08 October 2014

The Scam Letter: Why I Love Bad Writing

It is with great joy and inaudible fanfare that I share with you the scam letter I received recently.

Did I say 'letter'?  I meant "OFFICIAL LETTER."

May I direct your attention, not to the scam, but to the writing.  Blissfully, deliciously-bungled writing: the kind that hooks you from the salutation:

"Dear Tennant"

From there, it just gets better: (italics are mine)

"...I work for one of the financial institutions here in the United Kingdom"

One of them.  Like his workplace is a state secret.   Fair enough: I once worked for some of the radio stations.

Or is it a game?  "Guess which one, and win £150!"  Or perhaps it's more in the line of "If I told you, I'd have to ..." so on and so forth.

Pins & needles.

Do yourself a favour- read his next sentence out loud:  it follows the author's apology for the unsolicited letter.  I mean it.  Out loud.  You won't regret it:

"I knew that this is certainly not a predictable way of approaching to foster a relationship of trust, but because of the circumstances and urgency surrounding this claim."

Allow me:

Wha- ?

Moving on. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere's the pitch:

Seems poor Adam has been charged to find an heir to the estate of "business magnate" David Tennant, and, finding none, looks to me, a randomly-chosen namesake.  Brace yourself for the life-changing reveal:

"I know you might not in any way related to him,"

'be'.  He forgot 'be'.  But I'm not about to let a lousy state-of-being verb stand between me an 4.3 million clams.

"but having the same last name with him and coming from the same country with him, all the modalities I have in place I can guarantee that if you follow my instructions, the fund would be released to you legally."

Hot spit!  I'm rich.

Reading on: there is no risk.  Nay, "There is no atom of risk..."  Golly, a moment ago I was just "Tennant."  A mere five paragraphs later our relationship is approaching the sub-atomic level: an intimacy hitherto reserved for the breathtaking Mrs. Tennant.

A misplaced word here, a stumbling phrase there, then the big finish:
Disappointingly, 246 Upper Street is a Financial Institution

"This letter was mailed out to you when I was in Canada for business meetings."

Mr. Westwood mustn't have anticipated the 21st Century technology enabling a recipient to check investigate his story. Starting with his address.

In an unfortunate lapse into credibility, Mr. Westwood's address reveals- not a seedy back alley or re-purposed cargo container- but an actual financial institution.  Nationwide, of 246 Upper Street, London, is an established banking co-op.

That one faux pas notwithstanding, the letter is a masterpiece of non-misdirection.  It has a place of honour in my "Funny Stuff" file.

Bad writing is underrated.  To those language snobs who wail and gnash teeth over the demise of our language.  To them I offer a hearty:  Tthththththththththththththththwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwp!

I stand, in spirit, shoulder to shoulder with those who wax Christmastime-giddy at the annual release of the Bulwer-Lyton Prize* for 'Worst Opening Sentence'.  A contest of deliberately-crafted so-bad-it's-good writing by smart, highly-inventive people.

Seen another way: a scam letter built on convincing, elegant, believable prose isn't so damned funny.

My new benefactor, Adam Westwood, offered no such disappointment.  He has no idea how much he brightened my day.

I'm resisting the urge to send him something.

* * * * * * * *

*BONUS MATERIAL!  Here's the "winner" of the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Prize, by my new hero, Betsy Dorfman, of Brainbridge Island, WA.:

"When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose."
I'm weak.

06 August 2014


There's something unseemly about poking fun at failed predictions, as though one was building a shrine to moral superiority atop a foundation of hindsight.  When Terry O'Reilly and I wrote The Age of Persuasion, we toyed with the idea, but chose instead to frame ours as a wish last rather than a series of earnest prognostications.  There was a good reason for this.

David Ogilvy.

The wartime British Intelligence officer, door-to stove salesman, and disciple of  George Gallup, (yes, the 'Gallup Poll' guy), who was, himself one of the founding fathers of modern market research.   

