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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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As a regular listener to a variety of NPR shows, I have heard a few from the series This American Life, though since they’re on the weekend it’s typically on a long car ride which is convenient considering the show lasts a full hour with a single theme but several linked stories that can ramble on a bit. Recently, the show made the leap to TV, producing artsy shorts with the same “real guy” rambling voice over linking it all together. Most of the shows are produced live-action but some even use animation, and I found this fantastic episode on Veer today. The quirky, simple animation style perfectly matches the style of the show, and takes the story to the next level of humor, poignancy and beauty without changing the audio a bit. It’s truly an amazing leap that some said couldn’t be done.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.veer.com posted with vodpod

Good commercials

Here are a couple of tv spots that caught my attention today. The first is a Guinness commercial from 1999 that I’ve never seen, but seems iconic enough to hold a spot near Apple’s 1984 commercial.

The second is a very cleverly done Volkswagen commercial – it’s always nice to see a car commercial that does something different. Enjoy.

Found on AdFreak.

PR message not received

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.

Dories

Found today on my favorite packaging design blog, a challenge to a student was to create a package for “sweet green mung bean durian cakes” that would appeal to the American consumer. In case you’re not familiar, a durian is an asian fruit that looks like a spiky avacado on the outside, with pods of yellow, pulpy, stringy flesh on the inside that smells strongly like a mixture of dog waste and rancid cream cheese. I’ve never gotten past the smell to actually taste the stuff, but apparently the flavor is quite lovely, like almond custard.

The “cakes” themselves are spirals of green and yellow hard gelatin, a bizarre kind of exotic treat. The original packaging appears to be something in which you’d expect a breast of chicken to be wrapped at the grocery store – styrofoam tray with clear plastic wrap and a sticker. The student designed new packaging for these treats and won a design competition. The result is a lovely, clean sleeve-and-box configuration that looks to me more like something I’d expect to buy at Bath & Body Works with decorative soaps or candles inside. Would it appeal to Americans? Would they buy the pretty packaging and discover this most overlooked exotic fruit?

My opinion, having experienced the fruit as well as the hard, oddly-textured “jello” stuff that the bean cakes are made out of, would be absolutely not. There may be a few brave souls who would give them a nibble or two, but when it comes to our treats, we don’t usually prefer the very unexpected. And I doubt that these “Dories” could have gotten rid of the smell, which brings us back to the very reason durians are still considered quite exotic and very much an acquired taste.

And what’s up with the “sweet green mung bean” thing? Mung is usually a word that means to destroy (Mash Until No Good). Green mung just sounds like something that has gone bad. All in all, a valiant and well-designed effort to dress up a product that won’t be going anywhere very soon.

Discourse on Propaganda

In a keynote address at the School of Visual Arts, Milton Glaser discussed propaganda and art. Which is culturally necessary? Which can be identified or defined? His words are important for designers and advertisers, so often the purveyors of propoganda, as well as the people to whom this social artwork is directed. The thing that stands out the most for me is his comment: “Informing us makes us stronger. Persuading us robs us of our ability to observe things for ourselves.”

The ability to question the status quo, to educate oneself and then make decisions accordingly, those are the freedoms that can take us above the influence of propaganda. Propaganda only works if the public has no alternative, no dissenting voice, no method of researching truth. It’s not always the popular path but it can be the right one, if the choices are made for the right reasons.

We are expecting our first child in a couple of months, and we have spent a lot of time educating ourselves about how we’d like to bring this child into the world. Opinions about drugs, hospitals, doctors and tests have come from every direction, often unwanted and unsolicited. However, we have discovered an ugly truth: unless we act like the clueless first-time parents and step onto the obstetrics assembly line, we will be looked down upon and judged for our decisions. There are reams of literature out there that debate the usefulness, and sometimes even the safety, of certain established practices when it comes to having a child. But certain things are done because they’ve always be done that way, or because it makes the hospitals or drug companies more money, or because it allows the hospital to cover their rears legally, and to buck that tradition is to fly in the face of that scariest of authority, the Health Care System. They’ll call us bad parents, they’ll ridicule us for not understanding that this is a precious infant child of all things, and how could we possibly consider making a decision that opposes what is considered typical? We must be endangering our child to not blindly accept what the doctors and nurses push on us.

This kind of social propaganda, which relies on guilt and conformity to manipulate, can be even more dangerous than any other kind. I can choose to snicker at a fear-mongering political ad. I can avoid reading posters or ads that attempt to affect my opinion, or read them and choose to maintain my own beliefs. But when it comes to that face-to-face judgement, one human being to another, especially from a person like a doctor who, culturally, has always been touted as the purest of high authority on What Is Good And True And Right, it becomes a whole lot harder to ignore. The strength to resist this kind of propaganda comes from education, and the freedom to educate oneself must be the finest freedom there is.

“Propaganda is not necessarily a lie, but it affects our neurological system and brain in the same way. It undermines our ability to understand our own reality. It makes us more infantile and dependent. It substitutes an alien authority for our own perception.”

It is our responsibility to recognize the power it can have over us and equip ourselves to recognize it. In advertising, the ability to affect decisions is used freely, and considered to be the goal of any well-motivated designer. But advertise with conscience. 

In a great article on AIGA recently, Grant McCracken discusses the beauty of the un-designed, the things that just happen that spark a positive reaction. Specifically, he discusses sounds, like the one made by a plastic coke bottle as it works its way through the mysterious tunnels and slides to land – thunk – into the collection slot, ready for your cold drinking pleasure. This is an accidental noise, not one designed to advertise its product but simply the mechanical noise of delivering said product to you once you’ve chosen to buy it. One might debate that the internal workings of a Coke machine have already been harnessed for marketing efforts, as in the recent epic “Coke Side of Life” TV spots.

Are designed sounds effective as well? That’s debatable:

“This isn’t like the car door closing sound that Detroit builds into cars to persuade us that we have bought wisely, that our automobile is a paragon of quality and workmanship.” 

I can’t imagine that the particular sound of a car door closing would make me more likely to buy a particular car, especially since in order to hear that sound, I’d have to be getting into the actual car at the time, which would suggest that I have already decided at least to give it a test drive. However, if the rumbly growly engine noise passing me on the road is what convinces me that I need to have that car, there’s the good advertising. Honda Civic uses the “accidental” noises in a very ingenious way, with an amazing choir reproducing the noises and interspersing clips of the car going about its normal routine to emphasize the audio illusion. In that moment, the advertisers seem to recognize the beauty of the found sound, something that happens with their product that can’t be designed into being but just is, and can be recognized as a pleasurable sound by aligning their product with it in a companionable way.

The author of the article sums up by saying that some of the most important meaning in sound means nothing, except perhaps the meaning that we ourselves attach to it. In recognizing that not everything has to have some kind of deep truth attached to it, perhaps advertisers can step back and let their customers find meaning of their own, which is a whole lot more significant and lasting.