John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
March 2014

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March 31 2014
It’s April Fool’s Eve, and marketers are polishing up their latest pranks and prankvertising. Here’s the story, from CorpComms (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Some joke promotions and ads support the brand and its values while appealing to peoples’ silly sides – itself something of tactical marketing value. Those mentioned in the article fall into that category, as do Google’s frequent flights of whimsy. But I suspect many corporate pranks are conceived by a bunch of creatives who think they’re demonstrating how much smarter they are compared to mere customers. They’re not, and even if they were that’s a knuckleheaded approach to marketing if ever there was one.

I think unkindness is always unwise. Moreover, it squanders an opportunity to use silliness to prime people to indulge (see Friday’s Ad Blog entry). For some brands, that opportunity comes but once a year.

At their best, April Fool’s Day ad pranks are inclusive, engaging, and (the hardest part) relevant. Nail all three, and you create something that reaches far beyond April 1.
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March 28 2014
I have two somewhat related articles to ponder today. First up is this one, from NBC News about why why cats sell, a little research backing up my March 18 entry:
Advertising copywriter blog link

So silly-cuteness primes us to indulge, whether in imaginative flights of fancy or simple consumption, while baby-cuteness makes us focus. And, by extension, baby-cute silliness primes us to focus on an advertising message and to indulge. (As a final note, the word of the day has to be “kindchenschema.”)

And that’s why kittens, puppies, and babies in absurd situations work in advertising.

Which dovetails neatly with the next article, about branding happiness, from DNA (India):
Advertising copywriter blog link

It all distills down to the fact that people like to be happy and will actively engage with things that make them happy. Sometimes, those things can be ads and products.

I think it’s great that we work in an industry that can actually make money by spreading a little happiness.
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March 25 2014
It's Tuesday and I have two interesting stories today. The first is something of a sequel to yesterday’s post about the creative possibilities of out-of-home advertising, from The Media Online (SA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I think bus shelters are some of the most under-represented media opportunities, especially in a fair-weather city like San Diego. Like a billboard they can dominate their setting, but they do it from eye level. And, with ever smaller and cheaper solar power, sensors, and other technologies, they offer fantastic on-the-ground interactive capabilities.

The next article comes from The Harvard Crimson (MA), and looks at the sometimes opposed, sometimes aligned worlds of advertising and art:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The article digs a bit into the history of advertising, a topic that’s given short shrift too often these days, and turns up some key parallels between the old school and the new.

I think, however, what’s unregarded here is that advertising is itself an art, as distinct from, say, graphic design as graphic design is from sculpture. The magic of advertising is that it adds words and sounds and music and movement to visuals in ways that extend the meaning beyond any single element. Advertising is performance art, with ROI. And while advertising is accountable in many ways, that accountability holds not limits but creative challenges, challenges most other artists seldom, if ever, face, let alone conquer.

Art is a terrific medium of self-expression. But if that’s all it’s used for, that’s a pretty hamstrung and self-indulgent form of vanity that ignores the greater power of art to inform and persuade. Think Guernica, as potent and noisy and effective an anti-war ad as ever conceived, and done purely as a visual assault in black and white.

Now imagine a field in which Guernica equivalents are demanded on a daily basis, a field in which every art is pressed to move the viewer unerringly in one direction. That field, folks, is advertising.
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March 24 2014
I have two for you today. First up is this report from NBC News striking a sour note about Gen-Xers and their economic prospects:
Advertising copywriter blog link

As I’ve noted here before, this age group is traditionally the most-courted demographic segment, with not only ads but entire product and service categories dedicated to meeting its needs. Now, with an entire generation’s economic clout fading, innovators are looking outside this group. And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot of life here.

I think one major obstacle is that advertisers aren’t prepared to attack the issues Gen-Xers face with the same passion and clarity present in, say, this article. That hamstrings our ability to connect, and without that connection it’s impossible for an ad to be as effective as it could be. Marketing to Gen-Xers becomes a self-defeating death spiral of irrelevance masquerading as cleverness.

I’m not saying ads should be written with an angry tone. But in establishing rapport, you always have to start where a person is before you can start moving him or her in any direction. That’s Empathy 101. And that’s what's missing in a lot of ads.

On a lighter note, I saw this great interview with the chief creative officer of Y&R Singapore, discussing the power of creativity. Here it is, from exchange4media (India):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I love out-of-home. I think a billboard is the most-distilled form of an advertising concept. It’s also something of a test: if a concept works as outdoor, then it works; if it doesn’t, then maybe it’s worth tweaking it until it does.

Anyways, it was a treat to read about the great outdoor work compiled in this presentation. I love the idea that outdoor can be an “event” in peoples’ lives. I think that’s true of advertising in general – we do have this power to surprise and entertain people even as we connect them with solutions to their everyday problems.

Add to that all the media channels and technological tools we have – in tandem with today’s economic turbulence generating untapped updrafts – and it’s an exciting time to be an advertising copywriter. Who’d want to be anything else?
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March 23 2014
A Sunday quickie to point out this feature. Forty years ago today, Elton John released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, an iconic, timeless album. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how it was made, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I find it astonishing that the whole thing – a double album, 17 tracks – was written and produced in two weeks. It was a creative production line, cranking out music and lyrics in the morning and laying down the tracks after breakfast. Yet, given the amount of talent and energy concentrated in a small amount of space and time, it couldn’t have been any other way.

Sometimes, speed is part of the creative process.
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March 22 2014
I just took an online course on medieval life, so I found this BBC Magazine article about medieval adolescence interesting, especially the part about sending the teenagers to live with someone else:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I wonder how apprenticeships of that nature would work in advertising? Actually, I think they probably wouldn’t. Although there’s no doubt the ad industry could use more child-like exuberance, I think the best ad concepts connect that energy to a heart based on personal experience – that’s what gives them relevance and authenticity.

But in ways other than the leaving home part, teens still face similar opportunities and limitations. For instance, they’re still used as a source of cheap labor, working mostly low-paying, low-skilled jobs with little chance of career advancement. In fact, today’s teens are more-disposable to their employers than medieval apprentices were.

I really enjoyed St. Bede’s 8th-century description of teens: “lean (even though they eat heartily), swift-footed, bold, irritable and active.” It’s nice to know that 13 centuries haven’t dimmed the fire of youth.
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March 20 2014
In a speech to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), British comedian Lenny Henry took creative industries to task for the lack of ethnic diversity in workforces and work products. Here’s the story, from The Drum (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Henry has busted stereotypes before: his wildly funny 1990s TV show Chef! cast himself as Gareth Blackstock, Chef de cuisine at Le Chateu Anglais, his own restaurant, recipient of two (“count them, two”) Michelin stars. I guess I should mention that Henry is a large Black man, and 20 years ago, in England, envisioning a Black top chef was, well, groundbreaking. It helps, too, that the first two seasons, anyway, were absolutely hilarious.

The problem is, 20 years later, such a TV show would still stand out as much for the casting of its lead as for its writing.

But that’s TV and film. I think, with absolutely no data to back this up, that advertising has a different external picture regardless of the state of diversity in its creative workforce.

I think diversity in ads is, in contrast, something that creative teams have actively pushed over the years in an unspoken effort going back several decades at least. And, finding little consumer resistance and increasing acceptance, more advertisers piled onto the bandwagon while the trendsetters pushed a little further. Now, if you want to be au courant, it’s almost mandatory to show an inter-racial couple (the visual shorthand for “cool” that took over from “chubby Asian guy” a few years ago) and a gay couple (the visual shorthand for “cool” that’s likely to take over from the the inter-racial couple). If it all comes off as a bit precious, that’s because it’s still not quite the new normal.

Progress isn’t stories about diversity. Progress isn’t groundbreaking diversity. Progress is uncommented diversity.
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March 18 2014
I have two quickies for you today. The first is a look at why small children and animals are so very popular in marketing these days, from The Drum (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Kids and animals have been go-to grabbers since the earliest days of advertising. So their presence in online media should come as no surprise. Even so, the sheer power of small animals seems to suit them to any strategic plan, any creative execution.

I guess the message for advertising creatives is to never stop thinking: “How about a cat?”

At least for now.

Next is this blast-from-the future piece about the world’s first robotically written news article, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The Los Angeles Times (CA) put out the story about an earthquake within minutes of the earthquake itself, and it was entirely written by an automated algorithm based on data from a trusted feed. I think it’s amusing that the original, robot-written article has a stylistically needed paragraph break where the BBC’s presumably human-edited sidebar version does not. Points to the software!

