John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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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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November 13 2015
It’s Friday the 13th – RIP Fresh & Easy. Here are a few photos taken over the last two days of the inside of my local store:

The thought of all those layoffs is terrible, but seeing this brightly lit derelict really brings it home. Soon it will be dark, the remaining fixtures and stock to be sold by the lot, sight unseen.

Conceptually worded signage and a unique color palette did little to build the brand or move the merchandise, for the rudimentary reason that foot traffic never reached critical mass. And I maintain that the primary reason for the lack of foot traffic was the lack of advertising.

Heck, I was a regular customer, in this very store two or three times a week throughout the its life, and I seldom saw more than one or two other shoppers in the place.

I believe that Fresh & Easy offered a better way to buy groceries. But it’s not enough to build a better mousetrap. You have to tell people about it, long and loud.
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November 11 2015
The Shakespeare MOOC I'm taking is discussing Macbeth. Here’s the text of the play, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

One major theme is equivocation: the use of language that can be interpreted two ways. And Macbeth employs double-speak from his very first line: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” And the apparitions handily fool Macbeth with their equivocations (“... for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”).

We’ve all seen equivocation – what I call weasel words and phrases – in advertising. Sometimes, copywriters are actually directed to write it, although one often can equivocate out of the need to equivocate if it really matters. (And there’s an example.) The problem with equivocation in ad copy is that the intent isn’t to sell, it’s to deceive. And that puts it at odds with the purpose of advertising.
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November 8 2015
Just a Sunday quickie to point out this article, the latest post-mortem of grocery retailer Fresh & Easy. Here’s the story, from my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The article alleges a litany of things going wrong at the highest levels. But it all comes down to a lack of focus: lack of brand focus, lack of retail focus, and lack of tactical focus. All of which, from beginning to end, led to a failure to communicate to consumers any meaningful differentiator.

The corporate failure is a real pity because Fresh & Easy was a genuine market innovator. The company got a lot of things right. It offered in many ways a better way to shop for groceries. It just never found its voice. And without a voice, it died as it lived: anonymously.
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November 6 2015
The play this week in the Shakespeare MOOC I’m taking is The Merchant of Venice. And here’s the text of the play, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Although most people know the play for its character Shylock the Jewish moneylender, that’s not actually what the play is about. For the record, I think the play is about extremism and hypocrisy, and I find all the main characters repulsive.

But the play is also about commerce, and that’s where it gets interesting from a marketing perspective. Antonio, arguably the titular merchant, isn’t a shopkeeper; he’s an import/export wholesaler operating on a global scale. He puts up money to buy or lease ships and crews, which sail to distant ports to buy or trade for cargo to be sold on. A contracted percentage of the proceeds is shared out among the crew upon their return. Another part repays expenses. What’s left is the merchant’s profit.

And this merchant makes a lot of money. Antonio says, “within these two months ... I do expect return of thrice three times the value of this bond.” The bond is for borrowing 3,000 Venetian ducats, or roughly $450,000 in today’s money. In other words, Antonio expects his ventures to return about $4 million in two months. He doesn’t say whether that’s net or gross, and one wouldn’t expect that he'd be trading at that level every two months. But it’s understood that he’s wealthy and successful.

How does he do it? Diversification. At the beginning of the play, Antonio tells his friends “I thank my fortune for it, my ventures are not in one bottom (ship) trusted, nor to one place; nor is my whole estate upon the fortune of this present year.” All of which turns out to be untrue, by the way; he’s fooling himself and three months later he’s bankrupt and indebted for the contracted pound of his flesh.

Companies, too, often believe they’re diversifying their marketing efforts because they run ads on multiple media channels. But that diversification is as illusory as Antonio’s. In addition to constant advertising, you also need consistent PR, regular promotion, and ongoing social media content support (none of which I do, by the way, so I’m not just angling for work here). Without sustained, continual outreach through diverse marketing channels, companies risk their own pound of flesh. And it’s usually a competitor that collects it.
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November 5 2015
My neighborhood Fresh & Easy market is closing, as is the entire chain. Not that it’s much of a functioning grocery store any more. Here are photos showing the last days of what, just eight years ago, was Tesco’s first major foothold in the U.S. market:

Even at knock-down close-out prices, the store, as you can see, is devoid of customers. And that was always the business problem, although as a customer I found it a positive because the aisles were clear and there was never a line and I could get in and out with several day’s of groceries in three or four minutes. Yes, I timed it.

So how is this final liquidation event being advertised? Ay, there’s the rub. It’s being advertised the same way Fresh & Easy advertised itself throughout its short, unprofitable life: almost entirely through its email list. Which is a fine, cost-efficient way to communicate, except that an email list only reaches people who are probably already customers. There’s little to no new-customer acquisition.

