John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
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October 21 2016
As we head into the consumer spending season, news headlines are already forecasting gains and losses. Here’s a look at one seemingly gloomy prognosis, from Reuters via MSN Money:
Advertising copywriter blog link

OK, first read the article, about malls losing money. You have this snip:

The blame lies with online shopping and widespread discounting, which have shrunk profit margins and increased store closures ...

Followed by this quote from Howard Davidowitz, chairman of a company providing consulting and investment banking services for the retail sector:

“When there is too much, and we have too much, then the only differentiator is price. That’s why they’re all going into bankruptcy and closing all these stores,” Davidowitz said.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’d wanted to do a post about the value of differentiation back in the summer, after returning from a family vacation to Berlin and Paris, but now will do fine. There’s a key factor the analysts often miss: branding.

And I mean meta-branding, which is actually the only kind of branding there is; anything less – labeling or awareness or recognition – are steps on the path to being a metabrand. Aeropostale was a brand, but Apple is a metabrand.

When we were in Paris, we made a pilgrimage to the legendary bookshop Shakespeare and Company. And we naturally bought books.

Now, despite the bins and racks and shelves of used books at knock-down prices outside (one day I will go with a spare suitcase just to bring home books), Shakespeare and Company is not a discounter. Far from it; all the books we bought were at full retail price. In Euros. Most are available in the U.S. for less, although perhaps not so easily obtained in identical editions.

We bought them because, as souvenirs go, they’re practical and economical. And – and this was a big part of the appeal – each book was hand-stamped at the register: “Shakespeare and Company/Kilometer Zero Paris.” The paper Shakespeare and Company bookmark was a bonus.

Can a rubber stamp and a paper bookmark add that much value? Yes, sorta. But, the purchase really wasn’t about the stamp, or the bookmark, or even the book. It was about the experience, steeped in an authentic, colorful history. Shakespeare and Company may be small, but it’s a metabrand, and that made the books – a commodity product nowadays if ever there was one – a bargain at full price.

Amazon isn’t a huge threat to Shakespeare and Company because, in some significant ways, they’re not even in the same business. Plus, Amazon is not a metabrand. (Yet. More on that in a bit.)

All of which is a neat segue into the second half of that Reuters piece: the video from CNBC. The video, an interview with Steve Sadove, former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue and former National Retail Federation chairman, gives the opposite impression. (Here’s a direct link to the video, dated August 16 2016.) Sadove says the retail industry, and particularly retail property owners and investors, may be in a time of change, but that the future looks rosy. More-immediately, he predicts “blow-out numbers” for the holiday shopping season. If true, that would be very good news for retailers.

Three key takeaways from that interview. First, the biggest growth opportunity lies with smaller companies. Nothing new there; growth sustainability typically slows with size. Second, mall anchors will continue shifting to non-retail use: fitness centers, health clinics, and the like. You may have noticed those changes taking place over the last five years or so.

The third takeaway loops neatly back to what I’ve been saying. At about 2:23, Sadove points out the problem with the vast majority of retailers: they’re nothing special. Consumers are buying, he says, but “... they want unique stuff, they want differentiated product, they don’t want the same stuff everybody else has.”

That’s true not just of product, but of place. Take my book from Shakespeare and Company. I probably could’ve bought the same edition at any chain bookstore in Paris for less money. But I wouldn't have wanted to. And that points to a key benefit many retailers overlook. Because one big area in which online lags behind brick-and-mortar is the immersive shopping experience.

That’s why Amazon, despite its innovation and expanding reach into the lives of its Prime members (free two-day shipping, streaming TV and movies and music, book borrowing, photo storage), still isn't a metabrand. That probably worries Amazon not a whit. But there's a lesson here for retailers and their dependents.

