copywriting

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.

The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie

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As published in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2014.

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.

 

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.

 

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Created at wordle.net

Created at wordle.net

 

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Two Hills, One Rhode Island Moment

The Hill and Harbor District is fourteen miles away from Federal Hill by car, and a world away by any other measure. But the two came together for me early one morning this week.

As I was leaving for work, a man walking up Peirce Street waved and asked about my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. I told him Dick had died in February. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I always saw him walking. He was like the mayor around here.” I smiled. Dick’s legend lives on.

“I’ve been here since 1959,” the man said. “There were only 3,000 people in town. Then they all came for the schools.” He laughed. “Been here since ’59, but I’m still considered an outsider.”

A yellow bus churned by. “How long you been here?” the man asked. I thought of my daughter, Juliana, who was born five months after we moved to East Greenwich. “Sixteen years,” I told him. “I’m an outsider, too.” We laughed and I said I was from Providence. The man’s face brightened.

“You Italian?”

“Pantalone,” I said. “On my mother’s side.” I told him my grandfather had a baby clothes store on Federal Hill for more than 70 years. We were no longer strangers.

“Still have to go to Cranston for pastry,” he said with a knowing nod. “Zaccagnini’s.”

Bread, too, I added. It was like talking to an uncle at a family wedding.

“Your wife a good cook?” he asked.

“Outstanding. But I make the gravy on Sundays.”

“With the pork?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“John.”

“That was my father’s name.”

We spoke for a few minutes. About his heart transplant and doctor. About my copywriting career. About Atwells Avenue legends. When I asked his name, I didn’t catch his reply. I wish I had. We had a lot in common: the Hill and the Hill, Dick and pastry and Zaccagnini’s, bread and Sunday gravy. And now, this morning on Peirce Street.

I’ll find out his name the next time we meet. I bet the conversation continues.

When 268 Words Made Presidential Poetry

Gettysburg Address word cloud created at wordle.net

When my children were younger, I had a ritual on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday: I would play a recording of Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address for them before they left for school. As Lincoln’s words competed with Cheerios and orange juice for their attention, I hoped my kids would come to love those words as I do – for what they say and, especially, for how they say it.

There are only 268 words in the address – a mere ten sentences – but what profound poetry they make! As an English major in college, I was surprised to find the speech in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, right there with works by Emerson and Hawthorne, Whitman and Poe. Lincoln, the writer? But that was my tip-off. For the first time, I read the Gettysburg Address as a piece of literature, and have been re-reading it ever since.

The words are Lincoln’s own. No speechwriter submitted drafts to him or fine-tuned the phrasing on the train to Gettysburg the day before. The main speaker at the cemetery dedication was Edward Everett, former U.S. Secretary of State and Governor of Massachusetts. Lincoln followed. There is no photo of him delivering his “remarks,” as they were called, because they were so brief. My favorite line in the speech is “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Thanks, in part, to Lincoln’s words, we do not forget.

Witnesses reported that Everett’s speech, much longer than Lincoln’s, was better received. But shortly afterward, the noted orator wrote to the president: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In those two minutes, Lincoln proved what Shakespeare had written in Hamlet two and a half centuries before: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At www.etymonline.com, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

5 Resolutions That Will Improve Your Writing in 2012

As 2011 recedes in the rear-view mirror, we’ll raise a cup of kindness for auld lang syne – literally old long since or, more colloquially, days gone by. And then it’s time to look ahead with New Year’s resolutions.

A common resolution, especially on the heels of holiday feasting, is to get to the gym for regular workouts. No wonder bright Planet Fitness banners are popping up like crocuses in spring, luring us with their $10 monthly fee. But what about your writing? When you look at your Microsoft Word docs, do you like what you see? What can you do to strengthen the way you’ll express yourself in 2012?

Here are five simple resolutions to get your writing into better shape:

1. Use active verbs. Why is Ernest Hemingway still a go-to writer in college literature courses? Because his writing is so muscular. At the heart of Hemingway’s narrative prose are simple declarative sentences using active verbs. With active verbs, the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action:

The party-goers > toasted > their hosts.

With passive verbs, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action:

The hosts < were toasted < by the party-goers.

Good writing combines active- and passive-verb sentences for stylistic variety. But when the majority of your verbs are active, your writing is more engaging, uses fewer words, and avoids confusion and dullness. Do your fourth-grade teacher proud and follow his or her subject > verb > object mantra!

2. Be conversational. Write as if you are speaking with someone, not writing to them. Read your draft out loud. If it doesn’t sound like something you’d say to a friend in a conversation, it’s time to simplify and use more everyday language.

3. Embrace the rewrite. Great writing is great editing. That’s why kids in elementary school are taught to generate a “sloppy copy” and then go back to edit. It’s a smart practice for all of us, because our first draft is rarely our best.

4. Check spell-check. While spell check is an efficient way to give your writing a first scrub, it will never replace proofreading. That’s because there are mistakes that spell check can never catch. It doesn’t know that you mean lose instead of loose, your instead of you’re, or it’s instead of its. Proofread your work to ensure that spell check-proof errors do not undermine the brilliance of your content. And if you weren’t born with the spelling gene, recruit someone who was and have them check your work.

5. Get in your writing reps every day. Whether you are at the keyboard or in the gym, practice builds muscle. So write every day, plus follow this great advice from a Wicked Whimsy blog: write for others every day. When you do, you’ll hold your writing to a higher standard.

Keep these five resolutions in 2012 and your writing will be more buff, almost immediately – and there’s no startup fee!

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.

Wayward Words: Perspective vs. Prospective

Saw this familiar mistake in an article written by an excellent journalist friend of mine: the committee met with the perspective vendor at the beginning of the month. She meant prospective, of course – even pros get tripped up! Perspective refers to a view or a vista, or to a person’s outlook on something: His perspective on Joyce changed once he lived in Dublin. Prospective means anticipated or concerned with the future: She shared her thoughts on writing with prospective clients through her blog. So why the confusion with two words? Probably because they sound alike – they are almost homonyms – and perspective is the more common word.

Any other wayward words that you can share?

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