John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
May 2014

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May 30 2014
Here’s a collection of allegedly banned movie posters, courtesy of The Guardian (UK):
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Posters and billboards are an advertising copywriter’s greatest challenge. They demand overwhelmingly strong visuals that instantaneously provide context and clear communication. And, in the case of a movie, there’s often no brand to leverage – it’s all new.

Movie posters must attract, intrigue, and persuade, all with just the movie title, concept, and sometimes a short line of copy. That’s why they’re such great sources of creative inspiration. And, as for these particular posters being banned, well, they each push the limits of acceptability in different ways. But that doesn’t keep them from being very useful as idea fodder.

Of the jump galleries, the Christie’s rare film posters, history of the Tube posters, and Amnesty International posters are each worth a look.
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May 27 2014
Can a brand be too successful for its own good? Absolutely. This article from BBC News looks at the ongoing challenge of protecting the trademarks of popular brands:
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I think it’s worth noting that as the original brand declines in marketplace power, so too does the use of the brand as a verb. For example, take Xerox. Once it was common, if wrong, to call photocopying a document “Xeroxing.” That was when the brand was at the peak of its power in the market. Now, though, it’s far more common to say “copying.” It’s no coincidence that Xerox market share has plummeted, and there are far more office copiers made by Canon, Sharp, Ricoh, Konica/Minolta, and even Panasonic and Brother than by Xerox.

Today, most people wouldn’t know what a “Radarange” is. It’s appliance maker Amana’s branded line of microwave ovens, and when microwave ovens were still something of a novelty there was the risk of Radarange becoming the generic term. Amana took to advertising “If it isn’t an Amana, it isn’t a Radarange,” just to make things clear. But within a few years, Amana’s line of well-built, expensive microwave ovens was overwhelmed in the market by cheaper imports with more bells and whistles, which in turn fueled even further popularity. Now the microwave oven is a fixture on most household kitchen countertops. And the term “microwave oven” has been generically shortened to “microwave.”

This decline is much more-likely with tech or tech-based products, where change happens quickly and there's always the risk of new competitors emerging along entirely different lines. (For example, in document copying and distribution, consider cloud storage as an emerging threat.)

Being so popular that you have to defend your trademark against being used generically is what I’d call a positive problem. The bigger challenge at that point, is to keep inventing ways to keep the brand relevant and connected.
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May 26 2014
Following up on Saturday’s comment about rebranding contributing to an organization’s demise, here’s a look at some major rebranding failures over the years, from DealNews:
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Most of these were caused by middle-aged executives trying to look young and hip, and they come off like a poorly fit toupee.

In Tropicana’s case, the marketing team deliberately walked away from decades of visual equity for no good reason. I understand the desire for a sleeker package face, and I love the cap/leaf interaction and the way the line “squeezed from fresh oranges” sits at the top of the carton. But I still don't understand how a savvy branding firm could have recommended dumping the orange and straw, or gone along with that direction without a fight.

As for New Coke, that wasn’t a rebrand. That was a product reboot. In retrospect it might have made more sense to extend the brand rather than replace the flagship product, and for that matter that’s how similar marketing objectives have been achieved since then (think, for instance, of all the Tide brand extensions). But back in the early 1980s there was just Coke, and even launching Diet Coke in 1982 was a big deal in terms of the brand. After all, Coca-Cola already had Tab, the company’s best-selling diet cola.

There are two issues with brand extension. First, it can be a cautious, risk-averse approach to innovation, and real innovation both demands risk and deserves its own identity. Second, a brand can get over-extended, and it’s hard to know in the moment, especially from inside the brand itself, how far it can stretch before it either snaps or becomes too diluted to have any meaning.

Anyway, a fun retrospective on some interesting cases in branding.
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May 24 2014
A weekend post to lament the closing of a unique local concert venue that social media and email blasts failed to save. Here’s the story of AMSDConcerts, from today’e San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
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Word-of-mouth failed to ignite largely because there was no marketing aimed at generating the necessary buzz. See, all those stories you read about enterprises booming without spending a dime on marketing thanks to web-based media? In almost every case, the company succeeded by substituting time for money, investing heavily in its social media presence and tying in its brand and benefits.

Emailing customers is just preaching to the choir. You have to reach beyond your existing audience if you want to grow a sustainable business.