I'm not alone among copywriters in my love-hate relationship with this long-departed gentleman and Ad legend, who founded the empire that thrives today as Ogilvy and Mather Worldwide.  And whose contribution to the tone, dignity and art of advertising informed a generation.  The go-to work in all of Ogilvy-dom is the print add for Rolls Royce, as lovingly and skillfully crafted as the vehicle itself:

In his wonderful 1963 book Ogilvy on Advertising, he offers a (baker's) dozen predictions as to what will transpire in the ad world in years to come.  

51 years later, it's time to take a peek and see how he did.

To his credit, the great man attributes this to the prodding of his publisher, and confesses a declining interest in the industry's future.   What's so fascinating today is how spectacularly wrong so many of them were.  To quote the man:  "So here goes:"

1.  The quality of research will improve, and this will generate a bigger corpus of knowledge as to what works and what doesn't.  Creative people will learn to exploit this knowledge, thereby improving the strike rate at the cash register.

YES! Nailed it (as the kids say).  
As anyone who's answered a dinnertime phone call or been button-holed in a shopping mall can attest, the prolific growth of market research is itself a force of nature. 

Ogilvy (bless him) also cautioned: "I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination."

2.  Advertising will contain more information and less hot air.
Swing and a miss. Strike one.

3.  Billboards will be abolished.
Strike two.  Though I could kiss him on the mouth right now.

4.   The clutter of commercials on television and radio will be brought under control.
Ooooo.  'Wrong' seems too small a word.  (See The Age of Persuasion, Chapter 1)

5.  There will be a vast increase in the use of advertising by governments for the purpose of education, particularly health education.  
Granted: the Ad Council in the US does incredible public service work, so much of it health-related. The Government of Canada, meanwhile,  has defunded Participaction, but has spent upwards of $100 million since 2009 (sayeth the Globe) selling Canadians on its Economic Action Plan.  Let's call this a wash.

6.  Advertising will play a part in bringing the Population Explosion under control.
Hey, whatever happened to the Population Explosion as a world crisis?  Or acid rain, for that matter.

7.  Candidates for political office will stop using dishonest advertising.
Okay, David, drive way down that highway past a place called 'Wrong'.  Then keep driving till I tell you to stop.

[9 & 10 deal with the ownership and nationality of major ad agencies.  Let's bypass this, except to note that Mr. O bats about .290 on these.]

11.  Multinational manufacturers will increase their market shares all over the non-Communist world, and will market more of their brands internationally.  The advertising campaigns for these brands will emanate from the headquarters of multinational agencies, but will be adapted to respect differences in local culture.

Yes to the first part- though he never imagined Big Macs in Beijing.

No to the second part about centralized global agencies:  today, the empire he founded, Ogilvy and Mather, has more than 100 offices in more than 50 countries.  We'll cut him some slack:  Mr. Ogilvy retired twenty years before the advent of email.

12.  Direct response advertising will cease to be a separate speciality, and will be folded into the 'general' agencies.
He was kinda sorta right in the 80's, and wildly right in the Digital Age.

13.   Ways will be found to produce effective television commercials at a more sensible cost.
Buffalo NY area car dealer ads notwithstanding, this one's a howler, worth of a place near the record exec who told The Beatles "guitar bands are on their way out."

Enough fun at the giant's expense.

Did the great man predict that he'd regret giving in to his publisher's request for predictions?  I don't know.  But the man took huge risks. Built an empire.  Changed for the better the advertising end of popular culture.  And lived out his days in a lavish medieval French castle.

That's gotta be worth a mulligan.

* * * * * * *

07 July 2014

A truly...Vagical Viral Video..


There are still clients who will look at you over a boardroom table and ask, with a straight face, that you create a viral video for them.  It's conventional then to wait five or ten seconds, to ensure they don't burst into laughter and declare you punk'd.

If they don't, then nope, they're serious.

Translating from clientspeak, what they're asking is:  "Take this pocket change and produce a video that will amass the spontaneous self-spreading adoration of millions.  Oh, and don't spend a dime on media."

Anything else?  A formula for cold fusion?  Locate Jimmy Hoffa?  Get Bell Canada to admit a mistake?