Sears is a terrific example of a company that achieved metabrand status and lost it. For decades, Sears stores and the Sears catalog were the backbone of retailing across the U.S. More than being a proto-Amazon, Sears connected the nation culturally. You could argue that it reduced differentiation and homogenized culture from coast to coast, and that would be the obvious flip-side view of events; nonetheless, its importance on every level is almost impossible to overstate. I think Sears may have been the world’s first metabrand.

That Sears is a metabrand no longer might be seen as an opportunity for someone else to fill the vacuum. Like, perhaps, Amazon.
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October 18 2016
Remember Jennicam? Between 1996 and 2003 it created the first online reality star and set the course for millions of individuals and businesses seeking to be the next big thing on a brand-new thing called the Internet. Here’s the story, from BBC News Magazine:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I remember tuning in occasionally – this was in the days of dial-up and Netscape Navigator and metered connections – and marveling at how amazing it was to watch a place several hours ahead of where I was. She was rarely in view, but sometimes things would happen. Look! Fresh flowers! A cat! That looks like a tag hanging from that sweater! (Is it a sweater?)

I always wondered what happened to her, and figured she vanished into some non-tech career, maybe even sales or marketing. So it was a surprise to learn that she’s working as a programmer.

What’s interesting is that today’s high-def moving images, relative online transparency, and drive to monetize popularity all detract from the mystery of the experience that was a key piece of Jennicam’s appeal. It was cool in a fresh way that most new efforts lack.

Similar but different are the traffic cams that attract fans who revel in sightings of red trucks or people in plaid shirts. It’s like online bird-watching, really, and, in its own way, nearly as relaxing. But there’s minimal connection. And connection is what advertising is all about. There may be a fun opportunity in there for a car brand, or maybe a maker of plaid shirts. Or would that just ruin it? Yeah, probably.
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June 24 2016
The stunning news of the UK voting to leave the EU has put a hard spotlight on the rise of provincialism and the defeat of multi-national unity. The increasing political clout of UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France point to further Balkanization of global society still to come.

A few months ago, European commentators were quite fond of expressing bafflement at Donald Trump’s candidacy. Recent events give that the lie; they know very well what happened, because they themselves played a significant role in their own breakout star.

And maybe I’m just sick and tired and in need of a vacation (which I’m actually hours from going on), but I think advertising is to blame.

I mean all of us. Me. You.

Because we’ve conditioned our fellow human animals to make decisions in the blink of an eye, using our prodigious know-how and creativity to create one fragment of an ever faster-spinning kaleidoscope of momentary impressions that we believe make a difference in brand development and sales growth. Maybe it’s that belief that has made it so.

Thoughtfulness has vanished from advertising, replaced by pre-digested memes. Indeed, highly lauded marketing campaigns have been based on what could be distilled into 140 characters.

And social media, instead of bringing people together, now divides us into increasingly isolated tribes. We follow those who agree with us. We unfollow those who don’t. All incoming information reinforces our beliefs. There’s us and there’s them: the outsiders, the enemies of sanity and reason. Never mind that there’s very little reason going on here.

Coke vs Pepsi. Newcastle vs Sunderland. Conservatives vs Liberals. As practitioners of branding we’ve not only promoted such schisms, but we’ve proclaimed them victories.

Well, this is our harvest. Through branding and relentless and ever-shorter advertising messages, we’ve created a world of faux individuals, each convinced of and defined by his or her own beliefs and almost incapable of working with non-believers toward a common goal.

That may be because – also thanks to our art – people have lost the ability to see commonality. Through big-data-driven micro-targeting and personalization, marketing has moved the goalposts closer and closer to each individual. So a Coke-drinking, conservative Raiders fan has simply lost the ability to see common ground with a Pepsi-drinking, liberal, Jets fan on an issue like the nation’s economy.

If I pause to take a breath, I can step back and realize that all this is nothing new. Back in 1965 the Rolling Stones sang “I’m watchin’ my TV/And that man comes on to tell me/How white my shirts can be/But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me.” But in ’65, people were coming together to end a war, extend civil rights, and become a global community. In a bitter twist, the song has gone from satirical protest to cognitive reinforcement.