The rebranding also didn’t help. The original name, Acoustic Music San Diego, was at least clear communication, something that can't be said of AMSDConcerts. That kind of thing works, if it does, only after a company achieves success and notoriety.

Finally, AMSDConcerts faced a challenge precisely because it was unique. There wasn’t anything to label it as, except esoteric. And, contrary to their own beliefs, people don’t really want to participate in an esoteric singularity. They want to be part of a crowd. That’s what branding – and social media – are all about.
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May 23 2014
A college professor may have proven a theory about how to be impressive. The key, he says, is enthusiasm. Here’s the story, from Barking Up The Wrong Tree via Time magazine:
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When identical course content was presented with greater enthusiasm, student evaluations shot up. Even in areas that should be completely unrelated to presentation energy, such as the perceived organization and knowledge of the presenter, the amount students thought they learned in the class, and even the quality of the textbook.

This is why enthusiasm, typically in the form of humor, is so effective in advertising. Not only does it make the message itself more accessible, but it also makes the content more impressive, more memorable. And, there’s another bonus for advertising: enthusiasm is contagious.

Isn’t that great?
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May 22 2014
Uh-oh, here’s an article touting insomnia and all-nighters as a prod to musical creativity, from The Guardian (UK):
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It’s worth noting that none of the projects in the article were done to a brief or with any kind of commercial intent. They were sidelines, purely personal projects that, once finished, were duly sent forth into the world with little or no regard for actual sales.

Creating advertising, though, requires more mindful focus than that.

While we’ve all slogged through an occasional all-nighter to get something done, in my experience very little truly creative happens after, oh, about 2 am. By that hour, things have gotten either hysterical, scatterbrained, or, best-case scenario, past the point of creative decision and into actually cranking through production. In which case everyone’s retreated into their own corners to do their work.

I used to be a night owl. But when my kids were born, I became a morning person because one of us had to and I was the natural choice since I wasn’t totally sleep-deprived from night feedings. I now love early mornings for concepting. Often I find that my best ideas of the day emerged in a dim pre-dawn glow, while the rest of the house slept on. But I still prefer to write later in the day.

Different times for different tasks.
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May 21 2014
Psychological studies reveal the best way to make people change their minds. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
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Advertising people, and especially ad copywriters, are all about getting people to change their minds: switching from one brand to another, changing perceptions, and influencing influencers.

But ad copy, when it tries to put forth an argument, tends to be laden with answers and reasons. However, the research shows once you activate a mindset based on reasons, people tend to close their minds, maintaining previously held opinions. Also, the research reveals a much more-powerful persuasive tool than telling reasons: asking people how their beliefs would work, step by step, to cause a desired outcome. It’s the power of implications, the “and then what happens?” argumentative structure.

I’m reminded strongly of SPIN Selling, a sales technique based on research into tens of thousands of direct sales calls and polished to a high gloss by Neil Rackham. As I recall (and a quick online search confirmed), the SPIN Selling process flows through four distinct question phases: Situational questions, Problem questions, Implication questions, and Need/Payoff questions.

One common error is jumping in with a solution right after hearing a problem, instead of coaxing out the implications and consequences of the problem and discovering what the customer would actually value in a solution. The other common error is immediately basing entire creative strategies on outrageous implications a la If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, again without learning what customers actually want in a solution.

All of which leads back to the idea of persuasion and how to more-efficiently coax potential customers into switching to your product or trying your service. I believe persuasive power is rooted in empathy. And empathy, or as near an approximation to it as possible, stems from questions.

As James Thurber said in Fables for Our Time: “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers.”
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May 19 2014
Words, words, words. Tools of the trade for advertising copywriters. Here are three articles about new words, old slang words, and verboten words from, respectively, Time, BBC News Magazine, and CNN Money:
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Merriam-Webster is adding 150 new words and definitions to the collegiate dictionary it’ll publish later this year. I always think this is a lottery, in that if a word is hot during the year or two prior to the publication of a new dictionary it may get in; if it’s hot in the years between editions it has no chance and will soon be forgotten. As many of this year’s selection of words will be. In particular, turducken probably got resurrected thanks to its inclusion, and hashtag already has the feel of yesterday’s social media environment.

If keeping track of new words and meanings is hard, doing so for slang is even harder. After all, slang is meant to be incomprehensible to outsiders; by the time a word catches the ear of linguistic hunters and gatherers it’s almost always spread beyond its source community, where it already may have been replaced. Dictionaries of slang (and I have a couple) are like histories of fashion and advertising award books: terrific sources of inspiration, but hardly canonical.