Then, when Fresh & Easy did try to generate new business, it did so through expensive direct mailers, made doubly expensive because it would always include coupons good for five or ten dollars off an entire purchase. That was the company’s answer to people who wanted to use manufacturer coupons, but not surprisingly it didn’t appeal to them and it trained existing customers to wait for the coupons. So foot traffic never caught fire and profitability per visit plunged, which meant income per square foot plummeted.

Never before have I seen a brand failure lie so squarely on predictible failures in marketing, nor one that would have been so easy to redirect toward success.

Of course, that’s easy to say with no knowledge of the budget or the politics within the corporation. It’s easy to envision success when one can also imagine an unlimited budget and supportive stakeholders. But, clearly, a broader mass message needed to get out, and the differentiators needed to be better articulated to resonate with real customers.

Considering neither was ever done, perhaps the real surprise about Fresh & Easy is that it lasted as long as it did.
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November 1 2015
I just wrapped up a MOOC on the battle of Agincourt. Here’s the Agincourt 600 website honoring the battle’s 600th anniversary one week ago today:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It was fascinating to learn the real history after the fictionalized portrayal in Shakespeare’s Henry V. But, being a class about a campaign of war, many events and situations were quite familiar to those of us in advertising.

Among them were things like Henry launching his campaign without having the money to see it through. To cover the second pay quarter, he has to put up his own jewels as security to make sure his troops get paid. Start-ups often underestimate the time and money it’ll take to penetrate a market. The blame usually falls on marketing and advertising as the most-visible part of the effort. But the root of the problem lies deeper, in securing enough money for a sustained campaign.

Henry also seems to expect little resistance upon his arrival in France, and the first big obstacle is a tougher nut to crack than his campaign can bear. He has to bail out and make a face-saving run for a friendly city, his original plan in tatters. Companies armed with data, innovation, vigor, and an alleged lack of competition may believe they’re launching into a vacuum. But they never are. Inertia competes with everything in every market, and it is very hard to move people to change their status quo.

Not that the competition fares better. Beset by civil strife and a weak king, France lets Henry establish a beachhead without a fight and defers a direct confrontation, enabling Henry to besiege and seize a strategic city. However, allowances must be made for the fact that big armies, such as one to invade or repel invasion, were essentially project-based groups. They were funded, recruited, mustered, and trained on a just-in-time basis.

Agincourt is the ad hoc French army’s first major engagement, and its commanders make rookie mistakes. They underestimate the opposition. They fail to reconnoiter the ground adequately. They fail to establish clear lines of command and control. They delay further, handing to Henry both the first-mover advantage and the defender advantage. They ignore the advice of more experienced leaders within their ranks. They may even fail to have a plan beyond a brace of cavalry charges (which fail) and a head-on run across acres of muddy fields. Those failures squander their army’s power and lead to a spectacularly one-sided defeat.

Sound familiar? Nokia. Saab. Lehman Brothers. Quiznos. Fisker. Blockbuster. Radio Shack. A&P/Pathmark and Haggen and Fresh & Easy. Amazon Local. It’s a list that’ll keep growing because strategic and tactical mistakes are as timeless as great stories. And, in the end, that’s all they become.
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October 28 2015
I’m taking a MOOC on Shakespeare, and the focus play this week is Henry V, a timely coincidence because a few days ago marked the 600th anniversary of the English victory at Agincourt. Here’s the text of the play, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s biggest war plays. And bringing an international war, complete with massive battles on foreign soil, to life on a little wooden stage is an immense challenge.

So Shakespeare kicks off the play with copy: a spoken prologue that sets the scene, much as the text crawl did in Star Wars. But Shakespeare’s prologue does something at once more honest and less expected. It explicitly asks for the audience’s help in extending the shorthand of stagecraft beyond the theater walls. It tasks the audience’s “imaginary forces” to create the image of an army where a few men stand, and to conjure from a small stage a vast battlefield. “For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” it says.

Shakespeare uses words, and words alone, to activate the theater of the mind. And he does so in an actual theater. So each viewer’s audiovisual experience is multiplied by his or her own imagination. This is a brilliant way to achieve total audience engagement, with both hands.

I think it’d be cool to use that idea in an ad campaign for, say, a travel or tourism or food client. After all, it’s always a good idea to steal from a genius.
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October 26 2015
Fresh & Easy joins Haggen on the list of retail grocery brands that foundered this year. Here’s my photographic tribute to them and their layoffs of thousands of workers:

Fresh & Easy launched in late 2007 with great fanfare as the U.S. expansion of UK-based grocery giant Tesco. It burned through over $1.6 billion as it opened more than 200 stores across the nation, with ambitions to open 200 more.

