John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
July 2008

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July 31 2008
Today’s story is somewhat related to yesterday’s first entry, about the rest of the world’s relationship with the creative industry  Here’s a rant from novelist and writer Russell Smith about the word “content” as applied to what one creates, from The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Yeah, well content isn’t the worst pejorative that’s been applied to copy. I can recall art directors dismissing body copy as “gray stuff.” As in, “here’s the space for your gray stuff.”

Some young designers, having cut their teeth on the joke but not necessarily the intimate partnership behind it, have taken to actually designing pieces with copy in gray type, a virtual visual acuity test. That’s not exactly bringing value to the customer.

Anyway, I love the description of developing the media proposal. I have seen reports exactly like this for product launches and ad campaigns. It’s all focused on branding, and while branding is important, it’s equally important to plan a way to deliver that brand to the intended audience one at a time. And for that, you need relevant, fresh, purposeful, characteristic deliverables, whether those are the products themselves or advertising concepts and copy. Otherwise, all you have is window-dressing for an empty store, few return customers, and a death spiral of diminishing returns.

So if, as Smith says, “The idea of media as a vehicle for ‘content’ is a virus,” then at least it’s one that often kills its host.
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July 30 2008
I have two stories today. First up is an insipid (but polite) response in BusinessWeek to a query about how to submit unsolicited advertising ideas to companies or their ad agencies:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I have a better answer, and it’s right in my FAQ section:

... The typical advertising copywriter or art director routinely develops hundreds of ad concepts before presentation. Most lie crumpled in wastebaskets, including many, many “great” ideas. Some were too obvious, or off-strategy, or presented practical obstacles to proper execution. Or, and this is the most-common reason, those great ideas weren’t so great once they were surrounded by better ideas. It has been said more than once that you can judge the quality of a creative team by the contents of its trash can. Finally, clients routinely reject even “great” ad concepts as part of the selection process. Having a bunch of unsolicited but great ideas for ads - that’s the start of a portfolio, not a presentation. Get a job as an advertising copywriter at an ad agency and get to work....

See, this is where people who don’t make a living as a working artist or designer or copywriter or art director just don’t get it. Although I believe that everyone is creative, innate creativity being one of the things that allowed humans to survive, let alone thrive, ideas are the pocket change of creative professionals. We have them all the time, in countless quantities. Partly because that’s just what we do. And partly because that’s what it takes to get one great ad produced.

So these people cosseting their precious Great Idea For An Ad come off as naive, ignorant, and quite possibly not especially innovative in the first place.

That said, there’s nothing stopping anyone from actually producing their Great Idea For An Ad and posting it to a site like YouTube. Consumer-generated advertising is all over the place; many companies (like Apple, for instance – see my Ad Blog entry for October 26 2007) have picked homemade TV commercials for production, and the very worst that could happen is you get a frosty letter from your would-be client’s legal department requesting that your creation be removed. But there again, the idea isn’t the thing stopping anyone; it’s actually having the discipline and the drive to sit down and do something..

Next, I’m dusting off my faithful old hobby horse again, ranting about advertising aimed at children and the parents who enable it. Here’s a story from the Associated Press, via, in which actual grown-up journalists and bureaucrats express their concerns about the $1.6 billion spent marketing food to kids:
Advertising copywriter blog link

All this brings up my standard response: where are the parents? There is absolutely no reason on Earth for a child to watch TV or go online without the parent right there. Why are children allowed to make choices about what the family eats? That’s just nuts, and its also abdicating the responsibility of being a parent.

My sons are now 8 and 6. The younger one knows all the characters in Pirates of the Caribbean. He has never seen the movie. He has never seen a television ad for the action figures or play sets. He has gotten all his information from friends and gifts of themed toys, none of which, by the way, we bought for him. He has also been to the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. My point being, it doesn’t take a lot of exposure for a kid to be culturally literate within his peer group, so that’s no excuse.

By the way, they also know all the Speed Racer characters. No, not the movie, which they have not seen; we occasionally let them watch one of the original episodes on Hulu, on the computer in the family room. But only with one of us right there in the room to talk about anything they might see, particularly the ads. We also amuse ourselves by letting them watch classic episodes of The Addams Family and the hip German children’s show Wissen Macht Ah! We’re raising kids as peculiar as we are, but that’s beside the point.

