Hyperbole isn’t just my stripper name.

A week or two ago, I found – I can’t recall how now – an article asking whether Amnesty International’s latest print ad crossed a line in the name of its cause. Here’s the image:

Click to embiggen.


Click to embiggen.

The image, of course, evokes the slow-motion, oppressive horror of the Japanese tsunami. And the question the author poses is, in essence: “Too soon?”

Personally? I don’t think so. And I’m not completely convinced the question here is really even relevant.

Imagine a copywriter and designer having this conversation:

“Okay. What we do is we show a picture of a brutal wave ripping an infant from the arms of its mother, its mouth frozen in its last cry, the woman’s eyes wide with the crushing impact of her futility in the face of their mutual doom.”

“Good, good… but what’s our tagline?”

“Reese’s: they’re not just good, they’re killer.”

THAT would be exploitative. Like, really fucked up. But who would actually do that (I mean, other than PETA)?

No one would have this conversation. A writer may think, “This event is relevant and impactful, and there are elements of it that we could use to convey a strong message,” but she’s not likely to be fiendishly rubbing her hands together at the same time.

“It’s not that it’s maliciously exploitative,” I hear you saying. “But it IS insensitive at best.” Is it? Is it really insensitive to acknowledge the horror of a tsunami, an earthquake, a terrorist attack? What’s so wrong about pointing to a picture and saying, “Dear God, wasn’t that awful? Let’s not do THAT again.” Or do we just object because money is involved?

I’ve written for megacorporations and small businesses alike. And it seems that no matter who the client is, they have each uttered some permutation of the phrase, “We want something different.” They don’t. Never believe a client who tells you this. They want exactly the same shit they’ve been selling for 20 years. They just want it in orange instead of teal.

But we — writers, marketers, businesses, people in general — often like to think of ourselves as “edgy,” as risk-takers. We’re genetically predisposed to want to be the prettiest peacock in the menagerie, and of course that carries over to our professional, corporate identities. And we’ve gotten really, really good at convincing ourselves that being earnest is the same thing as being interesting. How many times a week do you read, “This blog entry changed my LIFE,” or “This commercial I watched was the greatest thing I’ve EVER SEEN,” or “This agency’s latest campaign is EPIC.” It didn’t, it wasn’t, and it isn’t. They’re looking you straight in the eye, maybe, but that’s ALL they’re doing.


Well, if it’s an AMAZING content marketing infographic, I’d better prime my diddlefinger and prepare for a hot wet datasplosion!

So we tell ourselves we’re changing the world, we’re fighting the good fight, we’re representing a cause. We want to stand for something. We want to be charitable and do good works. That’s noble. But is it honest?

Think about the agency you work for. Think about the clients you take on. What are you writing about most of the time? Virtualization, probably. Ergonomic patio chairs. Full-tang knife handles. Mulch. You can probably kick around “ROI” like a Thursday stoner with a hacky sack. Maybe those clients are taking their profits and re-investing them in good causes, but that’s not what they were built to do. They were built to sell more shit. Our job is to help them do that effectively and without a lot of questions. That’s fine. It’s a (pretty) honest living. But let’s not have any illusions about what it is.

Thus, it strikes me as disingenuous when my writerly fellows try to convince me of their connectedness, their relevance, their cultural sensitivity… and then go completely silent when something legitimately important lands in their laps. The way some writers go on, you’d think my Twitter feed would be a glut of charities, nonprofits, and political activism. It isn’t. The actors, authors, and scientists I follow have an endless well of opinions and insights. The marketers and social media folk? The people whose JOB it purportedly is to shape our discourse? Silent. Crickets. They love to sell bullshit, but they appear to be dumbfounded by substance. Where’s the outrage, people? You retweet Mashable like it’s manna from Heaven, but our latest mission to Mars just doesn’t do it for you?

Copywriting and/or marketing writing and/or social media writing have become an ouroboros of self-congratulation. Every other press release, tweet, and LinkedIn status update is, “Look how WELL we’re doing! Look at all of the great THINGS we’re making! By golly, we’re changing the WORLD with our enthusiasm!” It doesn’t matter what they’re selling — a product, an idea, or themselves. Just keep it positive. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t crack that manic rictus.

So when I encounter skepticism over a piece of writing or imagery that is actually powerful, that was carefully, specifically crafted to be uncomfortable, you know what my response is?

Fuck you. Let’s see YOU do better, you fucking dipshit tools. You empty suits. You crazed, yippy little shitforbrains.

