Trade Secrets, Part 2

Last week I promised I would “pull back the curtain” and talk a little bit about the advertising industry. I’m a copywriter, which means I provide the words to any sort of advertising or marketing venture you may come across – TV, radio, web site, brochure, packaging, etc. This job comes with a lot of social recognition. Unfortunately, that recognition usually sounds something like, “I hate you,” and is often accompanied by a punch in the neck.

Here’s where I plead for you to not hate me. Terrible, pandering, and irritating advertising is usually not my fault. I don’t see myself as “above” the audience I’m writing for; what annoys you annoys me, so I do all I can to write in a way I would respond to. But since I’m beholden to write for the client – who is, you know, paying me and all – I can only do so much before they demand an extra five exclamation points behind “BIGGEST PRICE MELTDOWN IN THE HISTORY OF EVER!!!!!!” or make me call something a “SALE-A-BRATION!”

Again, please don’t hate me.

Let’s start with some basics. One of the most annoying tactics employed – and usually by used car dealers or mattress and furniture outlet stores – is the age-old use of the screaming announcer. But not just the screaming announcer will do. No, to “cut through the clutter” you must layer as many laser and explosion sound effects on top of the announcer as you possibly can – to, you know, equate low prices with death and maiming. Now your first reaction to the Unhinged Screaming Announcer Accompanied By Lasers and Explosions may be, “I must find someone to hurt.” This is normal. But the goal of Unhinged Screaming Announcer Accompanied By Lasers and Explosions is to get you to think, “I must hurt someone, and I must do it with the product and/or service they were just yelling about.” It’s solid logic.

There’s also the print equivalent of the Unhinged Screaming Announcer Accompanied By Lasers and Explosions, also usually found in car and furniture ads: the “starburst” graphic. These are most often some sort of multi-pointed star or some other thing with sharp, pointy edges. And you never see just the one. No, the first rule of using the starburst is that you have to use at least 1000 per ad – especially in used car ads. The goal is to fill each ad with so many colors, shapes, numbers, and information that the reader gets disoriented and wanders aimlessly around until she buys something. This is why, when asking what she went to mall for, she replies, “Nothing, really. I was just looking around.” Advertising in action.

To reiterate, ads are like this because many clients – not necessarily those creating the ads – make it so. Here’s where I will pull aside those potential advertising clients for a second to let them in on a few things:

1) Nobody cares that you want to beat your All-Time Sales Record. How is telling a potential customer that your whole goal is to make more money any reason for them to buy from you? That would be like me knocking on your door and explaining that since I wanted to make more money than last month, you should give me $10.

2) Is it supposed to impress me that you keep “drastically overstocking” your inventory and that’s why you’re having a sale? Is it supposed to make me feel bad for you? Or do I simply go on with thinking that you’re the worst businessman in history because even though you have this problem every Spring, you still don’t learn from your mistakes?

3) No, you cannot star in your own commercial. Yes, I’m aware you think you have charisma. But let’s be honest, Chachi – you standing in front of your huge selection of drastically overstocked merchandise awkwardly and stiltedly repeating your lines makes you look like a tool. P.S. – everyone makes fun of you behind your back.

4) Your prices are not “insane.” You are not “practically giving away” anything. And nobody believes you that if they don’t stop by today you will not be able to save them any money. Me spending money is not me saving money. You are a tool. Everyone makes fun of you behind your back.

I’m going to stop here because it’s about all I can take. I’ll leave you with something that was given to me when I was working on one of those crappy local used car ads. I had come up with a campaign that did not insult anyone’s intelligence. A series of ads that were funny, a bit different, and still communicated everything I was told to communicate about the cars and the sale. I got a note back from the account executive (the person at the advertising agency who is the liaison between the client and the creative people). I am quoting verbatim here:

“The client had the following revisions:
- Add ‘This is the greatest promotion in the history of [the car manufacturer]!’
- Emphasize that we have the biggest selection of [these cars] in the North West!
Note to writer – When it comes down to it all, all dealerships are offering the same great deal. So [this dealership] needs to stand out with having a larger selection and offering more $$ on trade.”

Yes, because I’m sure that anyone who is reading this, regardless of where they are located, has never, ever heard these distinctions. I was told to make the ad “stand out” by saying the exact same thing every other local car ad across North America has said. And thank you, Captain Account Executive, for using a patronizing tone to show me how to create the worst ad known to man.

It’s not my fault. Please don’t hate me.

i think i want to go into advertising... :) you make it sound like so much fun!
It really is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs... Every once and a while I'll spend 20 minutes deciding whether or not the word "urinalysis" is funnier than the word "scabies." It's then that I realize I get paid to think about such things, and really like what I do, horrible clients notwithstanding.

P.S. - "Scabies" is funnier, but "urinalysis" is the better word because it's such a perfect blending of "urine" and "analysis" without being fussy or awkward. You can take that to the bank.
There's a lot of that sort of thing in the web design area too. I used to work for a place that set up online stores, so we had a ton of customers with stores that sold the exact same products, so they really needed the website itself to stand out to get any business at all. I'd come up with an interesting design that was clean and to-the-point, and the customer would want to add flashier elements that I thought were annoying and unneccessary. And no matter how much you tell them that you prefer it the less-annoying way, they still insist on it. Said they 'wanted to stand out'. But they didn't realize that pretty much every site I was doing thought the same thing. That was one of the most frustrating parts of that job...thinking of creative things only to have the customer opt for something completely unoriginal and overused.

I think it's something that the general public just doesn't understand. They see all of these ads, and they think that's how it should be done.
Funny, interesting stuff. I want more of these posts.