Fortunately, the system only creates formulaic breaking news articles. One wonders what could happen if you programmed in the “think cats” instruction, though. You might create an advertising copywriter!
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March 17 2014
Here’s a panel of advertising executives discussing whether print as a medium is being neglected creatively by ad agencies, from afaqs! (India):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Print used to be the basic building block of a media campaign. Now perhaps it’s been overshadowed by the current media darling-du-jour, whether that be mobile, native, or viral.

Yet a print campaign can actually be all three. And, yes, many advertising creatives know that. But most new media companies don’t.

I think the issue is that there’s a generation of journalists who aren’t covering killer print campaigns with the same enthusiasm as great mobile, native, or viral campaigns.

Here’s an example. Print offers terrific, on-the-spot localization. Yet local newspaper ads, flyers, and point-of-purchase are almost never covered in the press, while localized social media campaigns are heralded as examples of new thinking.

(In that regard, I’m reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s line, “Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.”)

I think print is alive and well and in good hands. There are plenty of art directors, designers, and copywriters who push the envelope (so to speak) in print. Print is, after all, still the only truly hands-on advertising medium. So far, it’s the only medium that can deliver real-world smells, tactile sensations, dimensionality, and physical interactivity beyond manipulating a digital pointer. That’s a lot to work with creatively. And with the rise of computer-generated prototyping, short-run digital printing, and affordable 3-D printing, the possibilities are opening even wider.

And if those agencies and clients in India aren’t getting all they should from their print efforts, might I suggest a little outsourcing to the United States?
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March 14 2014
Today, BBC Future examines whether creativity can be taught academically:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Three things, I think, are unquestionable. First, everyone starts out life tremendously creative. Second, while adult creativity may be variable, most people retain more of that inborn talent than they think. Third, creativity, like any skill, can be improved through practice and training.

I like the Australian study finding that people are more likely to solve puzzles when lying on their backs than when standing up. Lying down works for me, but only in certain cases. When concepting, I find lying down produces different ideas than sitting up. Not better, or more-lateral, just distinctly different. But when I’m solving a crossword puzzle, I really need to be sitting at a table, because it stops my flow when the pen doesn’t work – ballpoints don’t work upside-down. Yeah, I could use a pencil or felt-tip pen. But I can’t solve crossword puzzles with anything but a ballpoint. That may be a superstition, pretense, or merely mechanical issues, such as the ink bleeds through or the pencil point rips the newspaper.

Anyways, the four-step model for creating ideas (clarifying, ideating, developing, and implementing) owes a lot to Roger von Oech’s four-hat process (Explorer, Artist, Judge, and Warrior). In fact, two of Dr. von Oech’s books, A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants, ought to be on every creative’s bookshelf, along with James Webb Young’s classic A Technique for Producing Ideas.

It’s fitting that in the field of creativity studies, there’s really nothing new being said; it’s all a process of rediscovery. Which may be a large part of what creativity really is.
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March 13 2014
As an advertising copywriter, I work with words all day. Sometimes, perhaps usually, clarity is desirable. Other times, perhaps often, a certain level of linguistic ambiguity is essential to the concept. Cognitive scientists now suggest that ambiguity actually improves a language’s clarity. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

There’s apparently a linguistic balance between communication efficiency, in which using the fewest possible words is best, and precision, in which having one unique word per idea is best. As a language evolves, it finds and maintains that balance.

Advertising copywriters are often accused of wrecking the English language by verbing nouns, beprefixing and suffixication, and coining would-be protowords, all on behalf of increasing an ad’s enticiness. James Thurber derided it, or something like it, as The New Vocabularianism, and that was back in the 1950s.

But what we’re really doing, is laboring in the field of connecting disparate ideas through words and visuals. I’ve always defined advertising as performance art, with ROI. As for viewing ad copy as commercial poetry, I like that.
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March 11 2014
Here’s a delightful piece from Time examining that bastion of branding, the tourism slogan:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It seems like every time a branding or advertising firm gets its mitts on a tourism account, the first thing it does is prod its copywriters to bang out slogans. The reason why is obvious to anyone in the industry, albeit apparently inscrutable to journalists. It’s because a slogan represents a visible milestone, which enables the billing of all the strategic grunt work that would otherwise be largely invisible to the client and entirely invisible to the region’s taxpayers.

That strategic work has perhaps more real value than any other component in a good marketing campaign, but it’s an awfully hard sell to bill for it without something to show for it. Hence, the slogan.