I beg your pardon.  I don't mean to be Norman Naysayer.  People routinely create viral videos, just as some routinely write New York Times Bestsellers, and others win the Powerball.  The former two require a mysterious combination of skill, timing, and luck.

Have a look at one of the more recent virals.  It's got a snappy little backstory. First though, see if you can figure out what has lured more than 20 million views.  Including you and me.

"First Moon Party" is actually a sequel to an earlier and almost-as-ingenious film, Camp Gyno.  Which began when the president of a Tampon Subscription company (who knew?) buttonholed a couple of friends from BBDO, the writing/directing team of Jamie McCellandt and Pete Marquis, and asked their help creating a video.

For Camp Gyno, they cast a brilliant 10-year-old (I know, I know- but even at 10 she was too good not to cast) and shot the film over one day at a camp in Cold Spring NY.

Cat Flushing The Toilet it ain't.  Unlike the rags-to-riches "Charlie Bit Me" sorts of virals, this is a first rate production.  Great acting.  Great direction, photography, and music.  There's a story circulating that it was produced for $6,000, which is partly true.  The production company, and almost certainly others, worked free of charge.  (To have this on your reel, wouldn't you?)

Sure there are formulas for creating viral videos, just as there are formulas for winning lotteries, becoming UN Secretary General, and winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.  All equally effective, so far as I know.

But a couple of factors give "First Moon Party" a little extra push into the viral mesosphere.


Any daughter's father knows that so much as acknowledging the existence of menstruation is akin to tossing Darth Vader a Twoonie and telling him to grab you a coffee, black, two sugars. Yet this film (to shift metaphors) saunters across this forbidden turf in big honkin' steel toe boots, hands in pockets, whistling a showtune.

The very subject of menstruation, like death, bankruptcy, and hairpieces, is so wonderfully awkward, it's natural fodder for a viral video.  Years ago a friend at the old Radio Bureau told me the ad category that fetched the most consumer complaints, by far, was feminine hygiene.

On that basis, First Moon Party's fearlessness is its strength, with its attitude of 'yeah, it's menstruation kid, get over it.'  It thrives on its own lack of respect for the 'forbidden' subject.  They smacked the beehive with the hockey stick and got away with it.

I'm going to stop the deconstruction here, lest you get the idea that First Moon Party operates on a transparent, replicable formula.  Suffice it to say I laud the skill of the filmmakers.  I hope they had a blast working on the project.

And I hope they bought a Powerball ticket.

* * * * * 

18 June 2014

Brrrrrr. Skittles and the New Big Chill

If you're ever hoping to pinpoint the generational divide, step away from the GPS, and look no farther than DDB Chicago's campaign for SKITTLES.  A campaign which, from my side of the chasm, has a distinct chill to it.

Who are these ads playing to?  C'mon- I'll introduce you to a whole ballroom full of them.


The ballroom was a'buzz for a major Ad Awards presentation, especially since most of the two-free-drink-tickets had been redeemed.  Dinner and wine were done, as were coffee and dessert.  Lights dimmed, and two hosts were introduced, and strode on stage before hundreds of Canada's most high-octane young ad creatives*.

                * Memo to word snobs:  "creatives" is an established industry noun referring to a class of writers, artists and designers.  Suck it up. 

And then, nothing happened.

Really.  By 'nothing' I mean that few acknowledged that the presentation had begun, and the loud chatter continued.  Many laughed and gossiped loudly with their backs to the stage, raising their voices slightly to compete with the room noise, which now included two hosts on a P/A system.  Try starting a bible study in a strip joint and you get the gist.

Anticipating this, the hosts introduced their running gag:  when (not 'if', mind you) the room became too noisy, a third character would be wheeled to the stage on a dolly (channeling, one supposes, Hannibal Lecter.) packing a bear horn, with which he would restore quiet. (Neither the bear horn, nor the gag, worked.)

Peace broke out now and then over the next hour and change; as particular names were called, and particular works cited, interested tables hushed, then cheered madly.

