Hoist the bare aluminum pole, my friends: today is Festivus, which means it’s time once again for my favorite holiday tradition, The Airing of Grievances.
For this year’s A of G—the sixth in a series—I’ve gathered some of the worst offenders from the world of marketing: the gaffes, goofs, and boneheaded blunders that we’ll recall for as long as schadenfreude remains in season.
I bring glad tidings for Festivus 2013! Last week Denver celebrated its second annual Beer Festivus (“A Beer Festival for the Rest of Us!”). There’s a Festivus pole constructed of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans inside the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, erected by “artist/protester/drinker of cheap beer Chaz Stevens” to protest the Nativity scene in the same government building. And I’m back for the fifth consecutive year with a public Airing of Grievances, one of the canonical rites of this defiantly non-canonical holiday.
If you go in for tradition, Festivus is celebrated on December 23. But we Festivusians say feh! to tradition. We also say, “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!”
Yes, I’m observing Festivus a few days early this year. The aluminum pole is looking handsomely unadorned (I find tinsel distracting), and I’m feeling confident about my chances in the Feats of Strength. But first, my favorite part of the Seinfeld-inspired holiday: The Airing of Grievances.
I’ll start with the most grievous of my 2012 grievances. Stick around – they get funnier and less lethal, I promise. (Past grievances: 2011, 2010, 2009.)
Today is Festivus, the holiday “for the rest of us” made famous by Seinfeld and celebrated since 1997. Of the principal Festivus traditions—which include a bare aluminum pole and Feats of Strength—my favorite, naturally, is the Airing of Grievances. Here, for the third consecutive year, are my grievances, culled from a vast universe of commercial language violations. (Past Grievances: 2009, 2010.)
Grievance the First: Just about everything about this “poem” makes me cringe.
Specifics: 1. It’s “a-gifting,” with a hyphen, not an apostrophe. The a- prefix is a remnant of an Old English particle, ge-, that marked past participles. 2. ’Twas-ing is just as bad as ’tis-the-seasoning. 3. “All through our brand”? Yeccch. 4. There’s a missing comma after “We thought.” 5. Most grievously, if you’re going to parody a well-known poem, at least get the freakin’ meter right. UPDATE: As commenter Jan Freeman points out, the question mark should follow “near and dear” and not “be grand.”
Grievance the Second: Oh, goodie, Anthropologie again!
1. The meteorological phenomenon is “lightning.” “Lightening” is the opposite of “darkening.” 2. No hyphen in “aha.” In this case, a is not one of those Old English remnants.
Grievance the Third: L.A.’s Getty Center has a prestigious pedigree, an impressive collection, and a huge budget, but apparently not enough time or money to hire a proofreader for this mural in the museum’s restaurant.
Catch that? Drew at Back of the Cereal Box did: In English, “taste” is pronounced with a long A, \tāst\. On the mural, however, there’s a dieresis over the A, indicating a broad-A pronunciation: tahst.“One would imagine that the Getty would exercise enough curatorial control to ensure that the first line, at least, read correctly,” says Drew.
And no, “Taste” is not the name of The Getty’s restaurant. The eatery is called … the Restaurant. The more-casual café is called—don’t get ahead of me now—the Café. Oh, the missed opportunities.
Grievance the Fourth: Wand or Wang?
Get it straight, Saks.
Grievance the Fifth: Once upon a time, Saks Fifth Avenue stood for class and quality—for tahst, you might say. Nowadays I could devote an entire blog to the retailer’s sloppy copy. (See here, and here, for example.) This spelling error appeared in a print flyer. Yes, print. Where was the proofreader?
Today is National Grammar Day, my excuse to grouse about companies that don’t know the difference between lay and lie. (As if I needed an excuse.) A while ago I aired my grievance about the Hanes Lay-Flat Collar1. My newest peeve: the Back2Life, which likewise can’t distinguish past from present.
Spotted at Costco by my brother Michael.
I have no idea whether this thing works because I’m unwilling to shell out $150 for a product whose manufacturer2 is unwilling to invest in proofreading.
1 I regret to inform you that the curse of the “lay-flat collar” has spread beyond men’s T-shirts. Just the other day I beheld, to my dismay, this copy for the Three Dots Heavy Weight [sic] Cotton Trench on the Zappos website:
Grievance the First: Spotted at Bed Bath & Beyond.
There must have been 300 of these Draftdodger® door cozies at BB&B when I visited a store in San Francisco in early December, and as far as I could tell, every single one had the same misspelling on its package. (P.S. There’s no hyphen in drawstring.)
Marketing critic Rob Walker writes the “Consumed” column, but I don’t blame him for the appearance of imminently where a near-homophone, eminently, is called for. I blame the copy desk. (Imminently means “about to occur.” Eminently means “extremely.”)
Grievance the Third: The taint of ’tis. Since Thanksgiving I’ve received seven e-mails from online merchants with “’Tis the season” in subject line or body copy.
I defer to John McIntyre, who lays down the copyediting law against clichés at the Baltimore Sun and on his blog, You Don’t Say:
“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.
The only thing worse than a “’Tis the season” headline is a “’Tis the season” headline with a backward apostrophe.