We NEED to be unsettled. We NEED to be uncomfortable. No, of course it doesn’t feel good to be offended. It doesn’t feel good to be reminded of the things that keep us up at night — or the things that should and don’t. So what? How is feeling disquieted any different than feeling happy or sad or pensive or horny? Disquietude can spur us to action. It can catalyze self-examination more effectively than any other emotion if we are brave enough to look past our own bullshit. The next time something offends you, ask yourself whether you’re offended for the right reasons. Ask yourself whether there’s something you should be paying attention to. And if there is, ask yourself just what the hell you’re going to do about it.

I leave you with this image by Norman Rockwell. It’s called “The Problem We All Live With.”

I saw this picture for the first time when Norman Rockwell’s work came to the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2010. It completely blew my mind.

It depicts, of course, the day 6-year-old Ruby Bridges was integrated into William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 New Orleans, escorted by four U.S. Deputy Marshals. It’s a simple concept elegantly executed. And it’s fucking awful. The first time I saw it, it gave me chills.

To be effective, Rockwell NEEDED to stir the audience’s sense of disgust. By putting us at Ruby’s height, by contrasting her white-clad, straight-backed proud innocence with the vicious chaos of the wall behind her, he absolutely, deliberately manipulates us into feeling repelled. Was he capitalizing on this event to make a point? Yes. Completely. But to do anything less would be to miss the point entirely.

Obviously there is a time and a place for grandstanding. And the line between “frank” and “shrill” is a fine one indeed. Don’t stir shit just to stir it; don’t be “controversial” as just another two-bit marketing tactic. But let’s not kid ourselves about our priorities. We’re copywriters. We’re paid to manipulate people. And if you ever get the chance to write for a cause you believe in, remember: you can be popular or you can be right.

And, P.S.? The arms trade IS a tidal wave of destruction. We should probably look into that.

This is a NSFW post about how advertising headlines should be subtle and not like your dong.

This is a story about a penis.

Not just a penis. Any penis. All of the penises.

I think we all know that penises are gross. The first time you see one — provided it doesn’t already belong to you — is a disarming, intensely weird experience. Them things just don’t look right. They’re not the same color as the rest of the dude. They move around independently, often in open defiance of their male-person’s wishes. Some of them look like they have a seam up the middle, which I guess makes sense when you consider that penises — like 80% of all of the advertising headlines ever written — were just sort of stuck on as an afterthought. The first woman to have sex with a penis did so just so she wouldn’t have to actually look at it anymore. At least you can’t see it while you’re getting the business.

Pretty much, only the skeeziest, most mentally deficient dudes try to woo with their mandangles. This approach, though direct, has an ROI of 0%. None of us ever voted on this. There was no memo circulated of which I am aware. Our species-wide understanding of penile godawfulness is innate, though this understanding diminishes infinitely the closer one gets to the Casual Encounters section on Craigslist.

So let’s examine some stereotypes of Sexy Hot Man Goodness. Offhand, a few adjectives that leap to mind: brooding, rugged, confident. Strong. Taut. Covered in ten gallons of oil. (Apparently manflesh is best when slow-roasted.) Think of every Harlequin romance novel you pretended not to notice, mocking openly with your friends while secretly fantasizing about absconding with one to learn whether anything so shameful and base would actually make you want to diddle yourself in the fifteen minutes your boyfriend takes to crap before coming to bed hang on what was I saying?

Oh, right. None of those covers have wangs on them.

Nor do beefcake calendars of the models someone hired to pose as your city’s Friendly Local Volunteer Firefighters. Nor do fitness magazines with pictures of veiny, scowling, hulked-out caricatures of male humans.

“I’m not satisfied until every vein is forced up against my skin. Look how vascular I am, Brian. If there’s one thing women love it’s a vascular man.”

ACTUAL sexy mags do not do this. Here. Here’s some butt cheeks. Here’s a pair of nice shoulders, those are pretty sweet, aren’t they? Here’s that weird area just below the hips and right above the actual peen, where you can see a little bit of the peen but ONLY SOME and it makes you kind of WANT to pull down his Jockeys to see the rest but not really because you know how gross that would be, don’t you, reader? Because you, you are cleverer than that. And because you’re so clever, you only have to pay us $24.99.

None of them expressly say to you, “Hey, ladies and some of you dudes out there. We’re all about sex, and we feel that only an image of a huge fucking phallis is going to convey to you how much about sex we really are.” You don’t need penis to understand sex. In fact, you’re better off without it.

There is a tendency in marketing and advertising for clients, and even for creatives, to litter the ground with chewed fingernails as they lament, “BUT WHAT IF THE CUSTOMER DOESN’T GET IT.” 30-second, high-level product teasers turn into bloated, unwatchable 7-minute product demos. A quick quarter-page magazine ad with a picture, a headline, and a few sentences inflates into the white paper from hell. “Keep It Simple, Stupid” is thrown by the wayside, yet another bloodied, violated victim of drive-by neurosis. Congratulations: you have now explained your audience into a coma.

By this logic, some of the most beloved slogans, logos, and headlines in advertising history would simply never have existed. Imagine:

Just do what?

“Just Do It”? But what is IT? Why are we doing it? Why should we WANT to do it? Legal says this sounds too sexual. Let’s just go with “Nike Makes Great Shoes for Athletes, But Also For Everyone Else.”

“Taste the rainbow”? Don’t be stupid. Rainbows are the result of sunlight refracted through atmospheric moisture. They are intangible phenomena. You can’t very well TASTE them. Did you even GO to college? This is why our kids are failing.

We don’t want to mislead our customers into believing the LAST drop isn’t good, too.

You get the idea.

It’s bad enough that advertisers are already widely thought of as whores. (Please forget that I may have gently alluded to that same analogy at some point in the distant, nebulous past.) We don’t have to ACTUALLY give up the goods on the first date. It’s never a bad idea to have a bunch of options, sure. Certainly you don’t want to go SO obscure — IN THE NAME OF ART, DAMN IT, ART — that people are more confused than they are intrigued. This is the tightrope we walk.

But I have always maintained, in my long, illustrious advertising career of five years, that we do not give our audiences enough credit. There is always time to spell things out for them later: on websites, in articles, with infographics and call-outs and blurbs and factoids and whatever other expository jargon floats your boat. The POINT of a headline is to draw them to the detailed information. Court your readers. Woo them. Enthrall them.


WHAT’S UNDER THE TOWEL, ISAIAH? FOR GOD’S SAKE, SHOW US WHAT’S UNDER THE TOWEL.

Only then, when they are thoroughly captivated by your mystery, inveigled into your arms by a slow smile, a turn of the head, and the promise of warmth unending — then, and only then, do you whip out your lovestick and give ‘em what-for. They’ll love it. They’ll need it. They’ll BEG for it.

But they will never, ever, EVER ask to see a picture. Ugh. Put that shit away.

Gag me with a radish: 4 words and phrases copywriters should know

So after the wild success of 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you (seriously, people REALLY liked that one), what I learned is that you people like lists of things.

…I don’t mean “you people.” That’s not what I mean at all. I mean, look, some of my best friends are you people.

Awkward.

Anyway, I’m not going to change my name to Listy LaRue or anything — not because I don’t like making lists, necessarily, but more because I think I would get tired of explaining to people that I clearly have no relation to Busty, and thank you SO much for calling that to everyone’s attention, you jerk, now I feel like crap — but I suppose it’s fair to offset my 5-point litany of negativity with a slightly shorter, but somewhat more constructive list of helpful words and phrases that will make you feel more writerly. And will possibly get you laid.

1. Ego Depletion

If I had to pick one phrase to describe the theme of this blog, “ego depletion” would probably be it. I think I stumbled on this one in a magazine article several years ago — no, seriously, an actual magazine — and for a week after, I kept finding little pieces of exploded brain matter in my carpet.

Ego depletion is the idea that willpower is a finite, quantifiable resource linked to our ability — and not just our willingness — to solve problems. It sounds like New Agey, crystal-rubbing bullshit until you think about it for more than 30 seconds. Which is what several scientists did.

They asked a bunch of people to skip a meal before conducting the experiment. The hungry test subjects were then sorted into three groups. The first group, the control, weren’t allowed to eat anything else until the experiment was over. The second group was put in a room with a bowl of radishes, which they were permitted to eat, and a bowl of chocolate chip cookies, which they were instructed to ignore. The third group was also put in a room with radishes and cookies, but were told to eat the cookies and ignore the radishes.

After snickering at the poor bastards through one-sided glass for an hour or two (I assume), the scientists had everyone solve a puzzle, which the participants were told they could quit at any time. Good thing, too, because the damn thing was unsolvable.

Spoiler alert: everyone gave up on the puzzle.

But here’s the thing: not only did the cookie-eaters persist longer than anyone else, the radish-eaters quit before the people who’d had nothing to eat at all. Their brains had already exerted so much effort choking down goddamn radishes that they simply could not deal with some bullshit puzzle. Presumably all the radish-eating participants just flipped the table over and stormed out in a foaming, obscenity-laden rage, while the cookie eaters looked on in baffled surprise, all, “What the hell is THEIR problem?” Then they ate some more cookies.


RADISHES? NO. That is where I draw the LINE. Hold me back, Peter. HOLD ME BACK.

Cookie-eating douchebags.

