John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
October-November 2012

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November 7 2012
Scientists confirm what point-of-purchase and packaging designers have known forever – that quick decisions, such as impulse buys, are often based on faulty evaluation of information. Here’s the story, from LiveScience via Yahoo! News:
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It’s no surprise that we make bad decisions when we’re rushed. The interesting thing, though, is how the process actually works. Apparently, when we have to make a quick decision, we become hypersensitive to information. And, any new information tends to take precedence over other factors, including basic stuff like whether or not that new information is correct or even relevant to the decision.

That’s why stores rotate the merchandise by the cash registers, why supermarket tabloid covers feature such spectacularly blatant misrepresentations, and why product packaging is constantly changing. It’s about communicating that essential newness, whether the new information is a promotion, an updated product, a packaging change, or a new take on a product benefit.

The revelation to many new media marketers, though, is that fresh packaging content may be far more important than fresh web content in increasing incremental sales.
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November 6 2012
Here’s an Election Day quickie about political advertising voiceover talent, from The Wall Street Journal:
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It’s an interesting look at a lonely, high-pressure job, ending in disappointment-by-proxy for half of the announcers. Still, there are compensations. Not least of which is the freedom to do something else the rest of the year.
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November 5 2012
So long Suzuki cars, at least in the U.S. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

American Suzuki was based in Orange County, and pieces of it were, at various times, represented by Orange County ad agencies. Most of those agencies have vanished, or merged, or changed names.

It’s interesting that getting in bed with General Motors didn’t help Suzuki much. And it’s equally interesting that, at a time when Suzuki – and Isuzu for that matter – were having sales problems, upstarts like Kia and Hyundai expanded their market shares. Part of that was due to the exchange rate; some blame also probably goes to the tsunami that interrupted the supply and played havoc with infrastructure and the global economic malaise. Yet, Toyota has posted record profits, and Nissan and Subaru continue to thrive.

Here’s what may be the key. In American automotive history, there have been three major car brands to focus their efforts entirely on smaller-than-typical cars. They were Studebaker, Rambler/American Motors, and American Suzuki. Okay, four if you count Kaiser. I think it’s no coincidence that all were acknowledged as forward-thinking at the time, and ceased doing business shortly after.

America is a land of wide open spaces. I think no matter what we buy, or how we answer surveys, big cars are part of our national identity. And even something like a Toyota Crown or a VW Dasher might be enough to serve as placeholders in our brand perceptions.
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November 2 2012
The old “pink it and shrink it” approach to creating products for women is still with us, defying all reason, network-enabled consumer interactivity, and data mining capabilities. Here’s the story, from Today:
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This is a continuation of the story about the Bic pen line targeting women (see Ad Blog, August 28).

The thing is, if one wants to create a product (or a marketing campaign) aimed at women (or any other market segment), the tools exist to determine meaningful, relevant differentiators. One can mine data from a variety of sources, conduct new flash surveys, and even bring in old-school focus groups to observe the way different people interact with the product. The key danger is the “deceit by research” factor I mentioned in August. But the benefits could be huge.

Because targeting women (or any other market segment) is not a thing of the past. Increased market data – and the tools to mine them – can drive increased market segmentation and higher customer satisfaction. You get to pitch the product the customer wants, in the way the customer wants, with the message the customer wants to hear.

The fact that it was all intentional from the start, well, that’s just smart marketing.
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October 31 2012
I just had to point this one out as brilliant use of signage. And, it’s a house ad for a design studio! Here’s the story, from Naples News (FL):
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I really love great outdoor advertising. And while this is more indoors than out, it has everything it needs, in particular a great visual concept applied to a new setting.

Now, an ice hockey arena is an unlikely place to fish for new business leads, especially for a design firm. But if the creative stands out, it works. Which demonstrates the value of creative in any medium, for any purpose. Because, despite appearances and perhaps against the odds, this is some highly effective B2B marketing.
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October 30 2012
In what’s really a nod to the ever-changing whims of industrial design preferences, Fortune magazine picked the six “ugliest” Apple products. Here’s the list, with photos:
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Apple can’t be blamed for the first one, a special-order commemorative product in the livery of the JLPGA golf tournament. After all, look at what golfers wear.

As for the rest, most were breakthrough designs in their day. The curvaceous PowerMac G3, iMac, and eMate stood out against the rectangular project-box that was the de-facto style for computers. Next to their flowing lines, other personal computers looked somewhat homemade as well as generic. Yes, it was an ironic twist that their organic forms were made possible by extensive use of plastics. Still, they defined the cool of an era, just as the icy, seamless, glass and aluminum forms Apple now uses – design which was practically a rebound from the previous Apple stylebook – define the cool of today.

Wait 15 years or so, and the iPad may be on Fortune’s list, a victim of fashion, but certainly not design.
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October 22 2012
I have two disparate stories today about the benefits of allowing reality to leak into advertising. The first is from Marketing Pilgrim, about advertisers trolling Twitter for ideas. The second is from Fast Company, about one of the first creative homegrown Chinese ad campaigns:
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The two campaigns could hardly be more different. One is a humorous comparison campaign for a technology product. The other is a series of gentle mini-films that stir a genuine sense of soul into a financial brand.

But what these two campaigns have in common is authenticity. Samsung sought real dialogue to lift; Lowe and Alipay dug deep to turn up real stories about real people to highlight. Digging deep is nothing new, and neither is adapting copy to the latest data; contrary to the quoted creative director, that’s always been the way to create advertising that really connects to people, at least among craftsmanlike copywriters and art directors.

The differences lie in today’s research tools and resources, and the speed with which we can produce and analyze highly focused data sets. In the old days, copywriters would pick up stories and dialog from focus groups, interviews, and store checks. Today we have those avenues, plus the massive volumes and lightning speed of social networking. That offers a significant advantage for today’s creatives in imbuing ads and marketing campaigns with the essence of authenticity.

Authenticity begins and ends with the consumer. It isn’t so much created as discovered. And no matter how clever the creative, you just can’t fake authenticity.
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October 18 2012
The gig economy has been a game-changer for many professionals, and it looks like the ranks of freelancers is set to grow. Here’s a story about so-called career “slashers” (as in barista/actor), from NBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I’ve been an advertising copywriter for nearly three decades, and a freelancer for 23 years. The advertising industry is notorious for turnover. On the one hand, everyone is just one account away from being out of a job; on the other, jumping ship used to be how most creatives moved up the ladder. So, for some of us, freelancing has the stability that traditional agency jobs often lack.

Story minute: I was a junior copywriter at an ad agency when the economy contracted back in the late 1980s. I saw two VP-level account supervisors, each with a close friendship and long history with the chairman of the board or the agency president, both get called into an office. The door was closed. After a few minutes, there was much shouting. Then there was a palpable, long silence. When the men emerged, both looked shaken to the core. They were two of the area’s best people, irreplaceable talents. And they were out on their ears.

What I learned, very young: Quality can help you land a job, but it can’t help you keep it. So freelancing was a way to have it all – to do great work and to do so steadily. 23 years later, it still is.
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October 17 2012
English is a global language. So we shouldn’t be too surprised when American English picks up catchy words and phrases from British English. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
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Some of these strike my ear as contrived, but then, I live in San Diego, a surprisingly provincial city also known in snarkier quarters as “Phoenix On The Bay.” Other former Britishisms have become so ingrained in American pop culture, that they’re hardly Britishisms any more. “Twit,” for instance, was most-likely popularized by Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 1970s, and by now is a second- or third-generation American citizen. “Wonky” and “wonk” came to the public’s ear most recently around the time of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, when he was considered a policy wonk. So it too can claim to be a second-generation native.

“Proper” as in “appropriate” has been here a coon’s age. It must be a third- or fourth-generation local, but not as native (can “native” be a comparative?) as “coon’s age.” “Roundabout,” however, is a more recent arrival here, and I credit its rising popularity to two factors: first, traffic engineers are using more of them, and second, “roundabout” is shorter and comes off the tongue easier than “traffic circle.”

Speaking of word length, “row” (pronounced raow, not roh) trumps “argument” by two syllables, so whether it’s recent or not, it's likely to stick.

“Queue” vs. “line” is a matter of clarity. When you talk about a queue, you know it’s a sequential series – of people or tasks or something. That lets “line” mean the geometrical or behavioral concept, or the physical figure. I like when new words make meanings more clear.

But using “fall” instead of “autumn” is for me a matter of national pride. Yeah, it’s not as pretty, and for evocative words it’s hard to beat “autumnal.” But only the U.S. has a season called fall, and for me that’s enough reason to use it.

And, it’s shorter.
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October 16 2012
Here’s another piece on destination marketing, this one looking at a handful of city brands from across the pond, from The Drum (UK)
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Of course, throwing stones at city slogans is easy. (See the Ad Blog, September 4, for another recent example from the U.S.) Unlike corporate brands, they are rarely developed by and for single-minded marketing visionaries. Instead, destination marketing frequently represents the worst of collaborative creation, developed through groupthink to an all-inclusive brief, and vetted, tested, and approved by a committee. It’s no wonder they’re often the weakest possible solution, lobbed hopefully in the general direction of the broadest possible audience.

