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Archive for the ‘Copywriting’ Category

An article today on AdAge bemoans the continual loss of correct spelling and grammar from everything from personal messages to resumés to professional documents. I’ve found this to be quite the touchy subject since typically people don’t like to be corrected, especially on things like spelling and grammar which are often seen as rather petty subjects. However, the importance of these subjects is underscored time and again when people on the receiving end emphasize that a misspelled word or a typo can automatically disqualify a prospective employee or applicant, regardless of their other qualifications. It demonstrates an attention to quality and detail, and it shows that the writer is educated enough to care about how their written communication is perceived.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve intercepted a document or email going out to a client from a coworker, riddled with common mistakes that would have easily been caught by a proofreader or helpful friend or even a spellchecker. Why is it so difficult for people to admit a common weakness in this area and seek help? I know my arithmetic skills are by far my weakest point, and so I carry a calculator with me everywhere I go to double check my math. An incorrect sum can be costly and often embarrassing, and I’ve been burned enough times to know I should take steps to prevent these mistakes. But drive down any city street and there are public signs on every side proclaiming “theirs no better deal” or “don’t loose time.” It’s generally considered impolite and nit-picky to correct someone on these errors. Why is that?

Call it a pet peeve, call it a rant – but the art of writing correctly is a skill that is highly valued, even if it’s often subliminal.

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The recent 3-hour closure of Starbucks stores around the country was intended to show consumers that the chain was dedicated to improving the quality of their beverages. As a PR effort, one would think it was highly successful, since news and media picked up the story and made sure that everyone knew they wouldn’t be able to get their grande skinny decaf iced frappucinos for those three hours, and that desperate caffeine addicts would have to get their fix elsewhere. However, the message faltered in that only about 50% of people surveyed knew WHY the stores were going to be closed. This grand gesture of selfless quality enhancement went right over the heads of about half of their consumers. Rather than try to make a spectacle of the event, they might as well have held the training during non-business hours and saved themselves 3 hours worth of business income.

I wouldn’t call it bad enough to be a failure, but when it comes to PR, the message has to be absolutely clear, because people are way too impatient to read more than a few words.

Found on Ad Age.

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Ever work for a company whose main goal, it seems, is to sell itself on a pile of words that actually don’t mean anything at all? Communications, digital, solutions, marketing, strategies… seriously. What company is going to tell its customers that they do NOT offer solutions? Instead these words are tossed around interchangeably in a desperate attempt to make some companies seem to be on the “cutting edge” and “integrated” with all the latest “digital solutions.”

Ad Age posted an article today by Maureen Hall on this subject today, which happens to be one of my pet peeves. It’s one thing to toss these words around in meetings in an attempt at sounding credible or informed, but it’s another thing altogether to decide to make these buzz words part of one’s company name or part of one’s everyday speech (worst: bringing it home with you – “Honey, we need to review our strategy of financial integration with digital offerings and a multimedia tier-structure proposed by this direct marketing platform.”). The most grating can be when some puffed-up clueless manager-type starts spouting buzzwords without a clue what they mean, and often quoted incorrectly to boot (“We need to start thinking outside the square. I’m just talking out loud right now.”)  

I’ve discovered that the best therapy for this pet peeve is to make it into a game: watch for company slogans and advertising campaigns that use these empty words, and replace them with blah blah blah – and I think I end up with a much clearer view of what they are selling.

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Innocuous X

Do you think about the letter “x” very often? Do you notice when it crops up in conversation, slang, product names, entertainment? Do you consider the meaning of this well-used but oft-forgotten letter? For most people, not unless X is the letter of the day on Sesame Street and they have a 2-year-old.

However, David Barringer thinks about it… a… lot. In his opinion, X is the king of letters – a symbol that can represent a signature, a state of being, a number, danger, God and much more. Read it. Maybe you’ll look at the alphabet a little differently today.

Found on AIGA

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Some advertising seems to have a language of its own, intended to convince, connive, cajole and otherwise fool its readers into buying into the brand. Some of these little tricks are the kinds of things that stick in my brain and bug me until I figure them out enough to be able to scoff at them. Sometimes they get under the radar.

Either way, I’ve never seen such a great example and concise explanation of these techniques as in an article I found referenced by Advertising Lab called “The ‘Language’ of Advertising™” by Nancy Friedman.