What we have never done, because I work in advertising, is bought into the mass-marketed stuff. We never did Baby Einstein, because we didn’t want to train our kids to get their entertainment from TV. We never did Sesame Street or Bob the Builder, both of which struck us as half-hour-long television commercials. Neither of our cars have DVD players, and we regularly pack everyone up for three-hour-long car rides to their grandmother’s house and multi-day road trips. (And what do they do, you ask? They read, or do puzzles, or chat, or gaze out the window. They eavesdrop on the grown-up conversation in the front seats. They pet the dog, if he’s squeezed in between them. Oh yeah, and they fight over who’s taking up more space, more air, more time with that toy or book or whatever.)

What we did do, and still do, is let them plant seeds, water the garden, make mud balls, and have water balloon fights. We spread a long sheet of butcher paper on the floor from the dining room into the family room and let them paint murals and draw mazes and write rows upon rows of numbers. Even during summer break, there’s rarely time for television. We have to schedule movie afternoons.

Out kids spend more time active than passive, more time doing than watching. So the food thing? A non-issue because (a) they don’t watch a lot of TV and what they do watch is monitored and at times discussed, (b) they don’t see fictional characters as being credible pitchmen for food items, and (c) as the parents, my wife and I are firmly in charge of what’s in the pantry and refrigerator.

For more of my thoughts on advertising and kids, see my Ad Blog entries for November 13 2007, October 30, 23, and 18 2007, September 16, 11, and 7 2007, June 1 2007, March 19 2007, February 28 2007, January 15 and 31 2007, December 19 2006, November 14, 17 and 20 2006, October 2, 3 and 27 2006, June 11 and 12 2006, April 4 2006, January 20 2006, November 22 and 30 2005, October 20 2005, June 27 2005, April 14 and 27 2005, March 16 17 and 24 2005, February 17 and 28 2005, December 22 2004, November 15 and 16 2004, June 5 and 7 2004, December 5 2003, November 13 and 21 2003, May 6 2003, and April 16 2003. There may be others.
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July 29 2008
Are ads getting sexier? Maybe. Here’s a report, from ABC News (Philadelphia, PA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Yes, sex sells. It has done since before the Roman Empire. The marketing question, is: sells what? Controversy, clothing, or cars? Maybe. A “lifestyle?” Um, no.

I think the Gossip Girl promos are hilarious, self-deprecating in exactly the right way. Yes, they’re sexy, but they’re also funny, which is even more sexy when you get right down to it. The international BMW ad, on the other hand, is obvious, an almost desperate attempt to attract a younger group of wealthy old men to its resale market.

And that’s where the whole matter of sex, as James Thurber and E.B. White put it in Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel The Way You Do (1929, Harper & Row) goes sideways. Sex in advertising works best as a spice: just a dash is all it takes. When it becomes the entrée, something has gone terribly wrong with the message.

Pulling out my copy of Is Sex Necessary? compels me to share just a short excerpt from the foreword to that refreshing, delightfully sly book:

Our method was the opposite of that used by other writers on sex: we saw clearly in what respect they failed, and we profited by their example. We saw, chiefly, that these writers expended their entire emotional energy in their writing and never had time for anything else. The great length of their books (some of them ran into two volumes and came in a cardboard box) testified to their absorption with the sheer business of writing. They clearly hadn’t been out much. They had been home writing; and meanwhile what was sex doing? Not standing still, you can better believe it.

I think that assessment rings equally true in relation to articles written about sex in advertising. Every generation likes to think it alone invented new things, from viral marketing to sex, when in fact all this hoopla is merely the innocently startled reaction to what was there all along.
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July 28 2008
Two Baltimore ad agency executives defect to form their own agency, taking with them a major account. Happens all the time, all over the world, right? Except this time, the two execs are held liable for a $300,000 jury award to their former employer. Here’s the story, from the Daily Record (Baltimore, MD):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The details of the case are covered by a protective order, so one is left to wonder what they must have done to get nailed with a judgment against them at all, let alone one into six figures. The evidence must have been very clear, and looked very bad.

It is one thing to leave an ad agency, then compete for accounts that one managed previously. It is another thing entirely to solicit an account for one organization while flying the flag of another. That’s not a gray area; the ethical line is black and white. And, in this case, crossing that line cost a fair chunk of green.
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July 25 2008
Jingles are back! Here’s the story, from Billboard via Yahoo! News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Oh boy, oh boy, now I get to point all the way back to my very first Ad Blog entry, more than five years ago, on February 20 2003, when I said:

Jingles were sticky long before the term was applied to web content. I rather suspect their fall from favor has to do with people’s ever-decreasing attention spans - and that applies to advertisers and copywriters as well as those in their target audiences. Who has time to pay attention to a jingle, when an old pop song is instantly recognizable? Still, I think a lot of radio, television, and web advertisers are missing the opportunity to make a savvy investment in their brand, by entrenching - and I mean entrenching - a catchy, well-written jingle. A jingle can deliver a unique sales message in a unique way, on a level that a pre-existing song simply cannot.

