do not get a pass for not proofreading your work just because you are using a mobile device. If you're sending a professional email, be professional.

    "Please excuse any typos" 


    "Excuse my typos, I refuse to bother to take the time to re-read what I've just dictated or typed" 


    "I don't give a shit about the correctness of this message."

    Take some responsibility on every communication device you use. Period.

    Thursday, September 25, 2014

    Don't do it! How to avoid link soup & ice cream bars.

    Ever go to the grocery store when you're hungry? If you're like me, you wind up spending a fortune and taking home more food than you can eat, plus not fewer than three calorie-laden impulse-buy snacks.

    Basically, you want it all.

    Your only choice, as you careen out of the parking lot with your trunkful of groceries, is to snarf down the chocolate, go home, and flounder around in misery because you still don't have anything for dinner.*

    Guess who else wants it all? 

    Results-starved marketing managers. Look, when you're hungry, stay away from the grocery store.** When you're desperate for results, stay away from writing creative briefs for landing pages. Stay away from evaluating first-round landing page designs. Stay away from the phrase "can we add a link here?" Avoid that phrase like the plague.

    Just as it's not particularly helpful, when you just need one simple meal, to have a trunk full of Trader Joe's Bite-Size Everything Crackers and the family-pack of ribs and two whole chickens and a dozen pears and a watermelon and a mini-wheel of Président Brie and some Haagen-Das bars, it's likewise not real helpful to wind up with a landing page containing half a dozen links.

    You want results, but users want to know what to do. When faced with buttons here, buttons there, and a few text links thrown in "just in case they want to register for the site right now," they're likely to panic.

    Users do not want link soup. They want one single, perfect, delicious link to click. Do yourself a favor and give it to them.

    *P.S. You also forgot the coffee and your spouse is going to be pissed.

    **Check out The Oatmeal's cartoon about the "minor differences" between grocery shopping when full and grocery shopping when hungry.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    Gear up to cover more creative ground.

    I rode my bike the nine miles to work today. I live in a farming community outside a small city, and take a route comprised entirely of two-lane roads with no stoplights and very little shoulder.

    I passed hulking blueberry bushes bursting with fruit and nearly obscuring the hand-painted sign reading "pickers wanted." Unnaturally still cornfields with leaves like a pair of corduroy pants I had hated in the fifth grade. Dusty swaths of potatoes flowering in faded-quilt colors: eggplant, butter, cream. The river a muddy smear, motionless and sullen.

    I felt I was barely moving, too. My legs were churning and creating a happy cicada whirr in the gears, but I felt mired, as though I were pedaling through that thick river. Sleepiness was the culprit for my hazy thought process, and after a mile or so I woke up enough to look down and realize I was in the wrong gear.

    By George6996 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
    At that rate, as the road curved out from the woods into sprawling golden fields, gearing up didn't cost me much more effort, but my speed increased rather dramatically. I finally felt the morning open up around me and my bicycle begin to eat up the road. I passed the Tim's Upholstery sign on the side of a barn and the big, scruffy eagle's nest in the crag by the railroad tracks, and I thought about the day's work ahead of me.

    First on my list was revising a web page that had been reviewed the previous day. "Why didn't you include such-and-such new product in the comps?" the client had asked. "Well, we hadn't been told about that product." Minor details.

    The week before, my rewriting talents had been strained to the breaking point with a similar issue. "This page is actually for two audiences: the one that knows about our product and the one that doesn't. Can you rewrite to address both?"

    Working with limited information is like riding a bike in the wrong gear: you can churn and churn and churn, but you're getting nowhere fast. But knowing all the products, all the audiences, all the strategic imperatives up front lets the team slide into that lovely, purring rhythm of productivity, making time, pounding out the miles of creative work.

    My ancient Trek and I flickered past the country market, the ramshackle houses of the edge of town, past the cement factory and the broad, glittering expanse of Puget Sound. I pedaled hard, eager to get to that copy now that I could rewrite it in high gear.

    Tuesday, July 22, 2014

    How to Make Words Do More Work

    When you only have a few words to communicate a big idea, as in a tagline or a headline, you've got to make them do a lot of work.