The example is a poster for Comcast High-Speed internet. At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense. On a black background, large type reads “We own Faster™. Please slow your shopping ‘sprees.’ Comcast High-Speed Internet with PowerBoost™.” As I think it over, the grammar of the first sentence bugs me, while the quotes around “sprees” seems out of place. Ok, I’ll bite – I read the breakdown, and am surprised by how manipulative the ad is. She lists anthimeria, pompus capitalization, pretentious TMing, unnecessary quotation marks, and gratuitous fictional secret sauce as the weapons of choice in this ad copy. As I read the explanations, I find myself nodding – yes, I see that, yes, that’s a lowhanded tactic, yes, I see that all the time and it never registers because I see it all the time.

As advertisers, this kind of article should be a red flag. People notice when advertising copy is stupid. People get offended when advertisers insult their intelligence. And mostly – people are numb to your most blatant efforts. This kind of advertising is reminiscent of early 20th century “jingles,” with oddly highlighted words and short-is-better communication. Time for an update!

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Macintosh system font on O'Hare sign

As a graphic designer, you’d think I’d be more aware of the bazillions of typography examples that I see every day. Unfortunately, often the copywriter holds the trump card and I end up noticing glaring grammar and punctuation mistakes instead.

When I run across something that makes me notice a certain group of type, it’s usually an “aha” kind of moment, a mixture of “wow, that’s so cool” and “why didn’t I notice that?” Helvetica, the movie was one of those moments, as was an article I read about the typeface used on highway signs. Now I’m going to start keeping my eyes open for the kinds of type used in movies, because apparently a lot (or way too little) thought goes into what is displayed.

On Mark Simonson’s Notebook blog, there is a series of entries filed under “Son of Typecasting” where he points out the odd choices some moviemakers make in choosing the typefaces for their movies. We’re not talking about the titles here… this is the “background” type: posters on walls, signs on doors or buildings, close-ups of equipment dials. In a lot of cases, the typeface chosen is way out of context historically. In other cases, it’s just bizarre, like several cases where the old Macintosh system font is used on signage or a tombstone. In a few cases, it has been carefully chosen for a specific mood or theme, like the many versions of Futura used in The Royal Tenenbaums.

These entries spring from an article from December 2001 called Typecasting: The Use (and Misuse) of Period Typography in Movies. I’m sure there are lots more examples of this kind of mistake, and most of the time they go by unnoticed, or at the very least evoke a kind of uncomfortable uneasy feeling that something feels wrong or contrived about a prop in a movie. But I, for one, am going to pay closer attention from now on.

Found on Veer

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This morning as I was searching for fodder for a new blog entry, I was having a discussion with a family member about how much blogs have taken over the search engines. Recently she had been trying to find some very specific information about a new way of banking and had been overwhelmed with blog entries in her searches. Her question was, how can you know if these articles are accurate, since they are just written by “regular people?”

I did a search for the subject she was trying to find, and ended up with a Google list of a few links to the bank itself, about 10 blogs, a wikipedia article at the bottom of the list, and a CNN money article at #8.

The rule used to be “if it’s in black and white, it must be true.” This was back in the days when the library was the only place to do research, and a physical published book meant that enough people had collaborated and researched their topic that it had to be believed. Now, a search for any topic will bring up opinions, reviews, salespeople, wikis, newspapers, magazines, and those awful link generators that populate fake pages with your search topic just to get you to click on them.

So how to you figure out what to believe? I think that the “new way” is less about hanging your faith on the printed word than on doing your research yourself, and gathering the truth from many sources. All the blog articles have peoples’ real experiences, their opinions and hundreds of comments from people with similar experiences who may or may not agree with the author. To me, that is a lot more valuable than just one reviewer writing his or her opinion in a reputable news source, but when you have the news source in addition to all the correlating articles, you get a source of information that has a wide base from which you can pick and choose in order to form your own opinion.

In advertising, this means that the designers and advertisers can use this to their advantage to make their product desirable in the minds of their consumers. You create ads that challenge the market to respond. You make it exclusive; you create a club that people want to be a part of. In the case of the new banking concept, it was introduced only to a select group of people already members of the bank. Then those people invited their friends and so on and so forth, and people wrote about it in their blogs and commenters commented, and eventually the newsmakers noticed and wrote reviews. As a result, without making a single print ad or tv spot, the bank has massive credibility with online searchers.

Of course, this can work the other way as well. If the community to which it is released doesn’t like the product, the reviews are negative and it never takes off.

This is the new opinion poll, the online focus group.

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