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.

Vowel Movement: Sometimes the diamond in your mind is a floater in your toilet.

This tirade is brought to you by the fine people at Blue Nile, purveyors of exquisite jewelry and incomprehensible syntax.

The diamond in my mind? Oh my god, is it malignant?

It Starts With The Diamond In Your Mind.

You were chosen to perform an inimitable role… to be The Best Man. An immensely considered decision. There are no do-overs here. Do this well and everyone is lifted. How will you rise to the call, how will you surpass expectations? Summon your character, speak from your heart… and trust the diamond in your mind.

Can anyone — literally anyone tell me what in Christ’s cinnamon grundle this means?

A friend and former coworker shared this with me a week or so ago on the grounds that it is among the weirdest, most impenetrable writing ever and thus deserved systematic dismemberment. The problem was that I didn’t have the first clue where to start. The bizarre vocabulary? The inappropriate overuse of initial caps? The fact that there is no link to any page that may clarify even a smidgeon more context? What does being the best man have to do with diamonds? Why? WHY?

It’s like someone gave a thesaurus ipecac. And it is the surest sign that this was written by either a) someone with a marketing degree and a self-published book of poems no one will buy, or b) a freelance writer who wrote this under duress because the 15th of the month was coming and no, no, NO, they CAN’T make me write it, I WON’T write it, but damn it, damn it, damnitall that scotch won’t buy itself, FINE I’LL WRITE IT but I will NEVER put my name on it oh god how did it come to this.

Or maybe it was one of those guys who’s been in the country almost long enough to sound American.

(I know. Two Family Guy references in two blog posts. I don’t care for your judging eyes.)

Let’s start with the vocabulary. Apparently being The Best Man is an “inimitable role.” I don’t know what the shit this is meant to mean. “Inimitable” means “not capable of being imitated.” This is stupid. The only criteria for being a best man are a Y-chromosome and a pulse. You’re basically the guy the groom calls “bro” more than all the other guys.

Yes, “inimitable” is a very pretty word. And I get (I think) what BN was going for here: “You, sir, are one of a kind.” Fine. So then just say “You are one of a kind.” It’s concise. It’s self-evident. It appeals directly to the reader’s ego.

Here’s a litmus test for Big Fancy Words: replace the word with a less-fancy synonym and see if it still holds up. “Inimitable” means “matchless.” So what the hell is a “matchless role”? What about being the best man is matchless? The guy’s personality? The job itself? What does this have to do with diamonds? It sounds very pretty and it is completely meaningless.

And then there’s “An immensely considered decision.” This is the best-worst line in all of the catastrofuckery that is this piece of copy. “Immense” means huge, significant, vast. What does it mean to “immensely consider” something? Is it a thought process with the mass of a neutron star?

I think the word they were looking for here was “meticulous.” Or “careful.” Or “deliberate.” Let’s envision some scenarios in which any of these words are synonymous with “really really big.”

  • I love my interior decorator. He’s enormous.
  • We earned a Michelin star by selecting only the most humongous chefs.
  • My girlfriend is so ample, she’s impossible to please.
  • I have an incredibly selective penis.

…that last one actually kind of works. But you get the idea.

You can’t make words mean whatever the fuck you want them to mean. That’s why we have different words to encapsulate different ideas — and even synonyms aren’t perfectly interchangeable most of the time.

The payoff — “It starts with the diamond in your mind” — is its own special kind of bizarre. I get it, it’s a metaphor. Except metaphors only work when they’re actually analogous to something.

In his essay “Nature,” American writer and founding Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

Of course. It’s all so clear now.

Nearly two centuries of elbow-padded, smoke-wreathed scholars have not yet been able to puzzle out exactly what it means to “become a transparent eyeball.” Does it mean the internalization of the external? Some form of proprioceptive awareness relative to nature? The natural and divine working in concert to act upon the self?

I think it means Emerson was tripping on more than transparent eyeballs. And Blue Nile, while you make real shiny carbon, you are no Ralph Waldo Emerson. Non sequiturs are terrific in poetry, but they make for really crappy marketing. Your call to action should probably actually include a call to action; save the New Agey jargon for all the horoscopes I won’t be reading.