The savvier marketing minds in the room- and they were many- must have grasped the irony:  this was a microcosm of 21st century marketing communications:  people pay attention to what interests them (which is nothing new), but have no time, zip, nada, zero tolerance, for what doesn't.  This is a relatively new, and troubling trend.


This is the audience of "you have two seconds to win my attention."  If that.

As a branding device, DDB's SKITTLES campaign is trashes the campaign playbook:  it lacks warmth, story and emotional connection.  It does nothing to forge a relationship.  Instead, each spot is built around an abstraction: a bizarre 'moment', a mutation of the cute and the disturbing. Young love, fluffy white clouds, and sweet older ladies are dispensed with the same confectionery iconoclasm.

SKITTLES builds no emotional equity or momentum; it's less a campaign than a series of first dates, linked by a common design and tone, and a plug-in-the-verb tagline:
Touch (or Smell/Feel/Pet/See) the Rainbow.  Taste the Rainbow.  
You can be forgiven for seeing a similarity in style to Wieden + Kennedy's much lauded Old Spice work:

The tone and imagery share a similar DNA.  But there's a major difference: Old Spice is built on a clear proposition:  "This isn't Dad's Old Spice anymore.  And to show it, we'll take you on a joy-ride far, far away from Dadland.  SKITTLES makes an inexplicable b-line to a similar place, and just parks there.  (Caveat:  yes, Old Spice is a fashion/lifestyle product, where SKITTLES is candy.  Marketing approaches twixt these categories are not interchangeable.)

All this isn't to say the SKITTLES campaign is a failure. Merely a sign of how an emerging generation of ad Creatives are perceiving and communicating with their peers:  opting for quick sugar hits over long-term relationship building.

And if that doesn't work?  There's always the bear horn.

* * * * * * * *

21 May 2014

Five Favourite 'Jedi Mind Tricks' of Marketing

You're looking (in spirit) at a guy who's spent most of his 30-year career insisting that no, Marketers aren't all manipulators using slight of hand and Old Jedi Mind Tricks to part you from your money.

Then I find this:

From the wonderful National Geographic show "Brain Games" comes the news that food vendor can get you to choose a higher priced item by planing a near-priced 'medium' item as a decoy, increasing the perceived value of the larger, more expensive item.

As my friend Keith Ohman is fond of saying:  "Damn their eyes!" 

While I consider ways to back-peddle, let me show you a few ways Marketers leverage their understanding of the human brain to grease the skids of the purchase process.

For instance-


Here's a peek at the menu of one of my favourite breakfast haunts  (Country Boy in Kitchener, if you'll forgive the product placement):

Old School
Note especially the price point, which is old-school in two respects:  1) The restaurant uses the classic '.99' approach.  Through the year's, we're conditioned to take a '.99' at the end of a price to suggest value.  And yes, it banks on your brain to think of the price as being closer to four dollars than five.

2)  Even more old-school is the use of the dollar sign ($) with the price.  Perhaps you've noticed- especially in more upscale restaurants (apologies to Country Boy)- that you'll often encounter price points in a different format; (the example below is from Imbibe!, Kitchener):

New School

According to a 2009 Cornell University Study, restaurant diners will actually spend more when the menu does NOT include either the word "dollars" or the dollar sign ($).  A simple '13' for the prosciutto, says the study, will have you concentrating more on the food, and less on what you're paying.

And size, evidently, does matter when choosing price fonts.  When an appliance shop advertises a gas stove at $1098.00!, it's less attractive to consumers than '$1098.00'.  Studies show that the larger the font, the larger the perceived cost.


In his 1984 book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini described an experiment in which people were asked to put up a huge sign in their yard reading "Drive slow; kids playing.  Almost all of them refused the request.

So a new set of people were approached.  This time, they were asked if they would put a small sticker in their windows, reading exactly the same thing.  Most agreed.  Then, those same people were asked if they would put the giant sign in their yards.  A great many of them agreed.  Far more than during the first wave of the experiment.

