Stay Tuned/Wonderful World Of Copy

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Wonderful World Of Copy
6 September 1998

A few days ago, the latest issue of Communication Arts arrived in our mailbox. Apropos of last week's column, there was an article in it which addressed the same question I had been pondering: Why, with all the resources available, are some ads still so miserable?

The author of the article, Reed Tucker, is a freelance ad writer, so naturally his perspective on the industry is an internal rather than an external one. I blame the people in the trenches - the writers and the artists. He blames the higher-ups - the agency bosses, and the clients. I say it's laziness or apathy; Tucker leans more toward the idea that ad agencies, taken as a whole, are self-deluded:

The problems with advertising seem to be a result of self-delusion on the part of many of those involved. For some reason, clients and agencies make ads in a vacuum - oftentimes ignoring the ways in which they, themselves, watch TV and read magazines. They seem to be able to make themselves believe the consumer is going to react to their message in a different way than they would sitting at home.

In short, the people responsible for bad advertising seem to have an ability to fool themselves into thinking things about the advertising they've created that just aren't true.

It's possible that we may both be right - that some ads are bad because no one bothered to do a better job, and some are bad because the people creating the ads had no clue about the nature of the people reading them.

Limiting ourselves to the universe of the Sunday circulars, often the nadir of advertising, I can find what I think are examples of both ... but it's entirely possible that I'm wrong. For I am not necessarily the typical coupon-clipper either.

As an example, in an ad for Maille brand Dijon mustard, was it really necessary for the advertiser to put the explanation "(Pronounced 'My')" under the name of the product? Admittedly I grew up in a state where French is still spoken by a segment of the populace, but still. I don't know anyone who mispronounces "filet mignon," either.

Furthermore, why take a risk of insulting your audience? This is in a coupon-clipping section; your audience, if they decide to buy the product, will be identifying it visually, by jar shape and label. Having shown the jar prominently in the ad, you've taken care of that. Why do you care whether they mispronounce your name or not? In case they want to go to the grocer and ask him to stock it? News flash: Only urban trendies do things like that, and only for items like organic produce and specialty foods. There are a zillion Dijon mustards to choose from; Grey Poupon, the worst of the lot, owns the market; and no one is going to ask a grocer to stock your damned mustard with the unpronounceable name.

Whoops. Let myself lose control there. Um, anyway, it might have been better for Lea & Perrins if they had just chosen another name for the product, rather than one they felt they had to teach people how to pronounce. As hawkers of Worcestershire sauce (which, in Massachusetts, is pronounced WUH-sta-sheah), they should have known better. Or maybe their experience with that product means they know something we don't ....

Also insulting, at least to me: A mail-in coupon for the dreaded Oscar Meyer Wienerwhistle which asks you to send in UPC codes from the products you have to purchase to get it. No, that's not the insulting part: On the coupon there is a miniature bar code with the caption "This is a sample of a UPC symbol."

George Bush might have thought a bar code scanner at a supermarket checkout was a wonderful and novel thing, but he hadn't bought his own groceries in umpteen years and could at least claim naivete. Presumably the rest of us are well aware of what a UPC code is by now.

Speaking of that improbable promotional item the Wienerwhistle, your friends at Oscar Meyer also have a bean bag toy. Both items are shaped like the infamous Weinermobile. The Wienerwhistle goes with their new slogan:

"For the name you trust and the taste they love, just Whistle!"

I think it's nice when a company isn't scared to be extremely silly. Perhaps that was their justification for this ad I have. It has a child holding a sandwich, eyes closed and mouth wide open in an expression of sheer glee. The caption (which the child is supposed to be saying): "Yes! It's Bologna!"

I actually rather like bologna, but even as a devotee I can't imagine it producing such joy. Is this a Good Ad or a Bad Ad? It's really hard to say. Taken as pure goofiness, it's a good ad, but when you look closely there's no there there.

Another one I can't decide on is the toilet bowl cleaner 2000 Flushes. Is this one of the best names ever devised for a product, or one of the worst? On one hand, it's descriptive and unique. On the other hand, it's weird and dull.

Actually, as a descriptive name it's something of a failure: Since no one really is sure how long "2000 flushes" is, they have to put "... up to 4 months" in their ads as well, which spoils the fun.

That's a case where I don't think the consumer's intelligence is being insulted. I certainly couldn't figure out how long "2000 flushes" is without doing some heavy pondering, and I wouldn't expect anyone else to be able to either.

I also grudgingly admit that it's not out of line for S.C. Johnson to stoop to urban-legend level and say in an ad that "Off Skintastic really repels bugs - Avon Skin-So-Soft doesn't!" I didn't believe that business about Skin-So-Soft when I was growing up, but I knew a lot of people who did.

The ads I like the least are the ones which use gushing, flowery language to support their product. Products which trade on a romantic appeal are particular offenders. Now, you may think this is because I am a cold soul, but the truth is, I love romance - just not when it's used to sell scented candles or margarine.