It’s time to step back from the brink. While our industry still remembers how, we should use advertising to popularize hope over dystopia and build a broader sense of belonging. Our work should foster dialog instead of dogma, collaboration instead of corroboration.

We’ve done it before. Come on, who’s with me? I’d like to teach the world to sing.
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February 5 2016
The big advertising show is this Sunday! Like other ad shows, it has entry fees, some of the highest in the world, in fact. That doesn’t stop it from being the biggest advertising event of the year, nor does it deter mediocre entries. Unlike other ad shows, the winners are chosen by consumer response. Teasing and bribing the judges is standard practice. And, oh, yes, there’s a football game attached. Here’s a look at the early winners (yes, there are already winners to a game not yet played; this is advertising, after all), from the YouTube Official Blog:
Advertising copywriter blog link

140 million pre-game views is nothing to sneeze at. At no other time could you produce a teaser for a TV commercial. And, few other opportunities exist to implement sequential message roll-outs in which you can count on viewers recognizing each component as part of a whole. Ad time on the Super Bowl is now the hub of a multi-channel marketing effort that extends beyond mere air time, beyond the game, beyond even the event itself. Consider that more than half those 140 million views were watched on mobile devices.

I find most of the ads, well, mediocre. They’re irrelevant, obvious, and self-important. So as ads, they’re not our industry’s finest work.

But here’s the thing: they’re not ads. Not any more. They’re buzzbait for sharing on social media networks. And for that, some of them are superb.

My main question is, as always: will they convert? Whether and how well they do, though, may depend more on back-end implementation than front-end creative.
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February 4 2016
The City of San Diego has a new logo! Let the kicking commence! Here’s the story, from my no-longer-locally-owned San Diego Union-Tribune:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I like how local designers are trying to subtly pile on and position themselves for a shot at a city contract. “Yeah, it’s nice and clean and the fees are in line, but it just seems like, gosh, it could’ve been better somehow.” Ayup.

I’ve worked on projects like this. Believe me, the branding agency (local shop Elevator) probably earned its fees in meetings alone. Maybe you’ve been there? A half-dozen “key stake-holders,” not including two who couldn’t make it but suddenly turn up in a month or two with critical input? Ayup.

That’s not to say you can’t do great work for committee-driven projects. But great work often tends to stir controversy, something groups avoid. It takes a rare kind of brilliance, and all the stars aligning, to get great work out of a committee review.

I think the new logo is very good. It may even be great. It’s obviously a massive step up from just using the city seal, which ought to be reserved for official documents; using a city seal on marketing diminishes the seal. The new logo looks polished, yet captures a feel-good vibe, two objectives often in conflict. That and the asymmetry give it a nice conceptual tension, and the execution delivers a hint of motion in a sense of pulling forward as you go from upper left to lower right. And it does all those things in multiple formats, in black and white and in color.

As to the U-T Watchdog exercise in the jump story, in which the newspaper hired some graphic artists from Fiverr to come up with their own logos for the City of San Diego: the only thing it demonstrates, and that conclusively, is the paucity of creative talent on Fiverr.
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February 2 2016
I’m a freelance advertising copywriter. But only a tiny fraction of my day is spent writing ad copy. Most of my day is spent just thinking about stuff. You could call it strategizing or trend-spotting or research, but the fact is I’m daydreaming or doing the crossword or playing with the dog or taking online classes in Medieval life.

Now there’s scientific backing, from Stanford University no less, for the notion that goofing off heightens creativity, and not just by bringing deadlines closer to increase pressure. Here’s the story, from the Washington Post via Business Insider:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The three tips to “unfocus” are to take breaks to do something either mindless or intellectually broadening, to unplug and do nothing, and to play like a child.