This is relevant to writers — to anyone who really works on anything at all, I suppose, but I’m not talking about THEM right now — because writing is already a laborious process of start-stop-start-stop. Your brain spins at a few thousand RPM for short bursts, winds down just before overheating, and then spins back up again. Even if all you do is sit in a chair all day, you go home feeling exhausted. This goes double for when you have a particularly thorny problem that needs solving, like condensing a 500-word script into 50, or searching for that one critical word you HAVE TO HAVE and just cannot frakking remember (fun fact: last night, I struggled for 10 minutes to remember the phrase “ego depletion”).

A lot of writers deal with this by trying to eliminate distractions like eating or taking a dump. Suddenly it’s 4 p.m. and not only are you tired, you’re hungry, bitchy, AND doing the awkward speed-waddle of the turtleheaded. You are no good to anyone like this. The copy you’ve been slaving over for the last five hours probably isn’t any better for your efforts. Get up. Walk around. Work on something else for a while. Eat a freaking cookie. Your brain will continue to work on the problem in the background, and in the meantime you won’t have a coronary in the middle of a cube farm.

2. Semantic Satiation

Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork. Fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork fork.

Doesn’t even look like a word any more, does it?

Semantic satiation. Now you know.

Fork.

3. Defenestration

“To defenestrate” is simply “to throw from a window.” Seriously. There is a word just for that. Apparently enough people have been murdered this way that the relevant Wikipedia article has an entire section on “Notable defenestrations in history.” TRY to read it without laughing. I DARE you.

It doesn’t have anything to do with writing, really, but it will make you sound cool at parties.

4. Epistemology

I use this one a lot, actually, and I realize that this places me pretty high on the Pretentious Scale of Pretentiousness. But it came up so often in my college English classes that eventually I was forced to cave to my professors’ evil whims and, like, learn it.

Put simply, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. I can’t think or read about this particular branch of philosophy too much without slumping over in a stupor, but the concept plays a vital role in the life of a successful, well-rounded copywriter.

If you work in advertising, you are going to encounter brands and products you know jack diddly about. It is not at all uncommon to be asked to write about engineering, computing, or other highly technical bits of esoteric jargon you could have gone the rest of your life not knowing. Not only will you be asked to represent this stuff, it’s expected that you will do so with confidence and authority.

Now, you COULD do what you did when cramming for a test in college: go on a caffeine-fueled research bender, jamming as much data and background into your cerebrum as physically, emotionally, and mentally possible, then purge it all the instant the project is approved and you can safely wipe your hands of it forever. No one will be the wiser, and you will regain all the mental space you had allotted for more benign information, like what’s on TV Thursday night or how to chew your food.

You could do that. And sometimes, you will have to do so out of necessity (though probably to the detriment of your ego; see Item 1, above).

OR you could — stay with me here — actually try to hang on to that information for future reference.

No, I know. It hurts me too, Jackie Chan.

You never, never, never know when you are going to need to know anything about anything. Astronomy, biology, fluid dynamics, how to change a tire, what a monotreme is, the difference between latitude and longitude, em dashes versus en dashes, what “mauve” looks like, why Alanis Morissette doesn’t have the first clue what “irony” is. There is a reason why the most successful writers in the world have traditionally been some smart motherfuckers: excellent writers are excellent observers. Period.

But as important as it is to read, read, read, read, and visit museums, and watch educational television, and try a gajillion different hobbies, and go out in the world and just look at things for a while, sorting and retaining that information is so much easier if you have some idea of what knowledge is and where it actually goes. What knowledge do you use most often in your professional writing versus your personal writing? When and where did you learn how to write — how much is innate and how much is learned? How can you continue to evolve as a writer — what knowledge do you lack, and how will you know where to get it? Practice? Study? Failure? Do you ever find yourself emulating other notable writers? How flexible or intractable is your style? Does it change to suit each client, or do clients come to you because of what you bring to the table?

Whether you come up with any actual answers, the act of thinking about these questions — of thinking about thinking — can yield some very real insights about your identity and methodology. And when the act of thinking itself is interesting, going out and stuffing your skull with all kinds of random shit you may or may not ever actually NEED is just that much more rewarding. Plus, you know: I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that vocabulary is directly tied to curiosity. More nuanced, engaged thinkers just have more shit to say.

So even if your next assignment is to sell a vacuum cleaner — no, not a Dyson, you’re not that lucky; I mean some random-ass, knock-off brand vacuum cleaner — try not to think of it as a chore (har har). Think of it as an opportunity to learn something new. You don’t have to get excited about it, that’s just fucking weird; it always freaks me the hell out when people splooge themselves over selling things. But try not to think of yourself as being above new knowledge because it seems trivial or useless. It’s good enough to pay the bills, after all.

And if you can’t manage that, go throw a radish cart from a window. Radish. Radish radish radish radish radish god what am I even doing with my life.

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