Unfortunately, its European convenience grocer concept didn’t catch on with American grocery shoppers, who were used to name brands, manufacturer coupons, checkout clerks, and choosing their own individual fruits and vegetables. A smaller roll-out may have helped iron out some of the cultural missteps. But the chief problem was a complete and continual failure to persuade consumers of the brand’s unique value proposition. However, Tesco was in pedal-to-the-metal mode, and kept building stores and awaiting customers.

Now, me, I liked Fresh & Easy. I appreciated the concept, based on the European model of frequent shopping for a day or two’s worth of meal ingredients. But there were too few like me around. By mid-2013, Tesco had had enough. They sold the whole shebang to Yucaipa Companies, an L.A.-based holding company.

Unfortunately, the marketing failure persisted, aggravated by price increases and high employee turnover. A meager rewards program failed to counter the price increases or attract loyalty.

Effective last Friday, all Fresh & Easy locations are shutting down. I was in my local store Friday morning, and the shelves, still nearly fully stocked, were a mass of 10, 20, and 30% off cards. By this morning, the shelves had become nearly bare.

Fresh & Easy and Haggen are in a way mirror images. Fresh & Easy had a genuinely innovative approach that it failed to communicate or make attractive to customers, and was further injured by executional missteps. In the end, it was run by investment analysts and bean counters who failed to grasp the importance of outbound communication. Haggen, run by long-time grocers, failed primarily on execution: a titanic financial overreach in acquiring the stores and a traditional approach to grocery retailing that offered nothing new or better, all exacerbated by a disastrous pricing mistake on opening that cost the chain thousands of customers who never returned.

Fresh & Easy and Haggen are also similar in that both failed to be relevant brands. I’m sure they each had a brand strategy. But, whatever it was, it lacked focus or defensible turf or sufficient money to fulfill itself (see Advertising Strategy and Other Lies). In any case, the brand message missed the consumer. No one knew what either stood for, and that’s a fundamental marketing mistake.

I’m not saying advertising alone could have saved Fresh & Easy or Haggen. But smarter advertising would certainly have given them a fighting chance, and, in the case of Fresh & Easy, might have made the difference between life and death for the brand.
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October 23 2015
The MOOC I’m taking on “Shakespeare and His World” continues to be a more-fun diversion than blogging about advertising. I’ve said elsewhere that I’d rather write ads than write about them, and apparently I’d also rather write about Shakespeare. This week the focus play is the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here’s the play’s text, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This MOOC focuses on how the plays reflect real life in Shakespeare’s time. A major sub-plot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the casting, rehearsal, and staging of an amateur play. These events give Shakespeare, himself a professional actor and playwright, a rich opportunity to comment on the creative process.

The play-within-a-play is “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby.” It is staged by the town tradesmen, in honor of a ducal wedding. It has been argued that its presentation within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s own parody of Romeo and Juliet. As they rehearse, the tradesmen revise the script, adding prologues and soliloquies to make clear that the story unfolding is an act and is not happening for real, and that they are themselves and not their characters, especially in the case of the poor fellow playing a lion. They even find it essential to add two characters: moonlight and a wall.

I think Shakespeare is poking fun at people’s tendency to over-complicate creative. It’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae, from the potentially valuable (consumer insight) to the counterproductive (reviewers compelled to provide input to justify being asked). But it’s also easy to get derailed by speculative assumptions. Suddenly, the path of least resistance is to create minutiae by explaining everything, and having a man dress up as a wall seems a perfect solution to a vexing problem.

I was reminded of a classic article titled “Nine Ways to Improve an Ad – to Death” by creative advertising legends Fred Manley and Hal Riney (Western Advertising, March 1963). It was written more than 50 years ago, and nearly 350 years after A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Together, the two works show that the problems facing creatives who want to do good work haven’t changed. Groups innately favor the obvious explained, the aggregate accommodated, and the unlikely prevented. The result is advertising creative that plunges past the lowest common denominator to reach the lowest possible denominator. And a new marketing farce opens.
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October 16 2015
I’ve been taking a MOOC on “Shakespeare and His World,” which is a welcome diversion from the world of advertising. Yet, I always find connections.