All of which are things most of us probably do automatically. Hey, goofing off is one of the prime perks of being a professional creative, right? The occasional embarrassing consequence, such as being caught playing like a child, are, likewise, probably familiar to most of us (it can't be just me).

The danger comes when you confuse the part where you’re goofing off with the part where you’re actually creating something. Downtime is part of the creative process, but at some point something – an idea, usually, or the need to get lunch – compels you to act. Which is why I suggest one more tip: to doodle constantly during certain types of downtime.

You never know when a fresh connection will suggest itself, and you don't want to lose potentially good creative to the sheer pleasure of goofing off.
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January 15 2016
Happy quarterly tax day to my fellow freelancers! In that spirit of independent working, here’s an article from BBC News about the Airbnb-ification of shared workspace:
Advertising copywriter blog link

So now you don’t even need shared office space: you can hook yourself up with short-term co-working space in someone’s house while they’re away at work.

It’s an interesting idea. For the homeowner, it monetizes an asset that’s otherwise sitting idle and increases activity around an empty house during the day. For the renter, it’s a cheaper way to get co-working space, possibly closer to home. And, for municipalities, it could reduce demand for office buildings – giant, environmentally costly structures that are largely abandoned at night.

In terms of global efficiency, requiring two separate buildings in which to lead our lives makes little sense for many of us. And our numbers may grow if, as claimed in the video, fully half the workforce will be freelance by 2020. That’s less than four years away.

Personally, I like having my private office space at home. But what shared office space gives freelancers, especially distractible ones like many ad creatives, is a stronger sense of accountability. If I’m paying $30 a day to sit in someone’s kitchen working, I’d probably spend more time actually working. Increased productivity could increase income more than enough to cover the occasional added expense.

So far, there are no residence-based short-term co-working spaces in my area. But hey, as the kids grow up, we may have some room to spare!
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January 13 2016
Could this be the end of native advertising? Regulators in the US and UK are taking a tough look at digital ads that masquerade as content. Here’s the story, by Leonid Bershidsky, from Bloomberg:
Advertising copywriter blog link

A correction is in order regarding that article’s headline: it’s not a crackdown on fake ads, it’s a crackdown on fake content.

The truth is, disguising promotional content or propaganda as real-world information can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages. And I’ve long pointed to Ogilvy (as in David, the 1960s advertising legend) as a pioneer in modern-day leverage of editorial (or “native”) style to deliver advertising content. The self-proclaimed media disruptors have apparently never heard of David Ogilvy, because they’ve laboriously brought forth a crude form of his editorial-inspired ad layout theory, applied it to digital media, and sold it to millions as an innovation. I’m delighted that Bershidsky is one of the few media commentators (sadly, not an ad creative) who sees through the increasingly dense layer of noise surrounding this mutton dressed as lamb.

The Federal Trade Commission isn’t fooled either. Just last month, the FTC issued a guide to native advertising. It’s just a re-skin of the same practices from print advertorials, applied to the digital realm. And it’s a good read, because it definitely gives a sense of “come on, now, was this really necessary?” Meanwhile, in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has already taken action against advertisers trying to slip undisclosed ad messages under the radar, disguised as content.

Key statement from the FTC guide: “From the FTC’s perspective, the watchword is transparency. An advertisement or promotional message shouldn’t suggest or imply to consumers that it’s anything other than an ad.”

Oddly enough, transparency is a desideratum for advertising, if not for honesty than for clarity.

Hey, I have a crazy idea: why not take all that energy and money that’s being poured into “native advertising,” and apply it to an actual ad? Something people will be attracted to, intrigued by, and persuaded to spend time and money on.

Hmm. Creative that actually stands out from its environment and engages people because they want to. Now that’s disruptive!
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January 12 2016
Here’s a solid article outlining five ways to create more-memorable YouTube ads, from Business 2 Community:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s also a demonstration that nothing in new media has changed basic human nature. After all, these five tips shouldn’t be news to anyone in advertising. They’re evergreen, the same ingredients that go into creating a memorable newspaper ad, traditional broadcast TV commercial, or outdoor board.

