Since 2009 I have observed Festivus – the holiday for the rest of us, celebrated on December 23 – by publishing misspellings, grammar flubs, and punctuation errors committed in the name of commerce. It’s all been lighthearted and lightly instructive: my way of honoring The Airing of Grievances, a mock-tradition of this mock-holiday.
This year, however, my grievances are much more grievous than a misplaced apostrophe or a misspelled brass plaque.
Like many of you, I was dismayed by the 2016 presidential campaign, its outcome, and its aftermath. As I surveyed the devastation, I saw root causes in the practices of my own industry – marketing and branding – and in the ideology of technology, which now permeates the general culture.
And so my grievances this year aren’t minor infractions but rather more serious sins. Here, as I see it, is how we came to this sorry pass.
Via Pinterest. An authentic Festivus pole would be unadorned: decorations are “distracting.”
In the last two and a half years, Thumbtack, which matches customers with local service professionals, has raised $255 million in funding. If the company had spent the merest fraction of that sum on a professional copywriter with an elementary understanding of how advertising works, it could have come up with something more effective than this existential shrug of a billboard.
“We don’t know.” <Shrug> 8th and Harrison streets, San Francisco
It’s not that I don’t get the tiny, unconvincing joke, O Hipster Ad Agency. Nothing rhymes with orange. Haha.
Here’s the thing (and it pains me to have to point this out):
Billboards are meant to grab your attention in a split-second. They’re not supposed to be convoluted in-jokes. They’re supposed to sell.
And they’re supposed to sell your stuff. Not roses, not “this billboard,” not even florists or poets. If you’re Thumbtack, you want people who see your ad to grok the glories of Thumbtack.
At the risk of repeating myself: We don’t know? Are you effing kidding me? Your website says you’re “reshaping local economies.” You’re “getting things done.” If you don’t know, who does?
And finally: Why is the most important message – “Hire skilled pros for absolutely everything” – in the tiniest type?
A good ad should make you smile in instant recognition. It should be memorable and motivational. It should leave you with a positive impression of the advertiser.
It shouldn’t make you feel like your soul’s been sucked out of your body and sacrificed to the gods of snark.
Join me at Strong Language today, where I’ve published a post about a phrase in a sign that appeared on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) last week. The sign was fake (but looked authentic); the phrase was an imperative that included a four-letter word that’s common in speech but uncommon in official pronouncements. I write about the phrase and its history – not very ancient, it turns out – and about GYST, the acronym formed from the phrase. Language-of-commerce connection: GYST is also the name of a couple of U.S. companies.
Full disclosure up front: I’m a registered Democrat, and I voted for Hillary Clinton in the California primary and the general election. I contributed a modest amount of money to her campaign. I am in no way an expert in presidential politics, just a reasonably well-informed observer and participant in the democratic process (such as it is under late-stage capitalism).
Here’s what I do know a few things about: branding and marketing. And from the beginning, even though I liked Clinton as a candidate and wanted her to prevail, I saw a lot that troubled me about how her campaign handled marketing, positioning, and advertising. I kept seeing what seemed like rookie mistakes, despite Clinton’s decades of experience and despite the glossy surface of the marketing content.
And so, even though the election was eight days ago and this may seem like beating a dead horse, I’m going to do a little flogging. With any luck, I may prevent some of you from making similar errors in your own marketing efforts – political, personal, or corporate.
I didn’t think I’d have anything to say this morning – I got less than three hours’ sleep after watching the election returns – but then I saw the print edition of today’s New York Times, which came with a wraparound ad for the new Netflix series The Crown. The 10-episode first season of The Crown, which is about the young Queen Elizabeth II, debuted November 4; itcost $130 million, making it the most expensive TV series ever.
The ad must have been expensive, too, and it must have been prepared at least a few days in advance.
This is the outside of the wrap.
This is the inside left panel.
I don’t think I’m alone in suspecting the copywriter was thinking also – prematurely, over-optimistically – of another woman leader, on the opposite side of the Atlantic.
And this is the inside right panel.
I’ve watched six episodes of the series. “Revolution” is not among its themes.
How long ago, I wonder, was this ad written? What went on in the strategy and creative meetings? Who decided to gamble on subtext and victory? Why run the ad the morning after the American elections and not on premiere day?*
No answers from me, on this or anything else right now.
* Although it seems, in light of everything else, ridiculously trivial to bring it up, I have to ask: Who chose to insert “of” after “befitting”? It doesn’t belong there.
This is the top half of a full-page ad for Salesforce Tower that appeared in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle.
From the Wikipedia entry: “Salesforce Tower, formerly known as the Transbay Tower, is a 1,070 ft (326 m) supertall office skyscraper under construction in the South of Market district of downtown San Francisco.” It was built on spec; naming rights went to Salesforce.com after the cloud computing company leased 714,000 square feet and became the building’s anchor tenant.
The headline of the ad isn’t much of a headline at all. It’s cribbed directly from Oxford Dictionaries (syllabification, phonetics, definition, and example sentence) and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (synonyms). As reading material, it’s boring. As an advertising strategy, it is as shopworn and ineffective as that ancient device of the inexperienced public speaker who opens with “The dictionary defines community as …” As logic, it’s a fallacy called argumentum ad dictionarium – “the act of pulling out a dictionary to support your assertions” – and it’s cleanly eviscerated on RationalWiki.
Dictionary-definition copy is lazy. It’s unpersuasive. It doesn’t convey a distinction or a benefit; it doesn’t evoke an emotion or express a call to action. It borrows authority rather than staking its own claim.
What if you lose the right to your company name … and the name is your own? When it happened to fashion designer Kate Spade, she changed not only the brand name but her own. (The Fashion Law, via Catchword)
The strange case – as in legal case – of the Hasbro toy hamster named Harris Faulkner and the Fox News anchor named Harris Faulkner: “either a really weird coincidence or some very niche cross-marketing on Hasbro’s part.” (Consumerist)