I’ve raised these same, contrarian points many times before. A quick root through the Ad Blog archives turns up January 24 2005, February 12 2005, June 24 2005, December 30 2005, June 9 2006, September 26 2006, March 16 2007, November 15 2007, and no doubt some others I’ve missed.

The world (or the tiny piece of it concerned with broadcast advertising) is coming around to my point of view, or at least a point of view that I shared with other equally insightful but relatively scarce advertising people. Now that’s a great way to kick off the weekend!
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July 24 2008
In a depressed (or recessed) economy, many niche retailers are discovering – some the hard way – that service sells. Here’s the story, a long feature, from CRM Today (Woodland Hills, CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Circuit City blew its brand – and its sales – by unloading its most-expensive, most-experienced salespeople. Discounters like Target and Walmart are getting by for now on a commoditized low price, but regularly lose sales when no staff is available on the floor. And when traffic is down, it’s essential to convert as many lookers to buyers as possible - and that last link depends on customer service.

Key quote, from sales expert Robert Richardson:

“As the economy tightens,” Richardson says, “everyone is going to be lowering price to the lowest possible point, so service becomes the most important differentiator between retailers. It’s the reason why a consumer would choose to shop at one over another.”

Customer service is perhaps the most critical step in maintaining the brand. In fact, the customer experience is the brand experience to the only people who count.
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July 23 2008
Viral, Olympics, Olympics, viral. It’s that sort of week. Here’s an article/rant from this week’s MSN Slate about “corporate sponsored Internet pranks” (i.e. viral marketing):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I think the medium has made the leap from channel to noise when one argues, and in the same breath no less, that the the medium combines assumed fiction (i.e.: lying) with authenticity. Of course, the same thing is true of the Internet itself, but the web has already gone through its search consolidation.

I think the evolution of the reveal as an extension of the viral campaign is interesting. Just a few years ago, staying hidden behind the curtain was critical to success; now, managing the unveiling of corporate sponsorship is just another step in reaching out and engaging potential customers brand-to-person.
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July 22 2008
Sponsors of the Olympic Games are actively looking for ways to extend the value of their sponsorships, and one important channel is social media. Here’s the story, from Mediaweek (NY, NY):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I think Lenovo has it right, acting as an enabler of communication over social media rather than a corporate participant. The smart bit, is using existing media channels like Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger rather than creating a Lenovo-branded channel. I’ve long advocated owning the channel, but for a short-term project like the Olympic Games, it makes more sense to jump on a bandwagon that’s already rolling. All the content could be rolled up in a Lenovo-branded channel later, if it was determined to have long-term value for the brand.

The problem, from cost-efficiency and media-planning perspectives, is how to measure engagement if not as a function of impressions or clicks or registrations? (And I do think that it’s engagement, not impressions, that has always been the gold-standard metric in all advertising.) That’s the final missing piece on which a lot of media research companies are working.
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July 21 2008
Chinese computer brand Lenovo is betting big on its sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Here’s something of a baseline, pre-Games article about their plans and spending, from Adweek:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The concept of powering the Olympic Games is strong, particularly for a computer maker. The “Ideas” tagline is not as strong, although it has the advantage of being generic enough to fit almost any situation. To me, what makes it weak is the fact that it’s a plural noun instead of a singular verb, like IBM’s classic “Think” or HP’s more-recent “Create.” If you’re going to go for broad and trite, you’d might as well choose a verb at the same price. Imagine (hey, there’s a good verb) IBM using “Thoughts” or HP using “Creations.” Yeah, they fall flat. Or, flatter.

Still, if you throw enough money at a broad and trite tagline, it can start to look like genius when it gains traction.
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July 18 2008
Here’s a good look at stunt marketing as a subset of viral marketing, from the Globe & Mail (Toronto, ONT):
Advertising copywriter blog link

In reality, spectacular backfires are as scarce as spectacular successes. Most of these efforts launch into limbo, where the ability to disavow them is a part of their attraction to marketers. The Cartoon Network campaign in Boston is a prime example: according to the people responsible, the electronic signboards were up and in place for three weeks before anyone noticed (see February 1 2007). Three weeks. That was a launch into nothingness if ever there was one; if it wasn’t for the bad publicity, there’d have been none at all. As for the Dr. Pepper effort, I wrote about that stunt on February 25 2007. That one backfired largely because of poor planning – it was a good concept with a bad execution.