You really hit home with the 'drastically overstocked' thing. Why is it our fault that you screwed up your inventory again? That's just bad business, and you're not fooling anyone regardless.

The starburst logo has truly lost all meaning. The next time you go to the grocery store, look at the cereal boxes and count how many of them have a 'special' blurb in the upper-right hand corner of the box. They all do, hereby defeating the purpose. Nothing stands out if everything stands out, and agencies need to start realizing this.

I greatly enjoy deciding which word or words are funnier than the latter. In the course of writing a post, I'll sometimes change a single joke a dozen times for that reason.
It is an odd phenomenon where clients don't understand what's appealing. I always want to ask, "If this ad had nothing to do with your business and was just in the paper as you were flipping by, would you notice it? Would you care?" It seems like it would be so obvious that they wouldn't. But they get really nervous to spend money and not throw all 400 points they want to make into one ad to "get their money's worth," thereby creating something nobody will ever look at, much less care about.
I also like those used car promotions where the manager lives on the roof or suspended in a van above the lot until the sell x amount of cars. Why do I care that he's stranded on the roof? If anything, I'd wait to buy, just to make him live up there longer...
Exactly. Creating the impression that the customer is the only thing keeping the business afloat is terrible business. If I was so important to your success, I'd be working there.

In my opinion, the best marketing plan is the illusion that the customer's business isn't even needed or wanted. Smarmy, stuck-up and aloof always does the trick; creates an aura of mystery and snootiness.

Look at Abercrombie & Fitch. No commercials, no products in their ads (just naked boys), no nothing; and A&F is still making a crap load of money.

I know what you mean about advertisers losing their creativity when money gets involved. I'm sure they realize their vision is crap, but they're afraid to do anything different for fear of getting canned.
What will they do when they really do have the greatest sale ever? No one will believe them. It's like the boy who cried wolf, only the boy is a sleazy car dealership and the wolf is great savings.
Interesting theory. I think that sort of stuff works on the youngin's, but maybe not for the older demo.

And don't get me started how much I hate Aberzombies...
(Oops...my comments were directed at CDP's last post...aaron got in while I was typing)

And wolfs always represent great savings...
"Wolves," even. What am I, a writer?

I write good.
I'm not supporting A&F or anything, I just know when campaigns work.

Out of all the commercials I see during any given day, there's only one that actually reminds me that I like their product, and that's Dairy Queen. Not only are their new commercials hilarious, but we have one right down the street. I'm up to 3 Blizzards a week.

Those Geico people deserve an award, as well. They've invented the Taco Bell Dog of the 21st century.
For some reason I always feel sorry for Dairy Queen. They want so badly to be more than just ice cream, but can never seem to do it. I haven't seen any of their new ads, but whenever I see or hear them try to promote a new burger or something, I always just want to tossle their hair or buy lemonade from their cute little stand with the backwards letters.

And yes, Geiko had done some great ads, and are fairly prolific with them with very few week links...
My favorite commercial right now is the Starburst ad where the factory workers keep dipping their hands in the vat of acid. It gets me every time.
Thanks to the godsend that is TiVo, I really don't see much commercials anymore. I did stop fast-forwarding through them when I saw this fantastic Carl's Jr. ad where it was a chicken clucking around with a black bar across its breast and they said they weren't allowed to show gigantic breasts on television.

I'm getting the feeling that Carl's Jr. is a regional thing. Or are they called "Hardee's" out there...the burger place with the giant yellow star for a logo? It tripped me out the first time I saw that...like seeing the McDonald's logo with "Burger King" written underneath.
They're called Hardee's in Wisconsin. Not too many around anymore, though.
Did that Hardees thing happen in the last 10 years? I remember when I lived in NW Iowa (*shudder*) there was a Hardees in the small town I was in, and it was its own place. And it was terrible.

However, Carl's Jr. is fantastic.
being in the midwest, i haven't seen any of the commercials that you have talked about! we must be missing out. i do look at commercials differently now after reading all the comments about advertising tactics. who knew blogs would actually be educational?
Consider my blog a public service. I am to entertain and educate. I'm the Mother Theresa of bloggers.
We've had Hardees' here forever; they've been getting phased out in the last decade, however.

When I used to eat meat, I'd go there for a Monster Burger every week. It's amazing that I'm still alive today.
All an advertiser has to do is sing a catchy jingle and I'll buy their product. It's that simple.

Dairy Queen seems to have a strange effect on me and the hubby--whenever we see one of their commercials, we immediately go there. That is really the only company that seems to get us every single time.
I think the jingle doesn't get the credit it deserves. Sure they're corny, but man, nothing else gets stuck in your head like a good jingle. My dream is to one day write a jingle. That's one thing I haven't been able to do yet.
Jingle writing is one of my better talents. Just give me a product and I'll burrow it into your head. It's a shame I haven't gone into the business and gotten rich yet.
I need to get an RSS feed going so I'm not late to the party anymore.

This post has inspired my next blog post which I'll make this next week while I'm on vacation. I'll post some screen captures or possibly a youtube of my favorite local commercial ever, if I can get it off my Tivo and onto the internets.
Also, Hardees is awful. I go back once about every two years to see if they've changed, and they fail every time.
Todd Werkhoven...this is Jenn Hays or as you may remember Jenny Gutierrez! Gina Elgersma found me through some dordt alumni thing and she said she read your blog and I searched you out and found you. We also have a blog you can check out and see what we have been up to. We live in hawaii right now. Hope to hear from you soon! Love, Jenn
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