Grievance the Fourth: The following phrases are expressed in two words with a space between the words: in spite, never mind, all right (also all righty), at least, more so, a lot. I don’t give a fig what the album title was or what the band’s name is. If you want my attention, use the standard spelling.
For examples of real outrage over grammar-defying slogans ... we need to go back to the Mad Men era. In 1954, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company introduced the Winston brand with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," setting off a cultural skirmish, if not an actual war. Like, not as? Horrors! The poet Ogden Nash published a verse in The New Yorker that included the line "Like goes Madison Avenue, like goes the nation." Walter Cronkite, then the anchor of The Morning Show on CBS, took a principled stand, refusing to read such illiteracy on the air. An announcer filled in for him. (This was in the days when broadcast journalists routinely read ads as well as news, so Cronkite's principles were not exactly unsullied.)
Naturally, the uproar only increased public awareness of the new brand. Within months, according to Malcolm Gladwell's account in The Tipping Point, Winston vaulted to second place in the American market; by 1966—still using the "like a cigarette should" slogan—it had become the country's bestselling brand. Before retiring the slogan in 1972, Winston ran ads whose copy defiantly asked, "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, had come in 1961, when Merriam-Webster accepted "like" as a conjunction in its Third International Dictionary—and used the Winston slogan as an example. (For this and other sins, the New York Times called the dictionary "bolshevik.")
Let’s start with an email promotion starring Michael Jordan that appeared last week in inboxes around the country, including that of my brother Michael, who forwarded it to me:
“Lay Flat Collar Tees”? I am shuddering as I type those words. Why? Because:
1. A hen lays eggs. A collar lies flat. Unless we’re using the past tense: “Yesterday, my collar lay flat. Today, alas, it lies crumpled in the corner.”
2. Compound adjectives take hyphens. If you must (really? must you?), it’s “Lay-Flat Collar.” (In some places on the Hanes website, it even appears as “Layflat Collar.” That noise you hear? It’s my convulsive whimpering.)
3. It’s a T-shirt, and T-shirtsby definitiondon’t have collars! They have necklines. Here, take a look: “T-shirt: A short-sleeved, collarless undershirt” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition; emphasis added).
In years gone by, I would not be bleating my complaints in lonely isolation; egregious errors such as these would have brought out a horde of outraged self-appointed grammar enforcers. But standards have sunk so low—yes, I said “have sunk,” not “have sank,” because that’s how I roll—that I’ve been hard pressed to find even a peep of protest. Oh, all right, one peep: in a Hanes commercial that mocks a kindly gentleman who dares to suggest that “lie” is preferable to “lay” in this context.
Here’s the best/worst part:
See the first sentence? “A collar that lies flat.” Yes, apparently some heroic copywriter at Hanes couldn’t bear the shame and found a way to insert the correct language into the guarantee. Give that person a raise!
I mean, really. Even a dog can learn the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.
Happy Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us! The aluminum pole has been lofted, the Feats of Strength admired. Now it's time for the Airing of Grievances, my favorite ritual of all. I've been saving up grievous examples for more than a month in anticipation of this special day. Too negative for you? Go watch It's a Wonderful Life.
Grievance the First. This Bloomingdale's ad, which ran in the New York Times on Dec. 7, merits a citation from the Apostrophe Abuse posse:
Its, dammit. Its. You may send me a free pair of overpriced shoes for my troubles.
Grievance the Second: From an online ad for "Copywriting Experts (Native English Writer Only)" on the Pro Freelance Projects site:
Do you know how to write web copy that make people click? Do your words make people inch until they do what you want them to do? We’re looking for an on going copywriter and willing to pay great rate for the right person…
Are you inching to know what that "on going" "great rate" might be? A less-than-princely $250 to $750. (Hat tip: Richard Pelletier.)
The New York Hilton. It is the breakfast hour, the day before Thanksgiving, and the lobby is busy with clean-looking families who are up and Adam, ready to set off in their varsity-letter jackets and Rockports for some holiday shopping, maybe a show.
The idiom is "up and at 'em." Even in Manhattan.
Grievance the Sixth: This one comes, once again, from the sharp-eyed Carroll Lachnit, who spotted it in a press release titled "Networking Strategies for the Holiday Office Party, Do's and Don'ts." I'll let Carroll set it up for you:
I get a lot of PR pitches, and the bad ones are usually bad for all the usual reasons. This one is a little worse: 1) a misspelling of "liquor" as "liquer" (or maybe for "liqueur," if people get blasted on Chambord at holiday parties), and 2) signing off with "All Heart." Ick.
And then there's this, smack in the middle of the release:
Use the Introduction as a Segway. The end game here is to open the door for follow up. You want to be able to connect with the Boss after the party, one-on-one.
Does the PR person actually not know that the word is actually "segue"? Or has she just opted to fuse the word with its product persona so the reader will visualize that with this introduction in hand, she can effortlessly (if somewhat geekishly) glide her way to a new job?
My two cents: If I have to motor around on a ridiculous two-wheeler to meet Bruce Springsteen after the party, so be it. (What? He's the Boss, right?)
And one more thing: I wrote about the worldwide Complaints Choir phenomenon last year. I'm pleased to report that the movement continues to gather momentum, and if we're lucky we'll soon see the Complaints Choir movie. Here's the trailer: