John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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February 20 2017
I seem to be on a literature kick. But I’m far from being the first person to have noticed an intersection of Shakespeare and advertising. Here’s a post from the Folger Shakespeare Library yesterday on “Shakespeare the salesman: Advertising Coca Cola, iPhones, and chewing tobacco:”
Advertising copywriter blog link

One of the jump stories, which shows more ads and marketing materials with Shakespeare concepts, has a link to an article in The Rotarian, July 1914, over a century ago, called “Shakespeare as a Salesman and Advertising Man.” (If the link doesn’t go to the correct page, the article starts half-way down on page 63.) In it, business manager Herman E. Roesch explicates how Marc Antony’s oration for the fallen Caesar turned the tide against the popular Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Roesch goes through the scene almost line by line, calling attention not just to embedded keywords and trigger words, but also the exquisite timing involved in working the crowd to a desired outcome.

Shakespeare’s 400-year-old lines in the mouth of Antony are as good a model for persuasion as anything else today. Likewise, Roesch’s 100-year-old article is as good a guide to effective ad campaigning as anything else today. The classics never go out of style.
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February 17 2017
Lately, perhaps because I feel we’re living in unsettled times, I’ve been immersed in Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s history plays, as well as historian Dan Jones’ two books and TV series spanning the same era. Here’s a link to the text of Shakespeare's History of Henry IV, Part 1, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The other day I talked about the possibility that Shakespeare did product placement within his plays, promoting a couple inns near the Globe Theater. As intriguing as the idea is to an ad guy, there’s no real evidence to support the notion (but then, says the conspiracy theorist, why would there be?).

What’s far more evident, is that Shakespeare used his plays to support or promote certain views of real historical and contemporary people, and not just kings but also politicians, bureaucrats, and entire social classes and ethnic groups. One of Shakespeare’s characters, the boisterous, cowardly, fat knight Sir John Falstaff, features prominently in three plays: two histories (Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2) and a comedy (The Merry Wives of Windsor). He also makes an appearance in Henry VI, Part 1, and his death is reported in Henry V. If that seems out of order, it’s because Shakespeare’s Falstaff never existed.

And yet, he did. Because behind the character is an actual man, named Sir John Fastolf. Fastolf served three King Henrys: IV, V, and VI. He served with distinction at Agincourt, commanded English troops in key battles in France, and played ongoing roles in the governance of English territories in France. The record shows that he was an experienced soldier and a trusted administrator. As a Knight of the Garter, he was very close to the kings he served. Like many men of power and influence, Fastolf had political enemies. He was once accused of cowardice by a fellow military commander, probably to cover up that other commander’s disastrous foolhardiness on the field: an investigation cleared Fastolf of wrongdoing. He also eluded conviction for treason, a capital crime, allegedly for supporting Richard, Duke of York against Henry VI. After Fastolf retired from military service, he lived fairly quietly in Southwark, where he busied himself with business affairs (among them the Boar’s Head Inn), lawsuits, collecting art and literature, and meddling in the church. He died childless at the age of 79.

But here’s where the story gets really twisted. Fastolf is clearly the basis for the character Falstaff in Henry VI, Part 1. But he’s actually not the basis for the others. Shakespeare’s original name for Falstaff in Henry IV was Sir John Oldcastle; in fact, several jokes based on Oldcastle’s name and associations are still scattered throughout the plays.

The historic Sir John Oldcastle was, like Fastolf, a professional soldier. Oldcastle fought on the side of the English in Wales under Henry IV, and was a close advisor to Henry V. It’s quite possible he and Fastolf knew each other at least marginally. Oldcastle was also a leader of the Lollards, a religious movement that would later become associated with Protestantism, and in that role was accused of heresy. Despite the personal intervention of Henry V, Oldcastle refused to recant his beliefs, and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed. He escaped the Tower of London and lived for years on the run, stirring up rebellion. Oldcastle was eventually captured and hanged and burnt, possibly while still alive.

However, Oldcastle’s descendants, notably Lord Cobham, protested his namesake’s depiction in Henry IV, and Shakespeare quickly changed the name to one he’d used before as a fictionalized representation of cowardice: Falstaff.

Poor Fastolf was much maligned by his depictions in all the plays. The evidence shows that he, while not a Protestant martyr like Oldcastle or even an especially likeable person, was a courageous and successful military commander and reasonably well-regarded by his peers – a far cry from the outrageously dissolute coward who bears his name in the plays. However, Fastolf died childless, leaving no descendants to defend his honor against an upstart crow who was gleefully busy creating one of literature’s greatest characters.

All of which brings up the issue of spin. While it’s acknowledged that the history plays present a compressed, dramatized, and highly biased view of historical events, the influence popular entertainment has on coloring our judgment of real people is much less considered.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the current Broadway hit Hamilton. Overnight, an aristocratic-leaning, white, privileged believer in a quasi-imperial central government and hierarchical socioeconomic class divisions became the darling of the political left. That’s not just dramatizing events, it’s falsifying history. This is how popular culture creates its own myths, based on facts conjured from and supported by the myths themselves.

It’s a lot like brand development, really. And, these days, as perhaps always, politics.
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February 15 2017
I watched Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night over Valentine’s day, and was struck by a bit of possible product placement. Yes, product placement. Here’s the text of the play, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Here’s a four-sentence top-level summary. Viola, a shipwrecked noblewoman washes up on the shore of Ilyria, a strange foreign land, mourning her twin brother Sebastian whom she believes died in the wreck. For safety’s sake she pretends to be a boy named Cesario and goes into service with the local Duke Orsino, running love messages from him to Olivia, a reclusive countess. Olivia isn’t the least bit interested in Orsino, but falls deeply in love with “Cesario.” Viola's twin brother Sebastian washes up in the same area, and there is much confusion over mistaken identities before everything ends happily: Viola and Sebastian are reunited, Sebastian marries Countess Olivia, and Viola marries Duke Orsino.

Shortly after Sebastian comes ashore, his friend and companion advises him where to get the best lodgings in that strange land: “In the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge.” (3.3.39-40)

My ears perked up at what sounded like a blatant endorsement, and I just had to dig a bit deeper. A little research turned up some intriguing possibilities. The first is that the Elephant could be the Elephant and Castle, a medieval-era inn in Southwark, very near the Globe Theater. It or another local inn by the same name may have existed when Twelfth Night had its original run. A third possibility is that it’s a topical joke: the play being set in a fictional place and time, the sudden intrusion of a contemporary local reference would be a sure-fire laugh.

I find the first possibilities the most intriguing. After all, we know that Shakespeare relied on patronage for big chunks of his income. A commercial sponsorship deal seems like an obvious next step. Or maybe that’s just me, being an ad guy.

Moreover, it might not be the first time an actual commercial establishment made it into one of Shakespeare’s plays. Based on a high volume of convincing hints and allusions, we’re as certain as can be that the inn frequented by Hal and Falstaff and Co. in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2 is a mash-up of the Boars Head Tavern in Eastcheap, which may or may not have existed when Shakespeare was alive, and the Boars Head Inn in Southwark, which probably was.

Notably, the Boar’s Head Inn in Southwark (again, near the theaters) was once owned by Sir John Fastolfe, who appears in Henry VI, Part 1 and whose surname was belatedly appropriated by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor after the descendants of his original named character, Sir John Oldcastle, protested his depiction as a drunken, cowardly lecher.

And that, in turn, leads to another set of topics, branding and reputation management, which I’ll leave for another day.
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February 9 2017
I just completed a MOOC (massively open online course) on Robert Burns, from the University of Glasgow via the FutureLearn platform. Here’s a link to the Robert Burns section of the Scottish Poetry Library:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I had a passing familiarity with some of Burns’ works, “To a Mouse” and “To a Louse” being two that most people may know a bit of (“The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/Gang aft aglee” and “O wad some Pow’r the giftee gie us/To see oursels as others see us!”). The course opened up many more works, and put them in context with Burns’ life and times.

As a would-be subversive, I appreciated how Burns slipped in his Scottish, leveling sympathies even in his openly pro-British poem “The Dumfries Volunteers.” The Dumfries Volunteers was formed in response to fears of a French invasion; Burns enlisted as a private. It’s a properly patriotic British war anthem. But Burns’ independent leanings emerge in the stinger: “But while we sing, ‘God Save the King,’/We’ll ne’er forget the people.”

I was disappointed to learn that Burns, in collecting traditional Scottish airs and songs, rewrote many an earthy verse to satisfy a rather prudish editor named George Thomson. This reckless treatment of old folk songs essentially caused new ones to be created and popularized in their places. This is how history is rewritten – and that a genius was employed to do the rewriting makes the crime worse.

Thankfully, in this case, the bawdy originals survived, or at least bawdier versions remain extant, although they lack Burns’ imprimateur. So, despite the combined efforts of a populist creative genius and an accomplished promotor/publisher, branding went only so far in inventing a history.

This is an everyday twist to the observer’s paradox, in which the act of creation (disguised as recording) obliterates what was in place before. Charles Dickens did a similar thing in A Christmas Carol, normalizing a holiday from work when none existed before. From there, it was just a short hop to Coca-Cola creating the American Santa Claus.
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January 26 2017
With America reverting to its past, multiculturalism may be among the first things on the bonfire. Here’s the story of how one Hispanic ad agency is adapting, from the Los Angeles Times:
Advertising copywriter blog link

A careful reading makes it clear that Trump’s rise is not the cause of the agency’s struggle to remain relevant; that’s been going on for some time. It may, however, be an important catalyst for another discussion.

The main takeaway, I think, is this: while the agency struggled as a pure-play Spanish-language advertising shop, it’s now enjoying a resurgence thanks to its expertise in the consumer behavior of its market segment for English-language ads and commercials. It has successfully repackaged creative as analysis, and I think that’s really smart.

Behavioral insight is a key piece of what we do as copywriters and art directors. But it’s often an intuitive thing, learned over years of trial-and-error and backed by increasingly granular metrics. To unbundle it and market it as a separate product is real win, especially if you also get to integrate it into general-audience marketing through more-relevant creative.

Either way, though, advertising creative includes insight and analysis as preconditions for effectiveness.
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January 17 2017
I followed a trail starting with the hilarious British comedy Raised By Wolves, wound through several of writer/essayist Caitlin Moran’s books, and just came across this terrific video in which she gives advice to creatives and wanna-be creatives. Here’s her presentation, given to Hiive (a UK-based creative collaborative) in March 2015, via YouTube:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s a master class in creativity, in less than 18 minutes. It wambles a bit near the end, but Moran is enough of a storyteller that you probably won’t mind. I’m not going to recap her talk, because that would be redundant and it’s best you get it straight from the source (and take notes, I did). Instead, I’m going off on a tangent.

The part when she talks about being aware of your fuel and the importance of language tone in creativity brought up an idea I’ve been evolving in my head over the past several years: that the language of the advertising industry needs a reboot. We talk about advertising in terms of war: strategy, tactics, campaigns, targeting, engagement. I’ve written extensively on those facets, using those terms, right here on my website.

Those sociolinguistic holdovers from the Great War and, later and more popularly in the U.S., World War II, worked adequately in a world in which advertising was mostly about pushing out mass messages. Furthermore, advertising was a male-dominated industry, and all the ex-GIs understood the lingo.

But here we are in a different world, navigating a different media landscape with different tools and channels. Even the nature of competition is different.

I think the language we use in business might be one part of what’s behind the fragmentation of society. If you use the language of war, you get war. Today, that limits the role of advertising and marketing, as perhaps it has done all along.

Moving forward, the language of the advertising industry should encompass a broader approach than war-based ideas can contain. It’s not strategy, it’s holistic planning; it’s not tactics, it’s pathways and programs and people. It’s not about competition, it’s about collaboration. We’re not seeking engagement with the target market, we’re seeking a conversation with an ideal customer.

I’m not proposing those as alternate terms for the same old concepts. I’m suggesting that the best marketers have always had their eyes, hearts, and minds on bigger ideas than those words convey, and as more people pile into the advertising, marketing, and media industries it’s increasingly evident that the old vocabulary just doesn't cut it.

Because advertising isn’t about destruction. It’s about creation.
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January 13 2017
Today the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune screams “GAME OVER,” followed by ten pages of sobbing, finger-pointing, torch-wielding coverage of the San Diego Chargers’ move to Los Angeles. And that’s the A-section; the sports section has even more. In this, the media conglomerate that owns the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times got it right. This felt like my good ol’ provincial hometown paper. Here are a few column inches of rationalism hidden among the angst, a look at the true economic benefits of having a local major-league team:
Advertising copywriter blog link

That the role of news media has changed from informing its audience to entertaining its audience is broadly acknowledged, albeit less so by the audiences themselves, who generally think themselves well-informed. News coverage, no matter where you get it, is more part of a feedback loop than part of a dissemination network.

And this is where it gets interesting, from the perspective of advertising and media application. Because, while this social model works great for enforcing/reinforcing tribal loyalty, it works less well for acquiring new tribal members.

The key question marketers must ask, is whether the objective of any given use of media is customer sustenance or customer acquisition. If it’s the latter, than the old-media model of broadcast outreach is absolutely essential regardless of the media channel chosen. You can’t attract new market share by remaining solely in a closed loop with your existing market share.
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January 11 2017
I’m taking an online course from Hillsdale College on Hamlet and The Tempest, and just completed the section on Hamlet. Here’s the text, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

And here’s an ad copywriter’s four-sentence summary, in case you’re unfamiliar with the play. Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark, is commanded by what seems to be the ghost of his late father, the former King, to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” by the current King, Hamlet’s uncle, now married to Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet, skeptical of the ghost and somewhat unsure of the allegation, pretends to be nuts so he can discover the truth. This gambit confuses everyone except Hamlet’s best friend Horatio, in whom he confides, and alienates his fiancee, who goes nuts for real and dies tragically. In the end, Hamlet outwits, exposes, and kills his uncle, but not before just about everyone dies, including Hamlet, leaving Horatio to tell the story.

I’ve seen Olivier, Jacobi, Gibson, Branagh, and Tennant play Hamlet on-screen. I’ve seen the play live two or three times. And I have a few thoughts about Hamlet, most of which are purely literary in nature. But one does concern the world of marketing and advertising: what I’m going to call pre-positioning.

Hamlet is receptive to the idea that his uncle killed his father because it aligns neatly with his low opinion of his uncle. Yet, the first time we actually see the uncle, he comes off as kingly, capable, and even compassionate. So who do we believe? Hamlet? Or our own eyes and ears?

Most interpretations depend on us believing Hamlet, in large part because Shakespeare has primed us to do so by showing us the ghost before Hamlet sees it. Without a single word of accusation, Shakespeare has pre-positioned Hamlet’s uncle as the baddie. We accept his guilt, of something, prior to any scrutiny, and the scrutiny that follows is colored by our prejudgment of his guilt. In many productions, the uncle’s confessional soliloquy (Abraham Lincoln’s favorite) in the latter half of the play is mere affirmation that we had it right all along; other productions have us breathing a sigh of relief that we were, after all, on the right side. Either way, the truth isn’t revealed until the story is well underway and we’re firm in our convictions and impatient for action.

That’s the power of pre-positioning. In marketing, it’s accomplished through consistent communication: press relations, public events and statements, emails, social media, and, yes, advertising. If you advertise only when you have something to announce, you risk allowing your competition to pre-position you, and you certainly allow inertia to pre-position you. Those are two sure-fire ways to lose effectiveness, mindshare, and market share.

What’s the point of advertising when you have nothing new to advertise? Strategic pre-positioning.
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January 5 2017
Oft-beleaguered retailer Sears is selling the Craftsman brand to Stanley Tools for $900 million plus royalties down the road. Here’s the story, from Bloomberg News via MSN:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Well, that means the Craftsman brand will likely survive, as will Kenmore and Die-Hard should they be similarly, um, monetized.

But I very much see Sears as a man in winter, selling his warm clothes to make money to buy warm clothes. Of the $900 million, only $525 million of it will be paid now, and for Sears that’s a drop in the liquidity bucket. After servicing the debt load it’s unlikely there’ll be enough real cash left over to pay the bills for another few quarters, let alone to invest in potentially profitable lines in order to survive three years to collect the remaining $250 million. And the royalties? They don’t kick in for another 15 years. It could eventually turn into a nice little cash cow for the receivers, but I’m not sure anyone’s betting on Sears surviving 15 years to collect.

The sad thing about Sears, is that none of this should have happened. Sears had the infrastructure and logistical chops to ship everything from boots to bedroom sets worldwide 100 years before Amazon came along. For most of the 20th century, the Sears catalog was Amazon. But its management, driven by shareholders ignorant of anything but their dividend checks and share prices, shut down the catalog unit, creating a vacuum in the retailing sector that Amazon and its ilk promptly expanded to fill.

And now Sears is selling its only assets that still have relevance. I think it’s notable that those assets consist largely of sub-brands. Even though, as a name, Sears has been flown nearly into the ground, the names Craftsman, Kenmore, and Die-Hard remain solid assets. It’s the principle of diversification, applied to corporate branding strategy. And, should anyone question whether sub-branding has value, this is further proof that a strong sub-brand really is its own money in the bank.
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November 2 2016
The 2016 presidential campaign may mark a new low in public discourse. But it has also marked a significant departure from normal campaign spending. I have two seemingly contradictory stories, both from The Drum. The first looks at presidential campaign spending. The second purports to look at online advertising:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

The first article reflects the new reality of advertising: that a brand’s online presence is of growing – probably dominant – importance in achieving retail results. Social media gurus will trumpet that as a victory over traditional media, claiming second-hand credit for influencing the outcome of a major first-world election.

Of course there’s more to it than that. Globally, we’ve seen a rise in social media isolationism, in which the universe is reinvented around each individual. Far from bringing people together, social media is evolving into a tool for driving and keeping tribes apart, and that’s how brands use it. We give China and North Korea and Burma and Saudi Arabia grief for censoring the internet, yet we do it every day for ourselves.

But the point I want to make is this: political campaigns by their nature reap vast numbers of very temporary volunteers and unpaid touts. So: First, don’t expect the typical brand to be able to tap into the sheer mass of enthusiastic social media ambassadors enjoyed by the typical neopolitical figure. Second, don’t expect the typical brand to reap the volume or speed of results obtained by the typical neopolitical figure; it takes a dedicated team and a significant long-term investment in the message to even make a dent in the noise. Third, don’t expect as much outreach as penetration; the nature of Social Media 5.0 is, ironically or predictably, one of increasingly divergent, culturally isolated tribes.

The second article is actually a teaser for an upcoming webinar. It bemoans the fact that research proves most online advertising is not seen.

First, the research is about online advertising only, not a brand’s overall online presence encompassing, among other things, the brand’s website, third-party sites, and use of social media.

Second, there’s a proven way to increase an ad’s viewership: better creative. Big-data microtargeting has gone about as far as it can in fueling the easy creative shots. Now the standard is higher but marketing creatives haven’t caught up to the consumer. Format and execution matter, sure, but the key to getting an ad seen, online or off, is great creative. That much, at least, hasn’t changed.
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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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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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San Diego, California

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