I've been known to let loose with some colourful language in my time. Whether I've just hit my thumb with the hammer, the barman has cocked up the order, or there's no **@!** milk in the fridge for breakfast.
But I rarely use the really bad words when I'm writing something.
One of the reasons is that it's very hard to 'eff and blind' stylishly and effectively on the printed page.
But here's someone who can swear like a trooper while making brilliant points too.
His name is Bob Hoffman, an American marketer who doesn't pull any punches while writing about the things he loathes in the world of digital marketing.
Here's a link to his latest piece, and here's a few of the 'swear-iest' bits in it:
"We can't do anything these days without someone annoying the shit out of us for feedback.
Every morning I go to a coffee shop called Peet's. Every morning they ask me if I have their app. Every morning I say no. Every morning they tell me I should download the app because I can accumulate points and get a free cup of coffee. Every morning I tell them that if I wanted a free cup of coffee I would stay the fuck home and make it myself.
Consumers, on the other hand, mostly don't give a good flying shit about their brand. They want a cup of coffee and they want it now. And they don't want to stand in line while the barista wastes everybody's time trying to peddle a useless app to every bleary-eyed bastard who's late for the bus."
Brilliant stuff. I recommend that anyone remotely interested in how modern advertising is evolving should read Bob - and learn.
BBC Northern Ireland have reported on a grammatical error - and inadvertently raised another grammar question in the process.
"A Northern Ireland council has made an apostrophe gaffe costing the taxpayer more than £1,000.
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council's grammatical error appeared on an advert for a performance of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations in July.
The council chose to reprint its promotional material at a cost, the BBC understands, of about £1,200."
All well and good then - a simple error by the council in question who then took steps to put it right.
But are the BBC compounding the error when they say: "a performance of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations".
Some grammarians would howl in rage at this usage, and say that the correct form would be "Charles Dickens's Great Expectations".
Both can actually be deemed correct however - a rare enough happening in grammatical circles. Still, the council might have saved themselves £1,200 had they paid a fraction of that to hire a copywriter or proofreader.
Here's another book to be added to my groaning shelves. It’s a full sixteen years since Bernard MacLaverty’s last novel was published – The Anatomy School, a warm coming of age story set in sixties Belfast.
But I for one don’t really mind waiting sixteen years for MacLaverty as I know that not a word is ever wasted. He’s as clinical, precise and tight in his writing as any there’s ever been.
Not that he’s been poring over every word for the full sixteen years though: the Guardian has him as being busy with other writing projects:
“an un-turn-downable invitation from Scottish Opera to write a libretto; two years as a “classical music DJ” on Radio Scotland; a five-year stint on a movie script based on Robin Jenkins’s “wonderful” 1950s novel, The Cone Gatherers, which finally came to nought when the producer behind the project died; a collection of short stories; and Bye-Child, a Bafta-nominated short film of a poem by his close friend Seamus Heaney, which he directed in 2003.”
A busy writing life!
In the last blog post I mentioned that old books smell like vanilla and almonds. I've since found a little more background to that claim:
I frequently go for a stroll at lunch time – to pick up the odd errand or just to get a breath of fresh air and take a break from whatever copywriting project I have on my desk. It’s usually only for half an hour or so, but that plan often goes awry if I happen to pop into Keats and Chapman, the labyrinthine used book store on North Street in Belfast.
It was a stroke of genius to rebrand ten years ago as Keats and Chapman, especially for Flann O’Brien aficionados like myself. And even if you don’t ‘get‘ the connection, it’s still a more attractive name than The Bookstore, as it used to be known.
But what is it about dusty, musty second-hand book shops that draws us in? Maybe it’s the strong smell of vanilla and almonds as the compounds in old paper break down – a hint of what’s to come for us all, although my decomposing smell is unlikely to be anything as fragrant as vanilla and almonds!
Down through the years, I’ve picked up quite a few books here on art, copywriting, advertising and marketing, and also first or early editions of favoured authors. But I won’t disclose here precisely who those authors are in case the owner Bill suddenly ups his prices when he sees me coming.
So if you’re in Belfast city centre and want to unearth some old and obscure beauties, do look into Keats and Chapman. But allow yourself plenty of time!