But there are new ways to reach people. Here’s an interview with Pablo Rochat, someone who’s pushed the boundaries in the name of marketing – and fun – from the Huffington Post:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Great quote: “99% of advertising is boring noise that people would rather ignore. This leaves a huge opportunity to make advertising that stands out, creates value, and makes people to tell their friends about it.”

Again, that notion won’t be news to anyone in advertising. But what’s cool, is the way Rochat co-opts major ad campaigns and leverages social media and social media behaviors to create further added value.

And that’s the bottom line: in any medium, any channel, great creative adds value.
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January 4 2016
There’s proper writing. Ad copywriting. And authentic writing.

This is authentic writing. But it’s also good copywriting because it delivers the flavor of the experience. It’s as if James Joyce was Chinese, writing in English, for product packaging. And it’s bloody perfect.
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November 19 2015
I’m enrolled in a MOOC that’s studying various plays by Shakespeare. The play this week is Othello. Open Source Shakespeare has a navigable version of the play’s text:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Here’s my four-sentence synopsis, for those unfamiliar with the tragedy. Othello, an older African military commander currently employed as a general for the dukedom of Venice, marries Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator. His trusted aide, Iago, stung by various real or imagined slights, sets out to destroy Othello. Iago carefully plants false seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind about Desdemona’s faithfulness. Once they take root, Iago nurtures them until they bear fruit: Othello, driven mad, murders Desdemona in their marital bed and, upon learning the truth, kills himself.

Iago is often said to be one of Shakespeare’s smartest, most unredeemably evil characters. He is Machiavellian in his cunning. And the whole story turns on his ability to persuade, to make Othello believe something that isn’t real.

He kicks off his campaign with a very old trick: he deprecates the very version of events he wants to sell. Far from dissuading Othello, it solidifies the apparent truth of the implications that follow. It’s as copywriting legend Bernice Fitz-Gibbon said a century ago about transparency in ad copy: “A little bad makes the good believable.” Even though there’s no “good” being sold by Iago, only falsehood, the basic sales technique works.

Despite its proven effectiveness, copywriters today seldom use this technique. Possibly because they don’t know it. But most-likely because most clients don’t want anything “negative” in their ads, even if – perhaps especially if – it’s the truth. Which is unfortunate.

Because truth sells.
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November 18 2015
The collection of offensive ads I mentioned Sunday is actually part of a newly released book. Here are a few more examples from Beyond Belief by Charles Saatchi, from The Guardian (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I think this is an important book. Not because it reveals an ugly aspect of American postwar growth, but because it’s a potent reminder that the views we hold today may be little more than culturally influenced prejudices. And just as likely to be derided 50 years from now.

That’s no reason to not market today’s innovations with all the energy we can muster – ad agencies owe that to their clients.

But, that’s equally no excuse for today’s versions of essentially similar marketing campaigns that seek to attract attention by belittling others.
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November 15 2015
A weekend quickie to point out this collection of sexist, racist, and otherwise offensive ads from what’s often called the golden age of advertising. Here’s the story, from ad legend Charles Saatchi, via the Daily Mail (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Some examples are more offensive than others. For example, racism and sexism are always abhorrent, and iṯs impossible to argue that that’s just the way things were because there were plenty of people around at the time fighting for what was right. But technological advances – like asbestos and nuclear power – will always be a mixed bag from the safety of hindsight. Pharmaceutical ads, health and wellness ads, even trade ads for industrial innovations, will almost inevitably seem ridiculous in retrospect.

One wonders how today’s ads for drugs, green energy, and other technologies will be viewed once more is known about their unanticipated side effects.
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Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
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The ART of repurposing marketing copy (Or, why you shouldn’t use brochure copy as web content)
The economy (and what to do about it)
The Tightwad Marketing project
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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