John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
September 2009

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September 30 2009
Governor Schwarzenegger has called for a massive overhaul of the California tax system. When I first read an article about it, I was horrified; basically what’s being proposed is a value-added tax (VAT) similar in many key respects to the tax system that contributed mightily to the breakdown of British manufacturing and the decline of Britain’s industrial clout on the world stage. Then I read the actual commission report and drew some small comfort from the offset due to eliminating the state portion of sales tax (which, by the way, is not the entire sales tax) and a hypothetical projected reduction in personal state income tax. Then I hit the fine print and appendices and, hoo boy, is this proposal bad for small businesses and advertising agencies and any people-intensive industry all the way down to growing strawberries for market. Here’s a link to the report, all 425 pages of it, straight from the Commission on the 21st Century Economy:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Jump ahead to page 69, which is an example demonstrating how the proposed Business Net Receipts Tax would work. The example uses a hypothetical small landscaping business with $5,000 in gross receipts, $2,280 in purchases, and $2,320 in personnel costs and interest payments, for a total profit of $400. The tax, however, is based on gross receipts minus purchases, which differs from expenses in that it does not include wages paid. So, the 4% flat rate, which sounds pretty reasonable at first, is paid on a whopping $2,720 despite the fact that the business owner in this example only sees $400 of that as profit. The tax bill: $109, or more than 25% of profits!

The tax picture gets more favorable the bigger the company, because there are more ways to file things under “purchases.” But for creative industries like advertising, filmmaking, and innovation in any number of fields from biotech to green energy, in which hiring and retaining talent is a major business expense, this system just doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work for labor-intensive businesses, from agriculture to call centers. And, it complicates matters for California-based service providers that do business in other states virtually, via the Internet. In fact, just about the only businesses this new proposed tax scheme could be good for, are manufacturing corporations that can automate their processes, and certain service corporations that can outsource or offshore their processes.

It also seems that there’s double-taxation here. (“Of course there is,” say the people who know more about such things than I; “Double- and even triple- and quadruple taxation ad infinitum is the very premise of a VAT.”) Look: if a business is taxed on income that it pays out in wages, and the wage-earner is also taxed on his or her wages, then it seems to me that the state is double-dipping.

Actually, this whole thing may bode well for freelancers. Since businesses could apparently classify the hiring of professional service providers, such as advertising copywriters, as “purchases,” it would be far more cost-effective for ad agencies and other companies to simply lay off their entire in-house creative departments and re-hire them on a freelance basis. Whether rates would go up or down sort of depends. On the one hand, there would immediately be a glut of freelance creative talent in the marketplace (a situation that, to be honest, already exists, but I digress). On the other hand, under this scheme, payment to freelancers would be made with untaxed dollars, which could shake more money loose. If, and that’s a mighty big if, there’s more money to be had.
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September 27 2009
Here we go again. Subliminal advertising, that 1960s-era hoax perpetuated by contrived experiments and fraudulent findings, is back on the screen. Now scientists claim to have data proving, for whatever it’s worth, that messages flashed too quickly to be consciously read can affect opinions. Here’s the story, from the Telegraph (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I have three issues with this kind of research. First, these are scientists pointing to what appears to be an unaccountable statistical bent in the laboratory, instead of advertising people pointing to something tangible and relevant in the real world like, oh, sales. If the thing works, and I’m not saying it doesn’t, it’d be remarkably easy to test. Just create outdoor concepts based on long copy slamming the competition, and see what happens.

I doubt there’d be a client willing to buck years of existing research to go that route. But who knows? I remember when Suzuki became one of the first major branded product companies to put a toll-free phone number on its outdoor boards, and got a huge surprise when it pulled like mad. They eventually went to a billboard concept based on the phone number. And that begs another question: just what is subliminal? Does the thing have to physically flash, or can you just pick it up unconsciously, part and parcel with all the other ads you routinely ignore?

As for the power of going negative, a significant body of existing research shows that people will go further to avoid pain than achieve pleasure. Despite frequent resistance to putting anything negative in copy, these findings are not at all out of line with what’s already known.

My second issue, is that this experiment was based on flashed words. Words are not innate communication. (There’s something you don’t hear many copywriters say.) I suspect that flashed images would have a much more-powerful effect, and could conceivably cross linguistic lines while exploiting cultural touchstones.

My third issue is the biggest. Individual consumer choices are made based on an almost infinite array of factors, influences, and beliefs. To assign overwhelming power to a single factor indicates one of three possibilities. Either the findings are fallacious, or the thing itself is Evil, or both.

Personally, I go with both.
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September 14 2009
It’s About Time Dept.: PC makers are fighting commoditization by branding. Ooo, and making an emotional connection with consumers. Ooo, and being relevant to stuff people actually want to do. How about that. Here’s the story, from the New York Times News Service via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Forgive me for thinking that this came full-circle (I only think that because it did) but I wrote retail sales training and consumer marketing materials for HP waaaay back when emotional and practical relevance were still, well, relevant. The creative team focused specifically on uses and benefits over what we derisively called “feeds and speeds.” (Shameless plug: you can see a few samples of them in my brochure portfolio. Just scroll down toward the bottom of the scans.)