It’s an understatement to say that a slogan can’t influence where you want to go on vacation. As the research showed, a slogan can come to represent a place to prospective customers in a sort of emotional shorthand, and if that shorthand connection is desirable then a more substantive connection is sought. That’s also why slogans never work out of context, which includes using them as previews of entire ad campaigns. In fact, the best slogans emerge organically from the dialog between advertiser and customer, which requires that an ongoing dialog be happening in the first place.

Finally, it’s important to note that a slogan’s audience is both external and internal. The external audience gets all the attention, because that’s where the media dollars are directed. But it’s the internal audience that actually does the work that creates the brand experience.
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March 10 2014
I have two oddly related stories today, both from BBC News. The first is about Italian outrage at an American arms manufacturer using in an advertisement a modified photo of the statue of David that makes it look like he’s carrying a .50-caliber rifle. The second is an amused-in-an-oh-so-enlighted-way look at the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing the word “boobies” in schools:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

Well, there you go, World, that’s America for you. Conservative about breasts, at least in our schools, but liberal about packing a rifle that can punch a big hole through an armored Goliath, at least in museums. Yes, the ArmaLite ad shows Re-Armed David on display in the Louvre. Of course, the setting is part of the concept, but it strikes me as additionally subversive, and not in a good way. In the ad’s defense, and America’s, it should be noted that single-shot high-caliber firearms in the hands of ordinary citizens were exactly what won us our independence.

So, to recap, no offense taken at a high-caliber weapon being visualized as displayed in a public place frequented by kids, just anger at the commercial use of an image of a well-known sculpture, a work of art that has been used, abused, and parodied in advertising countless times. Really, the brouhaha isn’t about our Second Amendment. It’s about our First.

Our First Amendment also figures in the story about the schoolkids trying to raise breast cancer awareness until they were stymied by a school ban on their “I [heart] Boobies” bracelets. The Supreme Court sided with the kids in this case, rejecting the school’s argument that the phrase was lewd and disruptive.

It’s funny how times change. A long time ago I was the copywriter on a breast cancer awareness campaign for the American Cancer Society. One ad targeted men, encouraging them to urge their girlfriends and wives to get checked. The media buy included men’s magazines including Playboy. The headline – in an all-type ad (heaven forbid that we actually show anything) – was something like “Love her, love her boobs.” The client (a woman, not that it matters now but it seemed to then) loved it. All the magazines (100% men) rejected it. Yeah, in Playboy we couldn’t use the word “boobs” in an ad about breast cancer. The art director, also a woman, suggested changing “boobs” to “breasts.” The ad was again rejected.

The ad that finally ran had nothing to do with boobs. Instead, the concept was death. And that, in a magazine filled with images of concupiscence, was just dandy.
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March 7 2014
I have a double-feature for you today, both from the BBC. The first, from BBC Future, is an article about memory and how to improve the way you learn:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Advertising is all about training people to remember to do the things we want, whether it’s to buy something, buy more of something, or think of something in a certain way. As you’d expect, memory training works a lot like advertising.

It starts with an elaborative “mem,” a meaningful connection between the new information and information you already know. Well, making oddball connections between unrelated ideas, that’s what we do all day long. Funny mems enhance recall, which is why humor works in advertising.

The importance of reiterative recall demonstrates the need for frequency, while the finding that the most-effective time to reactivate a memory is when it’s only half-remembered suggests that maybe the optimum frequency of ad exposure lies well below the saturation point.

Anyways, I think that’s useful stuff.

The second feature is a 7-minute Meet the Author interview with John Hegarty, one of the world’s top creative directors, talking about creativity and his new book Hegarty On Creativity: There Are No Rules:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This is seven minutes well-spent. One key idea is how brands emerge organically from the creative, rather than being imposed through sloganeering. I wish more advertisers understood that. Also, I like Hegarty’s three ways to maintain long-term creativity: don’t become a cynic, chase opportunity not money, and stay open to the world around you.

I love that being an advertising copywriter requires constant reinvention and an all-round openness to wonder – not just with eyes and ears, but with hands and heart. There’s a magic to creating good advertising that still delivers a jolt of sheer joy every time I feel like I got my part right.

