John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
February-December 2017

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February 28 2017
I finally got around to reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Yeah, I know I’m late to the party, but that’s how long it took for my name to get to the top of the public library’s e-book loan system – and I’m not about to spend money on the latest trendy pop-psych business book; at least, not until I’ve read it and decided whether it merits a spot on the shelf.

It’s a pretty good read. I especially enjoyed – and re-read – an early chapter introducing the theory of thin slicing. Thin slicing is integrating lots of tiny bits of data, instantly, on an unconscious level. It’s why a designer or copywriter may keep tweaking their work, and, moreover, how they know when to stop. It’s also why the more experience a creative professional has, the more right his or her work will be at the very first whack.

It’s claimed that one can consciously thin slice, and one example takes place in a psych lab where couples come to talk out a disagreement. While they talk to each other, they’re recorded and monitored. All the data is later analyzed in second-by-second increments, with fleeting facial expressions and momentary physical behaviors identified, coded, and combined with metrics like heart rate and skin temperature. The point was that with just three minutes of hard data, the researchers could identify the marriages most likely to fall apart.

But there’s another payload: those same researchers have found that they can make a reasonably accurate prediction of marital longevity based on just four signs: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. And of those, contempt is by far the single biggest indication of a marriage on the rocks.

This is where things pivot to the world of advertising. Many knowledgeable people position branding as a relationship, a marriage, if you will, albeit more often one of convenience than we’d like to admit. And yet, in advertising there’s an awful lot of essentially hierarchical sarcasm: the wisecracking spouses, the eye-rolling kids, people and brands donning the mantle of snarky superiority.

This might be why long-term brand loyalty is getting rarer: because advertisers pursue a relationship by communicating in exactly the most relationship-damaging way possible.

Not only that, but because advertisers and social media practitioners, donning the mask of snark, made contempt mainstream, we could share considerable blame for what’s happened to the state of political discourse worldwide.

Something to think about.
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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 able, 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, though, 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 battlefield: 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 historical 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. Shakespeare also patched a disclaimer into the epilogue of Henry IV, Part 2, in which he specifically says his character Falstaff is not Oldcastle.

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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Backwards in time to January 2017

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