Our fact tags were designed and written to translate technology into commonly relatable tasks, like this printer was ideal for great-looking multi-page reports and presentations, but that one was better for lots and lots of photos. Those today who would scorn fact tags and shelf talkers neglect the reality that most consumers do very little research (the days of the hobbyist buyer are long gone in the PC market), which makes point-of-purchase materials the key marketing element. POP is often the first, and almost always the last, opportunity to talk directly to an interested potential buyer. Good POP not only differentiates your models, but also sets apart your brand. Its persuasive potential is undiminished by the apparent fact that those responsible for creating them either forgot how to sell, or abandoned the battle to the engineers.

I can think of another area where this has happened: wine. Selecting wine used to be the province of the knowledgeable buyer; now, it’s a much more democratic, casual affair. People pick out a wine with about as much thought as they give to crackers or breakfast cereal, and that’s been both a major shift and a huge opportunity for emerging brands. Where else is this happening? Oh, organic and healthy foods, vitamins and nutritional supplements, and, to a limited extent, portable media players.

The twist to the approach mentioned in the article, is this: one area in which this is not happening – in which a great deal of research goes into every purchase, lots of third-party information is available, and the marketing environment rocks to the tune of enthusiasts of all stripes – is cars.
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September 12 2009
My hometown newspaper has launching a self-promotional advertising campaign. Here’s the story, from, of course, the San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as regional media any more. Hyper-localized media, yes. Mass media, yes. The U-T seems aiming for a middle ground that may present a vast opportunity due to sparse competition. Unless, of course, there’s sparse competition because there’s nothing there.

I must say that I find it a little disturbing that this ad campaign has run since early this week without my noticing. It wasn’t until I thought about it and went back through the paper looking for a supporting ad that I found it a few pages past the story jump. It’s big bold and colorful. Unfortunately, it’s also all but unreadable from a normal viewing distance. It must’ve looked great on a comp board, but just fell apart in the environment itself.

But, it’s nice to see it recognized that a tangible medium like a newspaper typically reaches all the readers in a household, as compared to an online medium which reaches its audience one at a time. Unfortunately, as an advertiser, that’s really more of an argument that online media deliver more targeted eyeballs.
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September 11 2009
For the first time since the days of the Apple IIe, I am an early adopter of an Apple product. I just received my iPod Touch 3. Here’s the rig:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I ordered it Wednesday, within minutes of it becoming available online, and it arrived this morning. I aimed straight down the middle with the 32 GB model, and sprung for next-day delivery because, having decided to be an early adopter, I wanted to go all the way.

It’s a slick little thing! I’ve already loaded up some language apps which, in combination with my library of downloaded programming from German TV station WDR, should make for a nice way to while away time with a virtual vacation. I also bought a few writing and note-taking tools.

But the main things I’m looking for are essentially marketing apps – you know, apps that deliver value with a marketing payload. I’m specifically looking for thinking that goes beyond the free trial model and the banner ad/affiliate model.
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September 9 2009
Major fast food brand McDonald’s does not own the prefix “Mc,” at least in Malaysia. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The Malaysian restaurant in question, McCurry, successfully defended its name based on its contention that it was a contraction of “Malaysian Chicken Curry.” Unfortunately, the online version doesn’t show the photograph, which reveals the logo typeface, itself perilously close to a slightly extended version of the McDonald’s font. In red and yellow (er, gold), no less.

This ruling from Malaysia’s highest court puts a final, precedent-setting end to an eight year legal battle waged by U.S.-based McDonald’s, notoriously aggressive about protecting its trademark. So here, for free, is what could be the next big fast-food branding concept soon to be seen on the streets of Kuala Lumpur: McBurger’s. Ayup.
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September 2 2009
Would you want your kid to go into advertising? Here are actual survey results from 5,900 responses on LinkedIn, from Adweek:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The grain of salt: the survey was done by AdweekMedia on LinkedIn, so, no matter what audience the survey was pushed to, you’ve got more than the usual number of fluffers in the mix.

What I find surprising, though, is that everyone else in advertising and marketing would be more encouraging parents than copywriters, art directors, and designers – about a third of respondents tagged as creatives would “suggest another career” to a child who wanted to go into advertising, vs. a mere 10% for those holding jobs in business development. Less than half those with jobs in the creative department would “encourage the kid.” What with declining budgets, consolidations and bankruptcies on the client side, and increased pressure to bring in work, I’d have thought it would be the other way around.

Maybe those remaining in sales, marketing, and business development have to be more optimistic just to be where they are. Maybe creatives like complaining about advertising as much as creating it (something the AEs always suspected). Or, maybe for art directors and copywriters, it’s a control thing. You know, “you want to go into advertising? No, no, I have a better idea ...”
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
San Diego, California

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