    In physics, doing work means acting on a body and creating displacement. In thermodynamics, work refers to energy transfer from one system to another. Likewise, when copy does work, it has an effect on the intended audience. Word for word, headlines have to do a lot more work than copy-heavy ads like this one.*

    But how to string together a few measly words to make a really big statement? One way is to use double meaning, either with single words or phrases or with the way they're couched.

    Netflix uses this device to great effect in their new campaign.

    Tagline: "You gotta get it to get it."

    The tagline, of course, means that you must be a subscriber to Netflix in order to understand the meaning of the image. (In this case, you really just need to be a child of the 80s, but that's beside the point.) The repetition of the phrase "get it" to capture each meaning creates a nice rhythm and sound, and the double meaning allows the tagline to do a great deal of work.

    On their web site, Nike presents a succinct tagline with two meanings of "fit":

    "Introducing the Nike Pro Rival Bra, the ultimate fit for the ultimate workout."
    The idea of becoming physically fit is overlaid by the concept of a bra that fits well. Again, they've used the same word twice.

    Double meaning in this sense is a like a pun, but it's not humorous; nor is it a double entendre, which implies that one of the meanings is, shall we say, indelicate. Whatever it's called, this device is used often in ads, and also in poetry.

    Until "Evening Walk," however, I'd never seen an entire line, or series of lines, in a poem serve as a pun. Poet Charles Simic uses non-humorous puns in words and phrases to create uncertainty and double meaning which lead to a deep yin-yang tension. Here's the first stanza:

    You give the appearance of listening
    To my thoughts, O trees,
    Bent over the road I am walking
    On a late summer evening
    When every one of you is a steep staircase
    The night is slowly descending.

    In the third line, are the trees bending over the road? Or, in a more Yoda-like construction, maybe the speaker is walking down the road, bent over. Is it late in the evening, or late in the summer--or both? At the end of this stanza, the trees are each a staircase, implying upward movement. (Will the speaker be ascending to heaven?) But this image is immediately reversed in the next line: instead, night is descending those staircases. The reader gets the sense of both upward and downward movement, and of lightness and darkness, at the same time.

    Poems are written to be read, but (unfortunately for the word-lovers of this world) ads, brochures, and web sites can't be. They must be written on the assumption that they'll only be skimmed. I'd like to see (or write) a tagline or headline that can use a pun to create as beautiful and delicate a balance, and do as much work, as "Evening Walk."

    Photo by Lynne Kirton [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    *By the numbers, each word in the Netflix ad must do approximately 135 times as much work as those in the Lien Foundation ad, although of course that's not how it works at all.

    Wednesday, July 9, 2014

    5 Better Taglines for Transformative Pencils

    The tagline here reads: "You never know what a child could do with a pencil." Sounds kind of scary, to me. If you're a parent, you know. Your toddler could stab his sister in the eye with it, or stick it in a light socket, or eat it...the possibilities are endless.

    This ad is trying to communicate "the possibilities are endless," too, but perhaps not in just that way. The copy here is clunky and easily misinterpreted; it also has no style, no rhythm, no flow, and no poetry.

    What about something like...

    1. Now that's a pencil with potential.
    2. Pencils create change.
    3. Just imagine what a pencil can become.
    4. Pencils can transform people.
    5. The potential of a pencil.

    Now, these ads (see the rest here) are from Spain. Are they translated? That could explain the clumsy language. In my limited experience, the answer would be no, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Via Ads of the World

    Thursday, June 26, 2014

    Never underestimate the power of the superlative negative imperative.

    This cute ad by AlmapBBDO for Bauducco Toast (via Ads of the World) succeeds by pairing an attention-grabbing image with a very strong sentence.

    Here's exactly what makes it work:
    • The tagline uses the prohibitive mood (no, not "Watch out, kids, I'm in a prohibitive mood tonight!"--I mean the grammatical one);
    • The tagline echoes several pop culture phrases and memes; and
    • The ad forces the reader to make a cognitive connection between the image and the copy, unifying them into a greater whole.  