This is a lesson in consistency; people are disposed to do things consistent with their previous actions.  By using a little imagination, you can see how marketers might use this particular Old Jedi Mind Trick to stair-step consumers into large purchase decisions.


Seems retailers can learn a lot from the great Markets of Marrakesh, Fes and Manknes.

According to an outfit called Envirosell, a store that seems to display only a few items, oh-so-tidily, is perceived as being more expensive, and less approachable. According to a New York Times piece, a bit of a mess in a retail store can imply that the goods are in demand, because people have been picking 'em over.    (The theory does not, repeat, not, translate to disheveled humans.)


Or two-fer.  Or five-fer.  Studies show that suggesting a fleet rate for a sale item ads importance and urgency to the offer.  Hence "$1.99 or 3/$5"  ("Limited Quantities"- same idea.  Though the latter is often a legal requirement.)

My all-time favourite example was a shop in Goderich Ontario which posted a sign reading:

Movies $6
or 3/$18

'Seems that retailer skipped the class that dealt with 'nuance.'


Lists are irresistible.  Consider the list-o-mania that dominates publishing, broadcast, and sports. Letterman built his empire on 'em.  Lists are a simple, if tawdry mean of luring a viewer, a listener (or, say, a reader) to the end of an article, or a, you know- Blog.

* * * * *

IKEA Store Map
Just as unnerving as these five is the knowledge that there are so many more Marketing Mind Tricks.  As overt as the aroma marketing of the Cinnabon store at the Mall,  or as intricate as the 'maze' design of Ikea stores, designed to ensure that you don't come-and-go too quickly:  more time on the
floor increases the likelihood of your spending money.

Got some favourite Marketing Mind Tricks?  Share away.

13 May 2014

The Decline of Mad Men- and What it Teaches about Brands

My old friend Bill Barnes- the undisputed king-of-deadpan- used to say: "Ask me the secret of comedy."
"Okay, wha-"

The man had chops.

So much of branding is about timing.  A lesson niftilly illustrated in the recent woes of Mad Men, whose final season debuted this spring to underwhelming ratings.

The wonderful John Hamm, too often the de facto spokesman for the Mad Men brand (whose headquarters is found between the ears of showrunner Matthew Weiner) spun it thus- as though a decline in ratings was part of the Mad Men master plan:
"It's gotten to where it's only the hardcore people are down with it," Hamm said of "Mad Men." "It makes sense. It's a different viewing experience."
Conventional wisdom has it that Mad Men is suffering from hiatus-itis-  lags between seasons (and half-seasons) that allowed audience interest to cool.  And the reason for these lags and disappearances?
  • A 17-month 'holiday' a couple of seasons back while Weiner and host network AMC squabbled over, yes, money
  • The network's desire to hold the show for one of four US Sweeps months (February, May, July and November).
  • Disagreements over production details: including-

      -how much product placement to sell within episodes.

Consider a similar dispute- between The Sopranos and HBO.  During a hiatus of nearly two years (June '04 to March '06), James Gandolfini, rest him, lost 160 pounds, and the show lost 1.6 million viewers, about 14% of its constituency.

Squeak, rumble, squeak.  Hear that?  It's the sound of glutes squirming in leather boardroom seats in AMC sales meetings.

Indeed- The Mad Men Season 7 première last month yielded 2.3 million viewers-  about a million fewer than its Season 6 début in 2013. The sense of disappointment is compounded by news that AMC would dispense the final AMC season with an eye-dropper- seven episodes now, and the final seven a year (!) from now.

Oh yes, cliffhangers work- as well today as they did for the landmark film series The Perils of Pauline exactly a century ago...

...and for Scheherazade, whose 1001 tales saved her life, one story at a time.


The Eclectic Film Company (it's said owner William Randolph Hearst had a hand in generating stories)  knew they'd need to release the next installment in a week.

And Scheherazade knew that a failure to resolve one story and begin another the very next night would be fatal.