Onto the banned words and phrases article: advertising copywriters get accused of using weasely language all the time, but we’ve apparently got nothing on frightened auto executives. Replacing “safety” with “potential safety implications” is open to easy shots. But a closer read reveals a rise in an offhand writing tone that needed correction in corporate documents, especially those relating to serious problems and solutions.

Thanks to social media it seems everyone favors a world-weary, snarky writing voice. But it really is more satisfying to the writer than useful to anyone else to fire off a memo calling something “Corvair-like.” That’s getting into the area of slang, more obscuring than revealing. And, while the Corvair was, rightly or wrongly, the vehicular icon of corporate malfeasance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it lacks impact today when there are more recent and arguably juicier examples to be had.

Like merged poultry, flip references to Corvair sound fresher than they are.
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May 16 2014
Has DeBeers advertising really convinced people to spend one to two months’ salary on a diamond engagement ring? Worldwide it appears so, according to this story from BBC News Magazine:
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With “A Diamond is Forever,” consistency, and the salary formula, DeBeers pulled off the best marketing campaign ever, taking a non-scarce industrial commodity and turning it into personal decoration and a direct declaration of personal worth.

It’s apparent by the national averages that most young men heed the advertising and do indeed spend one month’s (UK), two months’ (US), or three months’ (Japan) salary on a diamond engagement ring. But the genius part of the campaign lies in the acceptance as fact that they will spend that money on a diamond ring.

Because I only fairly recently read Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when I think of diamonds lately what comes to mind is what Holly Golightly says: “... it’s tacky to wear diamonds before you’re forty; and even that’s risky. They only look right on the really old girls. Maria Ouspenskaya. Wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds: I can’t wait.”

It seems almost sacrilegious, doesn’t it? And definitely not the image of fresh-faced romance that DeBeers has in mind. Maybe that’s why it stuck with me.
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May 15 2014
Conventional wisdom may be convention, but it’s usually not true wisdom; it merely reflects what has generally worked in the past. Here’s a look at the ongoing challenge of busting out of groupthink, from BBC News Capital:
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Groupthink works great right up until the world changes. And then it fails, often catastrophically.

Running the Titanic at normal speed, avoiding ice by following a revised southerly route, reflected an abundance of command caution. Except that the ice was most definitely that far south and the extent of it hadn’t been charted and communicated. The radio telegraph, the technological wonder of the day, was used as a reactive means of one-to-one communication; no one thought to use it proactively, as a means of gathering crowdsourced data crucial to ship operations. Ordinary procedures weren’t up to changed circumstances, and neither did they integrate changed technologies or changed data set opportunities.

All of which sounds very familiar to those navigating a changed media environment.

That’s not to say that all ideas that defy convention are good ideas. Convention does, after all, tend to incorporate changes that lead to success, albeit behind the actual curve. However, for those working in industries that deal in leading the curve, including marketing and advertising, defying convention is almost always a good place to start.
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May 14 2014
What writing tool did George R.R. Martin use to write the best-selling novel/blockbuster series Game of Thrones? His “secret weapon” is an ancient PC running MS-DOS and WordStar 4.0. Here’s the story, from the Los Angeles Times (CA):
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Art directors use Macs. But writers, well, our defiance of convention is a convention itself. We use PCs, Macs, tablets, legal pads, napkins, Pilot Razor Points, gold-nibbed fountain pens, and the odd IBM Selectric or Smith-Corona Skyriter. And the wonderful thing is, it all works.

In fact, it’s never been easier to use retro tech. Handwriting recognition is pretty good and getting better. Scanning and emailing a typewritten page or a scrawled thumbnail is as easy as snapping a photo with a phone. I’ve occasionally had fond recollections of my Commodore SX-64 and PaperClip, a word-processing program that loaded instantaneously on power-up from a cartridge. But it’s the speed and efficiency that I yearn for, not the hardware itself; it’s awfully handy for one’s tools to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and free of distractions such as, oh, the entire internet. (Actually, except for its limited page display, an AlphaSmart makes an OK typewriter replacement.)

Having separate computers for writing and web browsing also sounds like a smart security precaution.