    "Don't Be in a Prohibitive Mood" Is In the Prohibitive Mood

    It's important to understand what makes words powerful.  For example, "Stop!" is a pretty powerful word, but why? Because it's an imperative. It tells you what to do.

    The imperative mood is a grammatical feature of verbs that command: verbs conjugated in this mood (such as "stop doing that," "write it now," "drink up," etc.) command an action.

    The pairing of an imperative with a negative modifier (adverb or adjective) is called the prohibitive mood: "do not," for example. Using a superlative (a word describing the utmost degree of something: best, last, most, least, etc.) like "never" makes this command form extremely strong...well, actually, the strongest it can be. So "never underestimate" is superlatively prohibitive--and very strong.

    Never Underestimate the Power of a Pissed Off Woman

    "Never underestimate" is a bit of pop culture, too, starting popular phrases like this one

    and many others, from FDR ("never underestimate a man who overestimates himself") to rampant internet memes like this one. So it's familiar and it flows off the tongue, and it helps to transmit broader cultural ideas* which in this case are also related to imperatives ("never, always," etc.), helping to underscore the message that the brand is putting across, the "we want you to do X" message, i.e., "buy our toast."


    This ad is synergistic: it's more than the sum of its parts. The image doesn't work without the tagline; the tagline doesn't work without the image, but together, they're a thing of beauty. The image grabs you ("ha ha! made ya look!") and the tagline provides the payoff--and makes you look even closer.

    Brand? What Brand?

    It's a great ad, with great copy that really works well. And certainly you'll walk away from it with the concept that toast is more than just a vehicle for jam. But will you remember which brand of toast is so much better? That remains to be seen...

    *Wikipedia actually has a pretty interesting discussion of memes; see especially Reference 1.

    Tuesday, June 24, 2014

    Waaaaa-hoo! Dialogue can include features and benefits if done well.

    Blending features and benefits into a natural-sounding story is not the easiest thing in the world, but the copywriters at Doner managed without any grinding of gears in their new AutoTrader spots featuring the Dukes of Hazzard. (Read about the campaign here.) In 90 total seconds, the three spots manage to show viewers that AutoTrader's new app lets them:
    • Search by specific features, such as Bluetooth and traction control
    • Get alerts about new cars and price reduction
    • Save a search and continue later, even on another device 

    The dialogue between the Duke brothers* also demonstrates the benefit of using AutoTrader: it allows them—and other customers—to find a car with more speed and options like a backup camera and doors that open. J

    Despite the many features and benefits** they've worked in, the copywriting team is spot-on in tone, managing to blend 21st-century digital speak with 1980s good-ole-boy chit-chat in a way that doesn't feel incongruous or forced. Bo's line, "Pick it up on my tablet," sounds just as if he were suggesting that he and Luke pick up Route 73 out behind the old covered bridge.

    I do wonder about the demographic they're hitting. Is AutoTrader's primary audience my age—that is, old enough to remember the Dukes of Hazzard? I'd *hazard* a guess that AutoTrader really should be talking more to millennials, and I'm not sure whether these spots will appeal as much to that age group.

    I'm also curious about why a Dodge Viper SRT was chosen as the #New01 (nice hashtag) instead of a new Charger, to parallel the original General Lee, or Dodge's sexy new muscle car, the Challenger. The Viper SRT is an expensive car—around $125,000 new, as opposed to around $27,000 for a new Challenger. Would someone shopping for a Viper SRT even use AutoTrader? (AutoTrader couldn't find a Viper SRT for sale in my area.)

    Demographics issues and personal muscle car preferences aside, these ads rock from idea to execution. Great work.

    *Disclaimer: Bo and Luke Duke could sell just about anything to me. I may be biased.

    **Please note: I did not call these RTBs because I don’t want to slit my wrists after publishing this post.

    Not Good Enough

    Today, in two separate publications, I read about two different writers I admire being given the same advice: "You're not good enough for writer's block."

    The first was Pete Hamill, author of Forever (think Highlander, not Judy Blume) and A Drinking Life, among other works. It was actually "You're not important enough for writer's block," and according to today's Writer's Almanac, was told to Hamill by a friend before he wrote his first novel. (I also learned that Hamill was not only friends with Bobby Kennedy but was present at Kennedy's assassination and helped tackle the shooter. I love Writer's Almanac.)