Anyway, stunt marketing (or ambush marketing) is likely to come further into the limelight as the Olympics draw near. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, penetrates the barriers of Chinese authorities, media noise, brand confusion, and consumer cynicism.
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July 17 2008
The sluggish economy has retailers on the ropes. But the smart ones are adjusting their advertising and merchandising to go where the customers are. Here’s the story, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

One effect of high gas prices, is that physical comparison shopping has gone down; those people in the store are there to buy. Another effect is the rise of the importance of geographical micro-targeting.

Meanwhile, the advertising message has shifted from major purchases or convenience items to everyday staple items. The smart retailers are probably already adjusting their floor layouts to suit the new economic landscape.

I was just a kid in the mid-1970s, but from here it sure looks like the 70s are back. Whip Inflation Now button, anyone?
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July 16 2008
It’s not often that a major international story has local implications. But the recent purchase of Anheuser-Busch by Belgium-based InBev could put San Diego’s Sea World on the auction block, along with the rest of A-B’s theme park holdings. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Unfortunately, with the weak dollar, it’s unlikely that Sea World will remain in American hands. Which means more of our local tourist dollars will flow overseas, in addition to the existing flood of oil dollars. That’s a significant injury for a tourist town like San Diego. And, it could mean more local taxes and fees imposed on the local travel and hospitality industry, since that that could be one way to capture more money from a foreign-owned Sea World.

Anyway, I hope Sea World ownership can stay here in the U.S. I wonder if Disney could pull it off? Now that would be an exciting merger of super brands!
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July 15 2008
In France, protesters are defacing billboards – after calling the police so they can be arrested – in an effort to mobilize the public against advertising in general. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Key quote, from Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist:

“You can tell you live in the developed world when the thing you go and protest about is that there are too many advertising billboards... This is a symptom of wealth, and also a symptom of the classic French antipathy towards capitalism.”

Granting the premise that advertising is evil, which I don’t, the protesters here are as guilty as the advertisers, if not more so. And when you go on to read about how public sector workers went on strike in order to retain their advertiser-based funding, for fear of losing their jobs, this whole thing is even more a form of self-promotion than a genuine call for a public dialog. Just one more organization dedicated to stroking its own collective ego.
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July 14 2008
Hey, another one about China, sponsors of the Beijing Olympic Games, human rights, and advertising, this time from the Wall Street Journal:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I have a couple comments. First, the quandary of having creative teams at cross-purposes is nothing new. It was an integral challenge with the rise of mega-agencies in the 1960s, and it’s still a key issue with the agency and media consolidation of recent years. What’s worth noting, however, is that few other first-world nations would be quite at such odds with such an organization as Amnesty International.

Second, it feeds my own cynicism about awards shows to read that the client, while killing the campaign with good reason, approved the ad to run a single time, for the express purpose of enabling the agency to enter it at Cannes (at which it won a bronze). That ain’t advertising; that’s just fake work; ego gratification at the client’s expense.
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July 11 2008
As expected, it looks like Nike’s major ad campaign based around the Beijing Olympic Games (see July 1) will be severely curtailed or simply cancelled outright by the Chinese government putting pressure on the media companies. Here’s the story, from the New York Times via Yahoo! Finance:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I don’t know; Nike’s alleged campaign might be more of a straw dog than a real effort. Surely if a simple little ol’ freelance advertising copywriter knew that Chinese government restrictions on media were harsh, arbitrary, and unmoveable as far back as December 31 2003, nearly five years ago, the people at Nike and Nike’s ad agency knew it too. Either that, or – and this is the dangerous bit – Nike found a way to circumvent the official sponsor, Adidas, through official channels.

You know, they execute businesspeople over there for stuff like this.
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July 10 2008
Here’s a follow-up to my July 1 entry about companies trying to circumvent barriers to riding the coattails of the Beijing Olympic Games, straight out of China. The story comes from China Daily (Beijing, China):
Advertising copywriter blog link

This provides something of a pre-game baseline for awareness of sponsors and non-sponsors alike. I was intrigued to learn that, even among the Chinese, Olympic torch relay sponsor Lenovo got relatively little bounce out of its investment. Also interesting: in the category of sports apparel, the awareness figures for sponsor Adidas and non-sponsor Nike were very close – 34% vs. 29%. In other categories, though, the awareness numbers were much farther apart, possibly because non-sponsors haven’t yet unleashed their ambush or near-ambush marketing efforts.