Still, whether or not a city slogan is successful depends mostly on the whims of popular fancy and sheer, bullheaded longevity. As evidence, look at the slogans the article criticizes, and then look at the destination branding campaigns singled out as iconic. One, IAMsterdam, is the same type of internal pun as cOPENhagen or sLOVEnia. With a few years, the graphic N of the Nottinghamshire brand could’ve got traction and taken off like the heart of I Love New York. And the WTF concept was a mildly funny joke but, honestly, it’s a lousy brand. Unless you get people behind it and stick with it a while. And then it becomes a great one.
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October 15 2012
Perfume brand Chanel No. 5 has a new famous face, and it’s a man, man. Here’s the story, from The Independent (UK):
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Only eight faces have officially represented the brand since its introduction, each a reboot of varying degrees. Most were modest updates: a younger face with a more-current aesthetic appeal. Choosing Brad Pitt is a savvy move to refresh the marketing, but not so much a repositioning as a different point of view within the product category. With a male face, the ads and POP can’t help but be visually distinctive, even arresting. It’s also notable that Pitt, while undeniably attractive, is 48 years old, with a string of solid, well-known accomplishments to his credit. He’s more than a pretty face, which represents a change for any fashion brand.

The biggest change, though, isn’t in the ads themselves; it’s in the viewer. The internal monologue has shifted from “I could be that” to “I could have that,” an external consumer benefit familiar to advertisers in just about every category.

The open questions: Is this approach is a step backward or forward for women? Can it evoke the same level of emotional intimacy? Will the Brad Pitt brand, which extends deep into the sociopolitical arena, overshadow, hamper, or help the Chanel brand? And, finally, was it just high time someone took a contrarian whack at self-esteemy marketing pablum?
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October 12 2012
A 1951 computer program that writes love letters has been recreated as a piece of technological history/art. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
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The compositions were based on an algorithm that encoded a format and a few basic grammatical rules, and then provided a set of pre-selected romantic words from which to fill in the blanks. The result is Mad Libs-esque amorous prose with a stilted, earnest tone akin to instructions for Chinese-made party favors from the five and dime.

That a computer could create something original, let alone imitate emotion, were stunning breakthroughs in the 50s.

Some people reduce writing advertising copy to a formula, with pre-programmed “openings” sprinkled with “power words” connected by “bridge statements.” You’ve seen them. “Who else wants a (fill in the blank)?” “Secrets of (something) revealed!” And, the old standby for weary copywriters: numbers. “Four big ways to (whatever).”

But wait, there’s more. (Ayup.) These methods work for the same reasons, and to the same limited extent, that the computer-generated “love letters” work: because the syntax follows a familiar neural route, reinforced by a well-established vocabulary.

So what’s the catch? (Ack.) Beyond sheer transparency, the approach is self-limiting. No matter how powerful the computer, how complex the algorithm, and how well-populated the lexicon, the creative outcome is derived from a formula. And a formula can have everything a formula can have, and still lack two essential ingredients for writing breakthrough advertising copy: empathy and passion.

On another note, I’m going to try “jewel moppet” on my wife this evening. If it doesn’t work, blame the computer. And if it does, well, there’s a lot to be said for superior technique in delivery.
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October 11 2012
It’s 10-11-12, and Wendy’s is getting a new logo as part of its brand makeover. Here’s the story, from NBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s interesting – I think the new logo has most of the elements that make it a Wendy’s logo. The “wave” of the lettering seems downcast to my eye, and it’s a much simpler shape. I think the complex recurve of the original wave was more sophisticated, even if the font was decidedly downscale. The color yellow in the former logo helped separate it from the red tide, a sort of reverse McDonald’s, and now that’s gone. The bigger missing element, though, is the old-fashioned scrollwork, which could have been streamlined and incorporated into the circular frame around the portrait. What with the simpler wave, the casual lettering, and the stripped-down color scheme and design, the effect feels inconsistent with a strategic move upmarket for the brand.

But hey, never mind me. I’m just a copywriter.
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October 5 2012
Here’s a quickie to point out that the position Apple occupies in the iconography of popular culture is neither unprecedented nor assured. This article, from The Independent (UK), compares today’s Apple to the zenith of the now-broken consumer tech juggernaut that used to be Polaroid:
Advertising copywriter blog link

A technology company must constantly compete with itself, and be unafraid of cannibalizing sales, stemming revenue streams, or breaking new ground. When Polaroid launched the SX-70, it all but walked away from its embedded base of Polaroid Land Camera users, at least on the consumer side. And it built a new, even larger user base. Apple did that when it abandoned the Apple IIe/IIIc, which included the home user and educational markets, in favor of the revolutionary Macintosh, aimed at a totally different breed of professional computer user.