The latter may seem like a joke on my part. I wish it were. I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! is on my permanent moratorium list - I made fun of their copy so many times, I finally had to retire them with honors. As for the candles ....

Here I have two completely unrelated brands of "gel candles" which appeared at roughly the same time: Moonlight Bay Gel-Scents and Glade Candle Scents. They're made of gel instead of wax, in a glass votive holder. Because the gel is translucent, when you light the wick the entire candle glows in the color of the gel. In the case of the Glade item, the glass container is also shaped to cast a starburst pattern on the tabletop or whatever.

Very pretty, I'm sure, but is it worth some of this squishy copy? Gel-Scents promises to "enlighten your senses," along with a whole block of glop I won't quote here, and the Glade product offers the captions "Sense it. See it. Experience it." under three photos of the candles in action.

Glade, of course, is a Squishy Copy recidivist, with years of horrendously touch-feely captions for their nasty aerosol perfumes. Their latest slogan is "Created by Nature ... Captured by Glade," which should give you the idea.

It's important that I note at this point that not everyone is irritated by the same things in an ad. Today I've noted ads which I feel insult my intelligence; people who needed to have those things explained would probably wonder what I was fussing about. I've noted ads which have squishy copy; some people probably wouldn't have noticed anything wrong with them.

After last week's request for Bad Ads, a reader noted the Gap Kids ad on the back of this month's Gourmet magazine. She said:

"The ad has a total of five words (two of them being 'Gap'), a price, and a picture of a little girl wearing the item for which the price is given (a skort). It is impossible to see most of the details of the skort in the picture, but that's not the part that has caused me to fixate on this ad every time I see it. I am rivited by this ad because not only does the little girl look like she has combed her hair with a weed wacker (actually kind of common these days), but she looks like she's picking at head lice."

Oddly enough, I had noticed the same ad, but none of the things which bothered her bothered me. My big reaction to the ad was, "What the heck is a skort?" Although, now that it's been brought to my attention, she really does look like she's picking nits. Or maybe we're the ones doing the nit-picking.

The point is, we probably won't all agree on what constitutes a Bad Ad, or why one is bad.

I'm tempted to say that we won't agree on what makes a Good Ad either. Sticking to matters of copy (the photo section is next week, remember), here are two from the recent batch of circulars which I liked a lot. See if you agree with me.

The first is for Hidden Valley Original Ranch salad dressing, and it says "Not New or Improved ... It's a Classic." I like it for the candor - we haven't changed this product at all, we just wanted to let you know we're still here and still doing it properly.

Or am I unduly influenced by the fact that I consider this the One True Ranch Dressing?

The other is for a third-party check printer, The Check Gallery, and it says "One Less Thing Your Bank Can Overcharge For!"

Again, I may be biased, as those are my sentiments exactly. I've been using nothing but third-party checks for ten years.

Other Business

Two new products at the grocery store this week caught my attention: Lemon Ice Gatorade and Sue Bee Honey Corn (the latter from Brach's).

The former is just another flavor of Gatorade, but is noteworthy for being completely transparent. Really. It looks exactly like bottled water. I am reminded of the brief fad in clear products a few years back (remember the clear Pepsi?), and "Saturday Night Live" making fun of it ("Look! New Clear Gravy!")

The Honey Corn is the latest in Brach's ongoing efforts, mentioned in these pages already, to put someone else's logo on each and every one of their products and completely subsume their own identity. I must remember to write them about this. Anyway, it looks like candy corn, except the colors are a little different ... and one presumes it's got more of a honey taste to it (rather than utter essence of industrial corn syrup, which is what normal candy corn tastes like).

That's a guess. Since I despise candy corn, I won't be doing any taste tests in the future.


[March 2007:] Well, the followup column which focused on images never came. About this point there was a massive meltdown, which you can read about in The Mustard Manifesto.

Upon rereading this column I note an irony I didn't overtly point out before, although it's clear in the subtext: We're all guilty of the "working in a vacuum" sin that advertising firms were accused of by Communication Arts. My ideas of a good ad or bad ad are just as insulated as theirs. It's possible that human nature does not permit us to get past these blocks very effectively - although history suggests that some exceptional people have, in the past, been able to manage the trick (with respect to advertising).

The bottom line is, if you are determined to try to improve the odds of your advertising not being a flop, there is no cure for it but to show the ad to the people who would normally be buying the product. There is no useful test but the real audience.

and now back to our program

The material on these pages is copyright © 1997-2007. All rights reserved.

It is assumed that every brand name, slogan, corporate name, symbol, design element, et cetera mentioned in these articles is a protected/trademarked entity, the sole property of its owner(s), and acknowledgement of this status is implied. When advertising materials are excerpted here it is for express purposes of commentary and criticism, and thereby protected under the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

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