MAD MEN

How one word can ruin your radio spot

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A radio spot running in the Greater Providence market broke through to my consciousness, but for the wrong reason. At the close of the spot, when the voice talent stated the advertiser’s Route 2 address, he said “rout”, as if Kentucky had just played Brown in college hoops. Now here in Rhode Island, we have our share of pronunciation peculiarities (grist for another post or five), but our treatment of “route” is not among them. We say “root”, as in “I root for the Patriots.” Calling Route 2 “Rout” 2 catches our ear. It says the person speaking isn’t from here.

The country is filled with dialects, of course, a source of linguistic richness and endless entertainment. Neither “root” nor “rout” is right or wrong; each just reflects a regional pronunciation. But in a radio spot for the Providence market, “rout” instantly distracts the listener from the message and short-circuits the connection that the advertiser is trying to make with prospective customers. I once produced a local radio spot on home improvement loans with a voice talent from Buffalo who pronounced “roof” as if she were imitating her dog: “ruff”. Take two!

Lesson to radio advertisers: get to the recording session and make sure the voice talent delivers every word in the vernacular of your listeners – especially if you want them to become customers.

Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

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As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.

 

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Advertising

Do you hate advertising? Before you answer, click here. And here. And here.

OK, back to my question: do you hate advertising? Depends on the ad, I suspect. The above links show you ads I like – they are entertaining and convey a clear message. Those are good qualities in an ad.

It’s the idea of advertising that irks many people, i.e., being targeted for a sell job, which is often intrusive. (Can you say pop-up ad?) According to the groundbreaking Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of all consumers “are interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also said they enjoy advertising. So what’s going on?

I tell clients that people hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh, saves them money, solves a problem that they have, or connects them to a cause.

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that engage us with wit, style, and simplicity. When ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker copy and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote or turn the page.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising. Ideas may come in a flash, but there are hundreds of refinements that stand between a creative spark and the ad you eventually see. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys.

I’m addicted to Mad Men, AMC’s outstanding series featuring the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency.I love the braided story lines, the brilliant set design, and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

I especially enjoy when Mad Men focuses its lens on the ad industry itself. The show is currently set in 1966, the middle of a golden age on Madison Avenue. If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during that era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. Mad Men has referenced DDB several times, including its famous “Lemon” ad for VW. The agency’s creative visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising. Just as they hate bad movies, bad music, bad advice, bad anything.

And then I’ll add that I am sure they appreciate good art and good writing, which are at the heart of any good ad.

How One Word Can Ruin Your Radio Spot

There’s a radio spot currently running in the Greater Providence market that has broken through to my consciousness, but for the wrong reason. At the close of the spot, when the voice talent states the advertiser’s Route 2 address, he says “rout”, as if Syracuse had just played Brown in college hoops. Now here in Rhode Island, we have our share of pronunciation peculiarities (grist for another post or five), but our treatment of “route” is not among them. We say “root”, as in “I root for the Celtics.” To us, calling Route 2 “Rout” 2 is an assault on the ears. It screams “the person speaking isn’t from here.”

The country is filled with dialects, of course, a source of linguistic richness and endless entertainment. Neither “root” nor “rout” is right or wrong; each just reflects a regional pronunciation. But in a radio spot for the Providence market, “rout” instantly distracts the listener from the message and short-circuits the connection that the advertiser is trying to make with prospective customers. Ouch! I once produced a local radio spot on home improvement loans with a voice talent from Buffalo who pronounced “roof” as if she were imitating her dog: “ruff”. Take two!

Lesson to radio advertisers: get to the recording session and make sure the voice talent delivers every word in the vernacular of your listeners – especially if you want them to become customers.

5 Keys to Writing a Great Annual Report

So you get the call to write a company’s annual report. Woohoo! Gulp.

It’s not surprising that many writers approach annual report writing assignments with a combination of triumph and trepidation. Being asked to articulate a company’s positioning, strategy, and accomplishments validates your skills as a writer. It also puts your work under the microscope. Senior managers may not read the content that you write for their company website, but you can be certain they will read every word of the annual. The stakes are high – and that’s a huge opportunity for you.

My grandfather, a successful small businessman, always said his two most important advisors were his accountant and his priest. Had he run a public company, he might have added the writer of his annual report to the club. Companies that find someone who can capture their voice and tell their story well – a writer who “gets it” – usually form lasting bonds with that writer.

Here are five tips for making your annual report content great:

1. Interview the CEO. The annual report is his or her story to tell and, as the writer, you should hear it first-hand. This isn’t always easy to arrange – for either logistical or political reasons – but it is worth pushing for. Explain to your marketing contacts that costs grow with every layer between you and the top, as does the risk of misdirection. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have you interview the CEO, preferably in person.

2. Email questions before the interview. Obvious, yes, but many best practices are. Your CEO’s time is valuable. Outlining your interview questions in an email will help him or her to prepare. It will also organize your thoughts. You can develop the questions with the help of the internal marketing team, which will have insights and knowledge about highlights from the past year. And don’t be surprised when your CEO arrives at your meeting with your email – it has happened to me more than once.

3. Let the input drive the theme. I’ve found that concepting themes prior to hearing what the CEO has to say wastes time and money. Embedded in your CEO interview will be the seeds for your annual report’s theme. Trust it to emerge from your discussion and resist the urge to impose pre-conceived concepts and ideas on the story.

4. Write visually. Attention spans are at an all-time low, so make sure your copy is integrated into a compelling visual presentation. Team with great print and web designers to come up with ways to complement your main narrative with cool graphics, sidebars, spotlight stories, heroic quotes, etc. That’s what we did in this report for Schneider Electric last year. We gave our readers multiple ways to get into the story.

5. Use Q&As and testimonials to vary the presentation. Break up large blocks of copy with format switchups such as Q&As and testimonials. Q&As make content easy to digest and convey information “straight from the expert’s mouth.” Testimonials are an effective way to augment your story with a different voice.

Annual reports are among the most rewarding of all writing assignments. If you are asked to write one, embrace the challenge. You will emerge more knowledgeable about your client and more valuable to them. Written one lately? Hope you’ll share your experience and add tips in the comments.

What Copywriters Can Learn from Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he published The Sun Also Rises, and the influence that his newspaper days had on his writing is clear. Of his first novel, the New York Times said: “It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”

Hemingway would have been a great copywriter. When he wrote about food, you could taste it. When he described a fishing trip, you smelled the salt air. His Iceberg Theory has great application for copywriters:

“If a writer knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

In other words, don’t tell your audience everything, just what’s most important – to them. And be sure you are “writing truly enough,” i.e., your promise connects on an emotional level and is informed by a customer benefit that is real.

Which brings us to another, pithier Hemingway quote:

“Develop a built-in bullshit detector.”

After all, if you don’t believe what you are writing, why should anyone else?

Have any other quotes from Hemingway (or other authors) that might guide us in our copywriting? Let me know what you think.

Twitter Before Twitter: Billboard Writing

Twitter challenges us to compose pithy statements in 140 characters or less. But billboard writing is more confining.

With billboard copy, the fewer words, the better – ideally, six or less. Now the average length of English words is 4.5 letters. So six words at 4.5 letters each, plus five spaces in between the words totals 32 characters. Makes your last tweet seem positively Dickensian in length.

The challenge of billboard writing is compounded by the fact that your audience is literally a moving target. It’s no surprise that the best billboards are simple, direct, clean, easy to read, immediately understood… and clever. Ah, there’s the rub – making it simple and clever at the same time.

Here are a few winners. If you have some favorites, send them along!

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