It’s really not about retro tech, old tech, or advanced tech. It’s about using the right tool to get the job done. And often, the right tool is the one that feels right.
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May 13 2014
A pulled Danish political video intended to encourage young voter participation may succeed even as it offends just about everyone. Here’s the story of “Voteman,” from The Guardian (UK):
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The video stirred up so much outrage that it was pulled from its former official home on the Danish parliament’s YouTube and Facebook channels. But it lives on on numerous other channels, including those of several media outlets. So you can view it, although depending on your workplace it may not be safe. And it’s definitely puerile.

People who are easily offended will be offended. But my hunch (aka WAG) is that the easily offended are already active voters. This video was targeting apathetic non-voters, and in that regard it’s so ridiculously over-the-top that it could work. At least it gets attention, using the tried-and-true sex-and-violence formula that’s been part of most fashion brand photo shoots since the dawn of time. What’s different/offensive here? That it’s a cartoon? That it’s silly? Or that it’s not talking to you?

Indeed, the media hubbub over the video could very well mobilize the young just to irritate the meddling oldsters. It could stir up the oldsters too, and the offended, and even the hipsters (despite none being harmed).

As entertaining as it is to rationalize hasty conclusions, it’s too soon to judge Voteman’s effectiveness. For that, we have to wait until after the EU elections on May 25.

Finally, an aside: does anyone else want to see a match between Voteman and Punchy from the old Hawaiian Punch commercials? I’d back Punchy. Partly for the hat, and partly because he just punches people without the distraction of a harem. Or so I think.
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May 8 2014
ROI is sort of a gold standard for measuring cost-effectiveness. The problem with ROI is that it isn’t granular enough to measure the added value that great creative brings to an advertising campaign. Here’s a look at the problem, with a few ideas for ways to tie creativity to performance, from Campaign Asia-Pacific (Hong Kong):
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I think one obvious, old-school solution is pre- and post-campaign testing in which the objective and a baseline are clearly defined before the creative process starts. The tendency nowadays is to run the campaign first and then measure the results. The problem with using only post-campaign testing is twofold. First, it’s too easy to adjust the goalposts after the campaign runs. Second, it eliminates an important check on the effect of the testing itself on its own results. If you run the identical test before and after running your ads, your information is cleaner.

The other issue in measuring the impact of creative, is that very few companies A/B test ads on a large scale. Plus, who’s going to risk half the budget on deliberate creative mediocrity? Yeah, yeah, many companies risk the whole budget on unintentional creative mediocrity, but there ya go. In fact, that may be further proof that there’s no yardstick to measure creative against. Using past performance as a generic control group, as many do, is a mistake. There are just too many external variables that can’t be accounted for going forward.

Still, there’s no doubt that better creative leads to better results. Better ad concepts grab more attention. Better ad copy is more persuasive. In the end, better ads are more memorable.

People can’t act on ads they don’t notice, buy into, and remember. And that’s the value of creative.
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May 7 2014
In this day and age, are actual signatures relevant as identifiers? Here’s a look, from BBC News Magazine:
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What with all the vulnerabilities and hacking, I’m not convinced that chip-and-PIN is any safer than a hand-written signature. At least the signature requires a person to be present, whether the person’s identity is true or false. By its nature it limits the scale of what can be accomplished at any one time. The fact is, the digital commoditization of personal information is what gave rise to industrial-scale identity theft. I think it’s unwise to rely on further digitalization of ourselves in the form of biometrics to solve a problem that may be inherent to using a technocentric system.

All of which is directly relevant in branding. Is a logo relevant, or even necessary any more? Many consumer electronics brands, for instance, produce products so sleek that even a button is too much of a design disruption, let alone something so extraneous as a logo. At the same time, companies are suing each other over issues of look and feel as being intrinsic to their brands. Look and feel are, of course, or certainly can be, but the more the diffused the brand character, the more diluted it becomes. The good news is that it becomes integral to the holistic experience, but the bad news is that it loses smack.

Meanwhile, the emotion of the logo is stripped away to the point that it doesn’t evoke anything any more. It becomes corporate instead of individual, just as Jack Lew’s original loopy signature became more legible but less colorful. Lew’s first signature was a brand. The second, just a name.

I think a lot of character gets washed out when brands get cleaned up.