On the commercial side, Polaroid kept supporting its older film format. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago that professional photographers regularly used Polaroid backs on their cameras to help them evaluate setups and lighting. There, in contrast, Apple now seems to be moving away from its commercial users – the professional-creatives-as-consumers that gave the Apple brand its cachet.

If the Apple of today can no longer deliver an aim-for-the-stars commercial failure like a Polavision instant movie system or a Lisa computer, then it may no longer be capable of delivering a game-changer like an iPod. And, in the brutal world of commercial innovation, another young startup will knock the establishment on its head.

In the turmoil of a truly innovative marketplace, it’s possible to die by failing to innovate and also by misinnovating. And, the goalposts keep moving; even the consumers are in flux. The fact is, innovation is risky in practice. And, perhaps, even riskier in brand positioning.
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October 3 2012
Here’s kind of a continuation from my post the other day, about how words are freighted with meaning. This time it’s something seemingly even more innocuous: one word in the name of a state agency. Here’s the story, from NBC News:
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The California Department of Fish and Game is changing its name to “Department of Fish and Wildlife.” And therein lies the problem. Hunting groups are up in arms (ahem) arguing that the name change represents a shift in policy away from responsible wildlife use to wholesale wildlife preservation.

So, as before, a word is branded. To many hunters, the word “wildlife” carries an environmentalist connotation that may in fact specifically exclude hunting. To many environmentalists, a more holistic approach is necessary because the game population itself is affected by many other environmental factors, not the least of which is ever-increasing utilization of natural spaces by non-hunters.

In the end, it’s a word; regardless of the weight it currently carries, it’s the actions of the renamed agency that will define what the name stands for. As with any other brand name.
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October 2 2012
The 2012 presidential election is really hitting its stride now, so I found this archive of past campaign TV commercials to be timely. “The Living Room Candidate” is a physical and online collection curated by the Museum of the Moving Image. I have two links. The first is the story, an interesting video from BBC News, and the second is a direct link to the archive website itself:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

This is a very cool archive to root around in. Lest you think fear, hope, change, or any other theme is a recent innovation, look at some of the stuff from the earliest year archived and viewable, 1952. That’s 60 years ago. Behind the funky mid-century animations and repetitive advertising technique lie the same advertising and marketing strategies used today, right down to spinning the opposition (see the “backfire” category).

It’s notable that the art of selling a president hasn't gotten significantly more dishonest – the Constitution has always protected the fabrications in political advertising. In fact, you can go all the way back to our founding fathers and find plenty of scurrilous examples of backstabbing vitriol and tenuously founded public accusations in political campaigning.

All of which makes me proud to write ads for snack foods, floor coverings, and pharmaceutical research products. The perceived destiny of our nation may not hang on them, but at least I’m free to be honest.
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October 1 2012
There are words. There are trademarks. And there are brands. And sometimes, the categories get mixed up. Here’s a story, from the Associated Press via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA), about a trade spat between U.S. and French winemakers over the terms “chateau” and “clos” on wine labels and other marketing:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The problem is that American wine producers see the words as adjectives – mere product descriptions, with the actual wording of the descriptions issues that can be negotiated. The French see the terms – which are, after all, French in origin – as beyond proper nouns; they see the terms as quasi-brands, carrying not only a specific meaning but a specific heritage.

I’m a California wine partisan, having written ads for a few of them, and winding up the French, well, that’s practically a national pastime. But I’m with the French on this one.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an advertising copywriter, writing in a world where space is tight and every word must carry its weight and then some, that I prefer words to have specific meanings and nuances. The thesaurus says love, ardor, attraction, crush, infatuation, and passion are synonyms, but they are far from interchangeable no matter how close their written definitions.

The French winemakers fought this battle before, over the term “Champagne.” Today, most of our domestically produced Champagne-styled product carries the less-romantic but more-correct term “sparkling wine.”

OK, two more points then I’m done. First, whether they’re called sparkling wines or Champagnes, our wines can hold their own against any the world produces. In an era of increased transparency and instant access to globally shared opinions, it may matter less what something is called. Second, if it does matter – and it might – we are among the world’s best practitioners of branding. We should be able to come up with something better, something that communicates the provenance of next-generation wines by next-generation producers for next-generation consumers.

And when we do, let’s register it. So the French can’t use it. Ha!
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Backwards in time to September 2012

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When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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