Like many other creatives, I am partly indebted to Dave Trott for getting me into the advertising game. Not because I ever met the guy, but because - as a kid - his ads showed me that there was considerable fun to be had in making up weird stuff and getting paid for it.
Trott is maybe the best known copywriter in the world at present - well, in the UK at least. He has always had a unique way with words, as in this blast from the past:
Lipsmackin, thirstquenchin, acetasting, motivating, goodbuzzin, highwalking, fasttalking, coollivin, evergivin, coolfizzin... Pepsi.
Other examples include: Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba? and Aristonandonandonandon
Perhaps my favourite Trott creation was the Holsten Pils advertising campaign featuring Griff Rhys Jones and a number of dead Hollywood film stars. At the time (way, way, way back) the idea of embedding Jones into old Hollywood movies and interacting seamlessly with the stars was jaw-droppingly breakthrough. Indeed, we marveled at it endlessly in the Uni Bar as we knocked back our pints of a competing lager.
Trott's Creative Mischief book is a collection of parable-like stories (mostly blogs and articles originally) that engage and entertain before coming to a telling punchline that sums up the lesson in style. The 'moral' of each story can be variously applied to advertising in general, copywriting in particular or the great wheel of life itself.
His stories are beautifully single-minded, just like his ads. If you ever need inspiration to become a copywriter, this is one book you should dive into straightaway.
Search the internet for copywriting tips and you’ll find zillions of them. You’ll find out how to write a headline, make the sale and … ‘write with rhythm’.
We all learned about the importance of rhythm in writing at school. It was called English class.
Maybe they didn’t use that particular term, but any time you read a poem you were actually learning about rhythm in writing – subconsciously at least.
Then, if you went on to become an actual reader of books, you will again have learned subconsciously about a rhythm being necessary to drive the writing along.
That’s especially true if you were into the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and all the other Gods of the modern American novel.
But I remember a tip I spotted in an old Copywriting book. It suggested that any would-be copywriter should study two types of song lyrics.
The first type of lyric was that of the songs made famous by Sinatra. These lyricists included men like Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg – guys who were responsible for classics like I Got Rhythm, The Lady is a Tramp and, in the case of Harburg, the entire songs in The Wizard of Oz.
This was sophisticated lyric-writing of the highest order. One of my favourite lyrics from this era was from Sammy Cahn: Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away / If you can use some exotic booze / There's a bar in far Bombay
Then, at the other extreme, the book suggested you study a second type of lyric – those in Country and Western: Hank Williams and the like. Williams was the original master of country genre:
When tears come down /Like falling rain / You'll toss around / And call my name,
You'll walk the floor / The way I do / Your cheatin' heart / Will tell on you
And the point that the copywriting tipster was making? You need to be able to write rhythmically with elegance (eg Sammy Cahn et al) – while also being able to get a bit more 'punchy and dirty' with your lines (eg Hank Williams, etc).
If you can nail both of those approaches, you’ll write copy with great rhythm.
Anybody who writes for a living will have at times looked lovingly at a little phrase or form of words that they’ve just typed out and said “Wow, how good am I!!!”
The so-called perfect example of wordsmithery that you’ve just created is known as a ‘little darling’, a phrase originally attributed to William Faulkener. It's basically showing off with a pen.
And what do we do with these ‘little darlings’?Do we love them? Nurture them? Show them to our friends?
No. We kill the little buggers. Because good writing has no place for such egocentric flourishes.
Good writing is always direct and to the point.
Good writing caters for the reader – it never panders to the author.
And good writing is full of honesty, not pretentiousness.
And all of that is especially true for copywriting.
By its very nature, copywriting is essentially a hard-nosed verbal sales pitch converted to the page. Or the billboard. Or the cornflakes box. Or even whatever 'meme' is currently trending.
There’s usually little enough room for the key selling message without the copywriter getting all fancy-shmancy and thinking they’re suddenly James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway or Marion Keyes.
So next time you catch yourself writing these little darlings, do what Hermann Göring famously liked to do when he heard the word ‘culture’: reach for your revolver... and give it to ‘em right between the eyes.
So, Chuck Berry is releasing a new record at the grand old age of 90. Several years back, I wrote this piece about the grandfather of Rock and Roll.