The worst part is that Blue Nile is a perfectly respectable brand with a product whose quality speaks for itself. They don’t need gimmicky shit like this, especially when the gimmick doesn’t even make sense. Don’t settle for douchey writing just because you think you can. You can’t. And you shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, ad copywriting does not always facilitate the pursuit of High Art. In fact, at its most clever and elegant, advertising is deceptively simple and broadly accessible — which is a far more stimulating and challenging exercise. Just ask the Old Spice Guy. Now there’s a man who knows a thing or two about diamonds.

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.


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.


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.

The Writing Process, aka I Just Shart a Vlog

I have been wanting to do this for a week now, but for an unemployed person, I have been busy as hell the last week or two.

Also, did you know it’s really, really hard to make a video when your only tools are Audacity and Windows Movie Maker Live on a 5-year-old PC? Because it is motherfucking impossible. Also, I didn’t eat anything. At all. I sat on my couch and toggled things, and dreamed about a world in which I had money and time and a program that doesn’t just arbitrarily decide my audio files don’t work anymore so let’s restart the whole thing and keep our fingers crossed it all cues up in the right order without any data lost because there is no EASY way to cut this or save this or do much of ANYTHING, in fact, and also, could I eat my own fingers? Would those be sustaining and delicious in the right sort of sauce?

…so anyway, I made this idiotic video. There’s like five frames in it where I’m making out with my boyfriend. I don’t know if that works for or against me here.

Even though I’m poking fun (poorly; so, so poorly) at the writing process, it does contain a grain of truth with which most writers will already be familiar: it is impossible to just sit down and goddamn write something good. Or even something bad. Or anything at all.

There are always distractions — especially if you’re the kind of person who has loads of interests and hobbies (e.g. “a good writer”). Sometimes you’re tired, sometimes you’re busy, sometimes you’re just fucking bored with the stupid assignment. Sometimes you just don’t wanna. The litany of excuses is long and glorious, but half-assed or not, they pose real obstacles to the process of actually creating something. This holds true whether you’re a freelancer or have a full-time professional writing gig: words come when they’re damn well ready, and if they’re not damn well ready, you have to drag them out kicking and screaming and digging their obstinate little meat hooks into the orbits of your eyes, your deadlines and desires be damned.

<pause to allow you to go read Wikipedia or jerk off or draw boobs on your meeting notes or whatever>

There is no telling what mood or frame of mind will be most conducive to writing. Obviously, everyone has their own rituals and preferred environments and so on, but sometimes your best efforts don’t amount to anything. If I get a week to write 500 words, you can pretty much count on them all spilling out in the last three hours of the last day of that week. But every once in a while, I’ll get a spark of something even when I’m not supposed to be writing anything at all, and if I’m feeling really diligent, I’ll set that idea aside, and have it ready at an opportune moment — in which case I will feel like a fucking superhero.

What matters is that you get your shit done, and that you at least leave yourself enough time to revise it enough that it doesn’t suck. For me, the second and third drafts of a project are much easier to manage and focus on: the angst is over, the ideas are on the page. Now all I have to do is organize and refine them. Piece of cake.

Your mileage may vary. But I suspect most of you are like me. Don’t be ashamed! We can all be fucked up together.

Now stop reading and go get yourself some ice cream or something. You’ve earned it. All that not-working is hard work, am I right?

Vowel Movement: 5 bullshit words that make me want to hurt you

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

–Mark Twain

I have often been accused of vulgarity for its own sake. I’ve heard, many times, from many people, that “Real writers don’t need to resort to obscenity.”


A real writer appreciates the texture, flavor, and propriety of each word at his or her disposal. The same way there is a difference between “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” between “simple” and “simplistic” or “sense” and “sensibility,” there is a difference between “making love” and “fucking.”

Write business-related copy long enough and one can very easily find oneself falling into the same linguistic patterns. Marketing jargon, like a virus, is insidious: even very intelligent people are susceptible. Why use a small word when you can use a big one? Why bother deviating from established language we all understand? So what if I should have used “thought” instead of “insight”? People know what I meant.