What a great time to be in advertising!
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March 6 2014
Here’s an interesting article about the psychology of expectations and surprise, from BBC Capital:
Advertising copywriter blog link

First, note that over-hyping something may lead to more disappointed customers, as does a high degree of popularity or success. As creators of advertising and crafters of messages, it’s worth bearing those tendencies in mind. Yet, awards and other signs of success are still worth trumpeting as differentiating indicators of quality and credibility. I think the right balance is struck when you focus, not directly on the award, but on the elements that went into winning that award. In other words, make it less about the Super Bowl win and more about, say, the unique skills and persistence of the team that secured the victory.

Second, note that surprise, real surprise, is relatively uncommon. That’s why so many of us have absolutely rocked presentations with truly ground-breaking creative, only to have the client ultimately sign off, many meetings later, on something “safe.” In other words, something familiar.

That’s also why I’m always a little wary when there’s too much time between creative presentation and media drop-dead dates. Enough time is good, but more than that is certainly not better and usually worse. I think, with really innovative work, it’s best to strike fast and hard, executing in the marketplace quickly and deeply, so the higher level of creative becomes the new normal.

And then, you start working on revolutionizing it yet again.
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March 4 2014
Here’s a great group interview from Digiday looking at long-term creative partnerships and how they keep the magic alive:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It turns out the things that matter in a long-term creative relationship are the same things that matter in a long-term romantic relationship: respect, shared enthusiasm, a sense of humor, appreciation for the differences each partner brings. That’s not surprising given the amount of time copywriters and art directors spend together.

It occurred to me that I’m both more promiscuous and more loyal (something that can, perhaps, only happen in advertising). On the one hand, I have many art direction and design partners (in fact, I even worked, briefly, with Gavin Milner when he was working at an ad agency in San Diego). On the other hand, I’ve worked with some of them for more than 20 years.

That’s a lot of shared lunches and late nights.

So I thought I’d answer the questions, just for fun. What’s different, is that as a freelance copywriter my role as a partner is a bit different from the role that a staff copywriter plays in an ad agency.

What’s the secret to having a successful long-term creative partnership? It’s hard to think of anything to add to what the others said. How about this: designing and executing a shared future. In other words, you’re always looking ahead and trying to gather more business for the partnership. So you’re actively bringing new opportunities to the relationship with an eye toward growing each other’s business.

Any tips on selling yourselves as a team? Well, for starters, you present as a team. But after that, when it comes to day to day project management, I think it comes down to close communication throughout the process so there’s a unified front. If clients talk to one partner it’s as if they’re talking to both. That and Skype teleconferencing.

How do you rekindle your team’s creative mojo? Sometimes you take the work to some other place. Sometimes you work on something else. Sometimes you work separately. And sometimes you just take a break entirely, and that’s when, as a freelancer, I can be out of there for the rest of the day. That separation really helps. Often, when we reconnect, one or both of us has solved the problem.

What’s the best way to resolve creative conflicts? Give in. If my partner feels strongly about something, there must be strengths there that I'm not seeing. But that’s OK. That’s why there are two of us in the room. Besides which, more than one concept will be presented. Give in and move on.
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March 3 2014
I have two unrelated stories to kick off the first Monday of the month. The Illinois Lottery is trying some new advertising creative to move more lotto tickets. Here’s the story, from the Chicago Business Journal (IL):
Advertising copywriter blog link

If this represents a dialing up of the creative, then it’s easy to see why the Illinois Lottery has been struggling to sell tickets. This new ad still seems off-target.

The lotto’s key consumer benefit isn’t ease of use. It’s the dream of striking it rich. That’s why people buy lottery tickets. That’s how to sell more lottery tickets. You sell the sizzle, the fantasy, the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice (to steal a line from Samuel Johnson).

Next up is this short discussion about brand development sans advertising, from The Motley Fool:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Grocery retailer Sprouts is practicing smart internal branding (see the Ad Blog February 11), which fosters its external brand. As a result, it has avid brand advocates among consumers, even in areas where it doesn’t have stores. That’s effective brand development!
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Backwards in time to February 2014

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Brands and branding: a white paper
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Free (yes, free) advertising copywriting resources
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Long John Silver on writing ads
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Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
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Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part III: growing the enterprise
The ART of repurposing marketing copy (Or, why you shouldn’t use brochure copy as web content)
The economy (and what to do about it)
The Tightwad Marketing project
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
Advertising copywriting mentorship
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
San Diego, California

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