John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry”.
Berry was among the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986. He was inducted by Keith Richards who said, “It’s hard for me to induct Chuck Berry, because I lifted every lick he ever played”.
In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine named him number six on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.Berry had his first hit in 1955 with “Maybellene”. The song peaked at No 5 on the Billboard charts. At the end of June 1956, “Roll Over Beethoven” reached No 29.
The hits continued from 1957 to 1959, with Berry scoring over a dozen chart singles during this period, including the top 10 US hits “School Days”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Johnny B. Goode”.
In the 1970s, Berry toured on the basis of his earlier successes. He was on the road for many years, carrying only his Gibson guitar, confident that he could hire a band that already knew his music no matter where he went. Among the many guitarists performing this backup role was a very young Bruce Springsteen.
Berry actually wrote Promised Land when he was serving time in jail for transporting a girl across state lines for immoral purposes. In fact, he had to borrow an atlas of the US from the prison library to plot his hero’s journey from Virginia to California.
To my mind, Promised Land sums up the classic rock and roll ambition, together with veiled references to the political struggle faced by Southern blacks at the time. Cleverly, Berry offered a partial allegory of the 1961 freedom rides to protest against the continued segregation in the South.
In the song – which is also chock-full of quasi-biblical imagery relating to the Exodus story – Berry’s hero follows much the same route through the South as the freedom riders. In one verse, Berry invokes the worst violence experienced by the actual freedom riders, which occurred in Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, describing a journey that “turned into a struggle, / half-way across Alabam”.
His best known song is of course Johnny B Goode. Not only is it a staple of every kid who ever tried to play electric guitar, it was also chosen as the American cultural contribution to the Voyager 1 spaceship Golden Record.
The Voyager Golden Record is an actual gramophone record containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It is intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form that may find it.
The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. Dr Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earthlings in fifty-five languages.
They also included a printed message from President Jimmy Carter who said: “We cast this message into the cosmos. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some – perhaps many – may have inhabited planets and space-faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of Galactic Civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.”
To date, only one message has been received back from extraterrestrials.
It said: “Send more Chuck Berry.”
Mostly when I visit London, it’s all work-related. However, over the past week and more, I had the opportunity for a much more relaxed trip – shows, galleries, Wimbledon, etc. All very enjoyable.
I also had the chance to catch up with London friends who are collectively in a state of post-Brexit shock and are now soul-searching as to what went so horrible wrong for the Remain camp.
I offered my humble – and predictable – opinion: it was the Copywriting that let then down.
Well, the copywriting AND the fact that there seemed to be no obvious marketing strategy behind the Remain campaign.
Our bananas are crooked
Right from the start (and aside from the fact that the Leave campaign were able to massively stoke fears about immigration), the Leave line – “Take Back Control” – summed up everything the populist right wing English media had been saying for decades about Europe. And that goes right back to the days of ‘Europe says our bananas are too crooked’. Ludicrous, yes, but brilliantly effective too.
So, “Take Back Control” was a great line to whip up the voters into a leaving frenzy. Top marks to that copywriter!
Lukewarm, limp and lazy
On the other side of the debate, the Remain camp were never going to be able to engender any comparable level of passion with their line – “Stronger In”. It was far too safe, far too sensible, far too insipid.
So what could the Remain camp have done with their copywriting?
More ballsy, please
For a start, they could have ditched their lacklustre and timidly positive line and gone for something a bit more ballsy, a bit more … negative.
Yes, negative. Because as American politics generally shows us time and time again, when it really matters it pays to get really negative. (OK, Obama 2008 excepted; but that was a bit different. Yet in 2012 Obama actually churned out a lot more negative ads than his Republican rival. And, guess what, he won!)
Go for the jugular
In retrospect then, it might have been better for the Remain camp to have gone for the jugular with a line like "Don’t get Tricked into Leaving”. (Or something similar – I admit I haven’t spent any time working on this!)
That type of negativity might actually have been the most positive thing they could have done.
Hi. I’m a writer of highly effective copy for every marketing sector under the sun. If you've got a copywriting, advertising or design project, please get in touch - I'd love to help.