Except this:

You can’t make your audience do 100% of the work and still call yourself a communicator.

Words matter. If you’re going to write copy — for anyone, for any reason — and be taken seriously, you are going to have to do better than regurgitate from Seth Godin’s Guide to Enthusiastic Malapropisms (“Architecture in the acquisition of infrastructure and tools is one of the highest leverage pieces of work a tech company can do”? Is that ENGLISH, Seth? Does your mother keep your best sellers with your Kindergarten macaroni art?).

So let’s start with five common marketing words that make my eyes bleed. Use them if you must — but for god’s sake, don’t use them at all if you can help it.

1. Leverage

My disdain for this word is well-known among my colleagues, friends, and fellow misanthropes. That’s because it represents the worst, most frequent form of abuse in marketing/sales writing: swapping an existing word that works just fine for a bigger, more “professional-sounding” word that is hardly ever apt.

Let’s look at some definitions of this word, courtesy of the fine folks at Merriam-Webster.

leverage. noun. 
1: the action of a lever or the mechanical advantage gained by it
2: power, effectiveness <trying to gain more political leverage>
3: the use of credit to enhance one’s speculative capacity

leverage. verb.
1: to provide (as a corporation) or supplement (as money) with leverage; also: to enhance as if by supplying with financial leverage
2: to use for gain: exploit <shamelessly leverage the system to their advantage>

I am including the verb form only grudgingly. It kind of makes me want to stab my own face.

So. Acceptable synonyms for “leverage”: exploit; parlay; capitalize on; take advantage of. It does NOT simply mean “to use.” I don’t leverage a hairbrush to remove tangles. I don’t leverage a television to watch movies. And no matter how much I want to, I don’t leverage my fist to punish sloppy copywriters.

I am not alone here, by the way. Top Google search results for this subject: “Leverage is NOT a verb!“; “5 Words You Probably Misuse in Business Writing“; and my personal favorite, “Are you stupid enough to use leverage as a verb?” Even Forbes put it to a vote, and “leverage” is a finalist in their Jargon Madness matchup.

Unless you are specifically talking about inertia, stay the fuck away from the word “leverage.” I will find you.

Try these words instead: Use, employ, harness, utilize, apply

2. Architect

Okay, can I just say something here? Marketers? YOU CAN’T JUST TURN NOUNS INTO VERBS BECAUSE YOU WANT TO. I don’t food my lunch. I don’t car to the office.

There are 250,000 words in the English language. 250,000. Depending who you ask, that makes it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. The word you want exists. You don’t have to start mutating perfectly good nouns into diluted, half-assed verbs.

So. Let’s all agree that “architect,” like “leverage,” is a NOUN, and that using it as a verb makes you sound like a pretentious twat.

Try these words instead: Build, make, create, construct, form, manufacture, produce, fabricate, fashion, invent, establish

3. Ideate

My motion graphics editor boyfriend insists this is a perfectly cromulent word used by designers the world over. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary put its first use somewhere between 1600 and 1610. That’s as it may be. But whatever its origins, “ideate” has been hijacked by the marketeratsi (yeah, I can make words up, too) to describe any situation necessitating thought.

I have some pretty specific feelings about this, but I’m gonna go ahead and let Baratunde Thurston express my disdain for me:

Try these words instead: Brainstorm, think up/think of/think about, conceive, plan, envision

4. Actionable

Unless you’re in the CIA and you need legal authority to move on an internationally wanted criminal mastermind, don’t use this word where I can hear you. I don’t have any good reasons. I just goddamn hate it. It’s a stupid word.

Try these words instead: Useful, practical, usable, meaningful, workable

5. Content

This word has come to describe something so vague, you might as well just go ahead and use “stuff” or “things” or “crap.”

Usually when we see this word, it’s in a sentence like, “Are you making the most of your business content?” or “Compelling content will improve your users’ experience,” or “Architect actionable content to leverage your best ideations.” I just saw a tweet that went, “The best content isn’t contingent on time & place. Shelf life matters.”

I have no idea what any of this means.