    The second was Cal McAllister, founder and executive creative director of Wexley School for Girls, an agency I've had a crush on for ages. In an interview in today's Communication Arts, McAllister talks about his Creative Circus advisor giving him this advice. In a different interview, last year for Seattle Creative Mornings, he says this advice taught him to be "tireless and humble."

    I haven't posted for awhile because I haven't thought up anything super smart or creative lately. My husband and I are buying a house and it's my first mortgage experience, so I've been letting myself off the hook as mentally exhausted.

    But I'm not good enough to be too exhausted to write. I have to practice and I have to spew words until my fingertips are bruised from banging the keyboard. Practice, hone, be tireless and humble. And write.

    Thanks, Pete and Cal. I needed the reminder that I'm not good enough…yet.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2014

    Astute Alliteration is Always Apropos

    I had a nice lunch with my husband at our favorite dive bar, The Grand Avenue Alehouse. The plucky barkeep, Pootie (don't ask), she of the outrageously loud and contagious laugh, served my Manny's Pale Ale on a Fat Tire coaster.

    Collateral materials such as beer-branded coasters are a great way to get your brand's name in front of consumers at the exact right time, and this Fat Tire coaster was one of the best I've ever seen.

    This is a great line of copy, for a number of reasons:

    • It's brief and therefore easy to remember. 
    • It uses both alliteration and consonance* so that it rolls off the tongue. (By design or happy accident--I'd guess a combination of both--these poetic devices are repeated in ever other phrase appearing on this coaster: tire and amber are consonant; amber and ale are alliterative; etc.)
    • It pokes a little fun of wine pairing, emphasizing the simplicity and sociability of beer.

    You may have noticed that this coaster isn't square or circular, as most are. That's because it's not just a coaster; it doubles as a postcard.

    There; that's what this annoyingly alliterative, copiously consonant copywriter calls marvelous marketing.

    *Whereas alliteration is a repeated sound at the beginning of two or more words, such as pairs and people, well and with, consonance is a repeated consonant sound within a word (called an interior sound), such as the L sound in well and people. (FYI, assonance is a repeated interior vowel sound, such as the long A in rain, Spain, main, and plain.)

    Tuesday, June 3, 2014

    Church on Sunday

    Sleepy fumbling fooling around before the kids wake up, then another slow snoozing doze. Interrupted by compact bodies bouncing and tickling and squishing and gimme the blankets, smell of little-boy sweat and gleam of little-girl nail polish. Sausages and eggs, toast and coffee and juice. Growl of the mower and heft of its weight, jungle grass gives way before the blades, becoming lawn again. Sweat and green clippings; birds startle from the feeder. Baseball's white curve under the apple branches, slaps round perfection into the mitt. Pink watermelon with black polka-dot seeds, ice tapping gently in plastic cups of lemonade. Patting out pink rounds of hamburger, squishy splaying between palms, salt and pepper and garlic powder in the marbled discs between translucent parchment. Potatoes boiling, steam blurring the kitchen window, angling sun sliding softly across the emerald sprawl. Peeling hot potatoes, quick movements, wincing, rueful laughter. Vinegar and parsley. Outside, wood splitting, splinters flying, sweat springing to his shoulders, the axe clocking with pendulum regularity. The match, the leap of flame, the fire dancing. The sizzle of the meat. Witches' cauldron burbling of corn in the kettle. Hands clasped around the table: grace. Pickles and "wow, Mom!" and glasses of rosé. Breeze through the screen door. Baths and backpacks and lunchboxes, PJs, books. Tucking, kisses, little arms tight around the neck; unentwining, more kisses. A softbound anthology in twilight, an amber post-prandial, last whirr of the hummingbird, wispy flames flicker and fade. The dog's nose snuffling softly in the bottom of his bowl. Snick of the deadbolt, slider glides shut. Check for sweet sleepy breaths in the hall light. Slide between sheets, recline holding hands, daylight still glowing from the edge of the sky. Bells sound in the distance, but we've been doing our devotions all day.