Also interesting: the confusion between brands and their advertising themes. I was surprised at the high level of consumer confusion, which points to some serious flaws in the creative executions and their relevance to their brands. Proof, once again, that creative irrelevance is, well, irrelevant.
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July 9 2008
Cool! Some local press about the San Diego advertising industry! Here’s the story, from our very own free weekly tabloid, the once-ubiquitous San Diego Reader (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I was not part of the local ad scene in the 60s, or even the 70s for that matter. I arrived in San Diego in 1989, long after many of the people interviewed here had already retired from the everyday grind and become, if not living legends, at least part of the local cultural mythology. I did have the privilege of working at Knoth & Meads when Dick Knoth and Dick Meads still regularly showed up at the office. One claim to fame from the early days of Knoth & Meads was that Dick Meads composed and wrote a locally famous jingle for a car dealership: “See Pearson Ford, they stand alone/At Fairmount and El Cajon!”

(And yes, the street is Fairmount, not, as widely misquoted, Fairmont. My first little house was a short distance from Pearson Ford, and Fairmount was the back way to the I-15. I used to enjoy saying that I lived only two stop lights away from Bishop. Or Las Vegas.)

Anyway, it’s some fun, nostalgic reading for a warm summer day.
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July 7 2008
I hope you had a great Independence Day! Here’s a story from the New York Times via Yahoo! Finance about current trends in making television commercial breaks more inviting:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It all comes down to making the media environment more interesting, so that the ads within it can thrive. I think that’s a good thing. But, one can have too much of even a good thing, and if viewers turn off – which they are likely to do precipitously – then the whole media approach is compromised.

I’d recommend a return to longer-format ads and fewer of them per pod. Oh, and better, more-engaging creative. After all, having better audience metrics means nothing if you don’t use them to deliver more relevant creative.
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July 4 2008
Happy Independence Day! I have a quickie today, a story from the UK that illustrates why we should be grateful for our forefathers for rebelling (and also why we should be very wary of upcoming efforts by states to tax services including advertising creative), from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I guess this also sort of ties in with the story on June 3, about the death of the Pringles can designer and his partial interment in a Pringles can. Anyway, the British court system has determined, after much deliberation and expense, that Pringles are not in the category of what we would call potato chips. This was important, because different goods and services are taxed at different rates, depending on content and also on something called a value-added tax. And it’s that VAT that’s once again rearing its ugly head as state and local governments look to other ways to replenish budgetary coffers depleted by decades of mismanagement and questionable financial maneuvers.
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July 3 2008
Wal-Mart is changing its logo and tweaking its name, to Walmart. Here’s the story, from tomorrow’s BusinessWeek via MSN Money:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Personally, I like the new logo. It’s still solid, but lighter and more approachable, the right direction for a behemoth retailer criticized for its size and impact (both environmental and economic). It’s important to note that Wal-Mart, or Walmart, has merely re-logoed, not re-branded or re-positioned. Rebranding involves a strategic change; repositioning involves a tactical change. Re-logoing requires just a logo change. And that’s all that’s really going on here; the company’s core offering hasn’t changed, nor has the company’s core audience. It’s just a new logo. But, I predict a smooth changeover, which is no small accomplishment for the design team.

The comparison with other major brands that have recently refreshed their logos is interesting, if only for the fact that for most, a spiffy new logo was followed by a serious business downturn. That’s not cause-and-effect, by the way, despite the millions of dollars a major company can pour into a logo makeover. Touching up the brand is all part of girding for battle; one shouldn’t be surprised when a fight erupts shortly after someone fine-tunes their guns.
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July 1 2008
Another quick double today. First up, is this quick link to an audio discussion of viral video, from short piece from NPR’s Talk of the Nation:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s a half-hour broadcast that includes some great insights from some of the people who created viral marketing. Key points: catching trends at the tipping point, keeping it short, and understanding that viral failures by definition never get seen so there’s little downside risk.

And, somewhat related, Nike is launching a huge ad campaign in Beijing timed to coincide with the Olympic Games. Nike is not an Olympic sponsor; Adidas is. Here’s the story, from the Financial Times (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in China, which has already cracked down quite harshly on attempts to go outside the bounds of its authority. I’d wager that the media buys get suspended, possibly with penalties if the ads run with a high degree of visibility.
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