This week’s focus play, for instance, was The Merry Wives of Windsor. And, as an advertising copywriter with some experience in direct marketing, I was struck by how and why the main character’s attempted seduction of the titular wives – his attempt to gain market share, as it were – fails. Here’s the play’s text, from Open Source Shakespeare:
Advertising copywriter blog link

For those unfamiliar with the story, derelict lothario Sir John Falstaff and his scruffy entourage descend on the suburban town of Windsor, where he sets out to seduce not just one but two respectably married middle-class women, partly for fun but mostly to replenish his empty purse. He starts by sending them love letters. The two women’s horror turns to amusement when they compare love notes and find them to be identical except for their names. They decide to punish the errant knight by luring him into situations in which he is humiliated. He is sent out with their dirty laundry to be dumped in the river and dressed as a witch, in which guise he is beaten by one of the husbands. In the end, Falstaff’s plot is revealed and mocked before the whole town, and there are lots of comedically happy endings.

So Falstaff, despite the benefits of desirable rank and immediate brand awareness, fails spectacularly because he breaks a cardinal rule in advertising: always start where the market is. That rule applies to physical space – media – in which regard Falstaff follows it (nothing wrong with direct mail). But it also applies to psychological space – messaging – and that’s where Falstaff errs. Like many marketers, Falstaff launches his campaign completely out of the blue, with premature claims of relevance and attachment. He disregards the actual state of affairs between himself and the members of his target audience. By ignoring that reality, he builds his campaign on a succession of ignorant interpretations of responses, leading him to invest himself deeper and deeper in events beyond his control.

In short, he fails because he starts his marketing pitch in the middle, instead of at the beginning.

Sadly, we’ve seen this story with many highly publicized, well-funded, wildly innovative start-ups and spin-offs. In Shakespeare’s fictionalized world, it’s all in the name of comedy and all is forgiven in the end.

But the real world is a harsher judge of the ad campaign that fails to start its marketing message in a space where people already are.
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October 9 2015
I’m taking a MOOC (massively open online course) on “Shakespeare and His World,” through the University of Warwick via the FutureLearn project. You can find out about MOOCs (and what I believe to be a big part of the future of education, and therefore of marketing and sales) here at FutureLearn:
Advertising copywriter blog link

In this first week, the class is looking at Shakespeare’s upbringing and development as a writer. One of the things I found interesting was that, for the most part, writing didn’t pay. But one way to make it pay, was through patronage, or sponsorship. Yes, advertising, in a way.

It worked like this. An aspiring writer would publish something: a treatise, a poem, something serious. And, he’d dedicate it to some wealthy noble in the area, typically with deep gratitude and high praise for the aristocrat’s family, learning, and taste. The writer would do this hoping to get some money in return, perhaps even a regular stipend or official household position. So that dedication was, essentially, a speculative pitch.

For the patron, of course, this was all about the publicity. He’d get to associate his name with a pop star, establishing his credibility as an arbiter of culture. Did it work? Well, a few otherwise relatively overlookable peers from four centuries ago are relatively well-known today largely due to their patronage of Shakespeare and their financial support for the production or publication of his works. Four centuries of brand recognition among key influencers within a niche is outstanding ROI by any measure.

The other way to make a living as a writer was to start a theater and become a shareholder in the business of producing the plays one wrote and performed. Then, as long as the plays themselves were popular, you were in the money.

And Shakespeare, being a 16th-century media hustler, did both.
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October 2 2015
I haven’t posted a blog entry in a while. Hey, life happens. But I’m kind of inspired to start up again, because of an online course I’ve started called “Shakespeare and His World.” It may seem completely tangental, but I’ve looked over the course syllabus and I’m already seeing the potential for connections to the world we live in today. Like us, Shakespeare had sponsors to satisfy, audiences to attract, and tickets to sell. And, 400 years later, he’s still attracting audiences and filling seats. That’s an amazing piece of sales-focused branding right there.

Now that I may be blogging again, I have to comment on the rising trend among blogs for undated posts. Without a date, you can’t tell how recent a post is, or when the last update was, or even whether a blog is updated regularly.

I considered starting to do the same thing. It sure would hide the gaps. But upon consideration, I decided against it: I’m going to continue dating my posts.

See, a blog entry is supposed to be fresh content. And if it’s not, readers may need to know when it’s from to tell if it’s relevant to their needs. I went looking for a fix for a minor problem after upgrading to Windows 10, and undated blog and forum posts became a significant source of frustration because they masqueraded, even in search results, as recent content.

Besides which, most of the stuff I blog about is pretty much evergreen. Fundamental copywriting and marketing chops, for instance, and the case for relevant advertising. The actual process of building a brand over time remains the same, even as new tools become available. Case studies usually have timeless elements to them. On the other hand, a topic like social media is somewhat mixed. Some best practices don’t change, but others are evolving rapidly.