Branding should be a little messy, a little irrational. Like love. Don’t overthink it; just follow the cues, fall into it, and revel in it whole-hog.
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May 6 2014
Advertising is blamed for a lot of linguistic ills, but I hadn’t heard that we were responsible for the spread of “blah blah blah.” Here’s the story, from BBC News Magazine:
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Well, I disagree with the definition. I’d argue that “blah” is different from “blah blah,” which, in turn, has a slightly different nuance from “blah blah blah” or “blah blah blah blah” (which could also be written “blah-blah blah-blah”). Any blah after four is just iterative. For now.

The single blah is an adjective, not a noun. It means boring, dull, or bland, but it’s slightly more negatively judgmental than those other words. As in “the food was was artistically presented, but the flavor was a bit blah.” There’s a sense of disappointment to it, which is probably related to its secondary meaning of low spirits or slight ill health. As in “I don’t know why, but I’ve been feeling sort of blah today.”

Blah blah is nonsense or meaningless verbiage, with a sarcastic dismissiveness that increases with each added “blah.” In speaking, the triplet version has a descending tonality with each note stressed evenly (a molossus, and yes I had to look that up), where the quad’s tonality (high mid mid low) could be either a dispondee or two separate spondees. To my ear the shorter “blah blah” comes off as more pedantic than the others, but that could be just me.

In writing, I think I prefer blah blah blah. It just feels more complete. Although, really, in advertising copy it seems usually to appear as a wall of repeating blahs (like the Xerox ad), and is used more as a graphic element indicating broad meaninglessness rather than addressing a specific point.

Ayup. Blah, blah, blah.
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May 5 2014
Here’s an interesting piece on risk literacy and the value of expert advice, from The Guardian (UK):
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There’s no way I can hold a candle to Gigerenzer’s intellectual qualifications (although, if the heuristics of gut feelings hold true, that may not actually matter). What I do have, though, is 30 years experience engaging in a fairly high-risk activity, both on behalf of clients as a marketer and on behalf of myself as a freelancer.

I think there’s a lot to be said for gut feelings when they arise out of a foundation of experience. And, thankfully, advertising is a field in which instinct is largely respected and supported. Indeed, as others have noted, often the advertising concept comes first and then the data is found to support it.

The problem with hunches is that the skill can’t be taught, only acquired over time. And, since time is limited in most college programs, most creative instruction – in art, in writing, in advertising – breaks down into either history or formula, and what practice is had is seldom taken to the point where results can be measured. The feedback loop is fundamentally incomplete.

That said, I’m trying a little bit of hunch training with my kids as they approach driver’s ed age. You know how you can be driving along on the freeway and you suddenly just know that someone is inexplicably going to cut over several lanes to get to an offramp? I’ve started verbalizing those hunches when my kids are in the car. And, since I’ve made an active practice of this little game ever since I started driving, I’m pretty good at it. My kids are consistently amazed to see some fairly outrageous predictions come true, usually within seconds, yet I can tell them nothing about how I sensed what I sensed. Because both my kids are of rational minds, we’ve been trying to figure out what’s actually being noticed. One idea is drivers’ head motions. Another is variations in the steadiness of vehicles reflecting drivers’ states of mind. It’s probably both observations, plus others (like out of state license plates and out of town markings, for instance), all processed subconsciously and leavened with several decades of active practice.

The main lesson, though, isn’t how to make the hunch. It’s how to follow it. It’s that gut feelings have value. It’s that active practice makes for better hunches. All of which are skills that carry into all other phases of life.

Including, in my case, advertising.
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May 1 2014
Here’s a pleasantly diverting article about the creative value of just wandering around, from BBC News Magazine:
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I love to walk, albeit only rarely without some ostensible purpose, like taking a package to the post office, exercising the dog, or going up the local mountain. Other than that, though, I’m in historic company in preferring to walk alone, with no music or other distractions.

Walkabouts give me big ideas. I’ve built out entire marketing strategies during long walks, developed new lines of business. But, when I have a specific task to complete, walks aren’t as productive as small breaks from cranking away at the job. Projects emerge while walking. Ad concepts or a better line of copy come while showering, or doing laundry, or watering the vegetable beds.

It seems that ideas coalesce around mindless tasks, and perhaps the bigger the mindless task, the bigger the idea. That would explain why meandering walks produce campaigns and throwing a ball for the dog produces ads.

Sometimes in this job, the most-productive thing to do is to take a break.
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Backwards in time to April 2014

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