Was this Mad Man lapse avoidable?  Could AMC and Weiner have agreed to put their customer first and air shows while their audience interest peaked?  We mere mortals may never know. What is certain is that Mad Men forgot- or ignored- two of the sacred pillars of Branding:

1.   When your Brand succeeds, it no longer belongs to you

Brands reside and thrive in the imaginations of those who consume them.  When that brand succeeds, its consumers- it's fans- assume ownership.  Those who created and run the brand become managers.  Or, to switch metaphors, the consumers own the ship; it the manager's job to steer.  And, true to the metaphor, the larger the ship, the harder it becomes to steer.

2.   Servitude

To serve the brand's 'owners' is to serve the brand.  Like the yellow sun that makes Superman out of Kal-El, consumers imbue a brand with its power. Mad Men draws its power from its viewer base.  They are what put AMC's original productions on the map; they're the reason Matthew Weiner doesn't ask his waitress to recite the dinner specials. But consumers need to be cultivated, fed, and lovingly nurtured.

So easily, so often- brand managers forget that.  The delays-for-ratings, the contract wrangles, the 'split' seasons of Mad Men weren't devised for the viewer's benefit.  Worse, they ignored the viewers' appetite for fresh episodes.

AMC and Weiner, as brand stewards, ignored the rule of servitude, and it cost them a million viewers.  And probably a lot of its momentum.

It's a common tale.

* * * * * * * *

24 January 2014

It Was 30 Years Ago Today...

On Super Bowl Sunday, 24 January 1984, Apple launched the Mac.  And ran this landmark ad- only once.  The director was Ridley Scott, then known for directing 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner'.

And so began the era of the Super Bowl 'event' ad.

I was giving a talk recently, when someone asked the question that's bounced around the inner chambers of marketing for 'lo these 30 years:  "Why is '1984' such a landmark moment in advertising?"  Having spent a lot of quality time examining the campaign, I listened helplessly as three reasons poured from someone in my cranial sub-basement:

TIMING (See also 'C' for 'Cosmic Tumblers')

In the early 80's, the prospect of home computing hurtled unstoppably toward our entire planetary culture.  Early players- including Commodore and IBM- scrambled to satisfy consumer curiosity.  Through the impeccable lens of hindsight, they're dismissed today as clumsy corporate louts.  No one knew it was a high tech phony war; not until ARAPANet evolved into the INTERNET in the 90's that the revolution would truly begin.

The one brand to emerge and evolve through the early birthing times of the 80's, and adapt deftly to the rise of the INTERNET- would be Apple.  '1984' would be its ordination.

In January 1984, it was Apple who articulated this new hunger, promised accessibility to hungry consumers, and most importantly, delivered on its brand promise.


Eric Blair (George Orwell) wrote his famous novel in 1948; it's said that it was the spirit of allegory that caused him to invert the last two digits.  So in 1984 the story was set.

This same computer-ravenous culture, hungry for an 'aha!' moment to consecrate the warnings of the prophet Orwell, searched the cultural landscape for an articulate acknowledgement of the notorious year.

Apple's brand DNA was perfectly (I say again- perfectly) fed people's desire to separate home computing with the lab-coat pocket-protector MIT post-grad computer culture.  The strategic promise of '1984' was creative individualism.  Apple's Mac would lay claim to the creative right-brain.  Orwell's 1984- so timely on that January Sunday, the 'world's eyes' stage of the Super Bowl provided rare, powerful, you-only-get-one-shot-at-this portal to the popular imagination.


When the Chiat/Day team presented the spot to Apple brass, there was a nasty silence.  Then-CEO John Sculley later wrote that only Steve Jobs liked it.

When Sculley and Jobs played it for Apple's Board of Directors, there was a frosty silence.  They- (what's the technical term? Ah yes)-  hated it.  Moreover, they insisted Apple sell back its $1 million minute of Super Bowl airtime.  That's when a technicality saved the spot:  contractually, Apple could only be refunded half of their $1 million.  So the spot aired.  And an industry has fawned ever since.

Jobs, Mac, and Sculley

And the cerise sur le gâteau?  '1984' aired during a mind-numbingly forgettable football game.