I may have become irregular in posting blog entries, because real life happens. But I’m honest about it.
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July 7 2015
Here’s a story about the future of that reliable old advertising form, the poster, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Posters will become irrelevant when graphic design becomes irrelevant. That is, never.

I find it hard to believe there are media-savvy people who believe that the internet can kill off the poster. Different audiences, different purposes. And very different spaces. There’s a there in a poster, a there that’s not just the sense of a place but is the place itself. And that there-ness can’t be created in social media. The very act of being on the spot to see a poster is part of the poster.

Also, media tends to be cumulative. New forms don’t kill off old ones; instead, they co-evolve.

That may be partly because, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, we innately filter new information through old patterns of thinking. Placing the new within an historical hierarchy lets us grasp it quickly. But it also curtails a new medium’s development by forcing it, in its infancy, into existing lines of work.

We don’t get the full-blown new media experience because by its very newness it can’t exist independently. Instead, we get a weakened version of new media, one hobbled by being chained to an old model.

Mature media is actually better placed to integrate the new than vice versa. That’s why I look forward (or, in McLuhan’s view, move forward while looking backward) to a renaissance of posters as designers and advertisers build deep interactivity and personal specificity into their concepts.

It’s an exciting time to be in advertising!
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July 3 2015
This is a fantastic example of why outdoor remains a relevant advertising medium. A billboard for Carlsberg beer, placed in the city of London, actually dispenses beer. Here’s the story, from
Advertising copywriter blog link

Logistically, I wonder how they managed distributing and collecting all those half-pint cups. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of dispenser, which leads me to suspect that that was another job of the on-site ID inspectors/marketing reps.

Despite the ad-like format, this is a free-sample kiosk, which makes this promotion not advertising. But I like how the message works with the medium to become a circular meta media message: it’s an ad that’s a promotional giveaway that turns into a social media platform and publicity. And, by interacting with the ad and the promotion, the audience becomes part of all four. This generation is media-savvy enough to appreciate that kind of sophistication.

The medium is more than the medium or the message or the other medium. It’s also the audience. Cool!
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July 1 2015
Today is the 36th anniversary of the death of radio. Remember that? No? Well, it started with that 1980s icon, the Sony Walkman, which was introduced 36 years ago today. Here’s the story, from Mental Floss:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Despite the focus on its size and appearance, the remarkable thing about the Walkman was its sound quality. Most people at the time had never listened to music through stereo headphones. Sony combined a stereo processor and headphones in a portable device, creating a genuinely novel sound experience for the masses: music that seemed to emanate directly from inside the listener’s head.

Culturally, though, the Walkman’s impact was even greater. At the time, listening to music was a social experience, perhaps a behavioral carryover from the golden age of radio. People gathered to share the latest albums, and stacks of LPs would be thoughtfully arranged to be played in a particular order. The Sony Walkman turned music into a solitary pursuit, while the mixtape created the personal playlist based on singles instead of albums.

And that brought out hordes of would-be Cassandras, who forecast the end of radio. After all, now that people could stream their choice of music, commercial-free, directly into their heads, surely the end was near for radio.

Yet, here we are, 36 years later, and radio – in broadcast and streaming iterations – remains strong and relevant, co-existing quite collaboratively with today’s personal music players.

It’s worth glancing at the reasons why, because they’re much the same reasons any other content channel stays relevant. First, it delivered immediacy, in the form of up-to-the-minute content in real-time. Traffic. Weather. News. And not just sports scores, but play-by-plays. Radio broadcast what was happening as it happened; something no pre-recorded content could achieve.

Second, and somewhat oppositely, it delivered curated content. Program directors and DJs screened thousands of demos, choosing fresh tracks and developing new shows they thought their listeners would like. Despite the influence of corporate money, the selection process cumulatively worked to create and ride trends.

Third, radio enabled interaction, through contests, call-in shows, and other audience-participation schemes. That ensured that communication, despite the broadcast medium, went both ways, while also increasing audience involvement in both the message and the medium.

Fourth, all of this made radio a highly profitable advertising medium. Fortunes were made, not just among those who controlled the channels but among advertisers. Especially those savvy enough to make the most of the medium’s immediacy, relevance, and interactivity.
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June 29 2015
Just a Monday quickie to point out this article, from BBC News Magazine, on cultivating empathy:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Empathy is the single most-important quality in creating effective advertising, yet it’s the quality most lacking in most ad campaigns. There’s an emphasis on cleverness over relevance, snarkiness over sympathy.

Which is fine, actually. Because it turns this simple human trait into something of a secret weapon for those of us who cultivate it and use it in our work. Ha!
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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