“Content” can be damn near anything; there is no way to know what it describes without some kind of context. Is it writing? Design? Both? Is it a takeaway, a call to action? Is it an experience? I can refer to the content of a website as easily as I can the content of one’s character. “Content” just means “that which fills a vacuum.” This can be literal or figurative. Whatever it is, it HAS to have some kind of qualifier.

Otherwise, it comes off sounding like a 7th grade book report on a book you didn’t actually read. “I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time. Its content was very impactful. Especially the part where time wrinkled. I gave this book a B+ because it was very good but some of the content was not as good as the other content.” You can’t bullshit a bullshitter, you little twerp. Saturday detention.

Try these words instead: Theme, message, subject matter, essence, significance, text, meaning, purpose, intention

Crackwhores and Call Girls

I am only going to say this once, so pay attention.

Copywriters and social media writers are not the same thing.

One doesn’t really come to appreciate this distinction unless one is an out-of-work copywriter looking for a job in advertising. Obviously, I don’t know any of those people, and if you do, you should throw rocks and rusted cans and old glass at them. Do it. Do it until they cry. Out-of-work copywriters are literally the worst people alive.

But let’s say I knew one, or, God forbid – we’re just pretending, all right, this is a purely hypothetical scenario – I was one. I imagine a typical period of joblessness might go like this:

Me: Well, shit. Really thought I’d make it to five weeks that time. Oh well. Anyone need a writer?
Well-Meaning Friend: Oh! Oh! We do!
Me: O RLY?
WMF: Yeah! We just placed an ad for a Content Strategist!
Me: …oh.
WMF: What?
Me: Nothing, nothing. Tell me some more about the job.
WMF: Well, a Content Strategist collaborates with the marketing and branding team to leverage data mines culled from social media in an effort to facilitate more meaningful customer outreach and retention. AND – this is the best part – you’d be creating original content to evangelize the brand’s potential as a strategic solution that helps meet client goals! ISN’T THAT EXCITING? That’s EXACTLY what you do, right?
Me: I pretty much just arrange threesomes between nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
WMF: But content strategists also have to use words! And you use words! You have so much in common! —what are you doing?
Me: Oh, it’s just the potassium chloride tastes better with bourbon. I call it a “Sweet Release.”

Repeat ad infinitum.

Traditional creative ad agencies – yes, they still exist – will often utilize a mix of copywriters, art designers, and strategists. Writers create the copy of a piece, designers make it shiny, and strategists find ways to promote it/get more work to do. There is a bit of overlap: writers and designers are useless if they create for themselves rather than for their audience; strategists must have the creative vocabulary to understand why a piece, a brand, or a strategy is successful. Typically, however, these are separate but equal roles. I write the commercial, those guys film the commercial, and that chick uses our commercial to find us more commercials to make. What a well-oiled machine.

Thus, the core of a copywriter’s duty lies in coming up with words; any research or collaboration he or she does is in support of this work. As it should be.

Marketing and social media agencies are a different kettle of fish. They’re the kettle of fish where all of the fish are different, but they’re expected to know what each of the other fish do, and must be able to swap jobs with any other fish at any given time. They do a little bit of writing, a little bit of design, a little bit of prestidigitation. Essentially, a social media writer – or a content strategist, or a web content strategist, or an Metabrand Verbalization Ideator, or whatever the hell they’re called – bears a lot of resemblance to what was once thought of as a salesperson: they do not merely create on behalf of a brand, but actively advocate for it as well. They should know the brand. Be the brand. Make sweet, sweet love to the brand.

To put it another way: writers are all whores. But where advertising copywriters are sullen, vulgar streetwalkers who’ll accept drugs in exchange for a handie, social media writers are high-paid escorts who’ll look great on your arm, laugh at your jokes, and cuddle you after anal. Copywriters will do that thing your girlfriend won’t, but we absolutely do not kiss on the mouth. Just give us our meth money and we’ll be on our way.

Ooops! Tina dropped her typewriter! Tee-hee! (That'll be $200, perverts.)

But the crossover between roles that were traditionally distinct – “writer” over here and “salesperson” over there – is increasingly ubiquitous in a world where companies don’t merely sell to customers, they engage with customers. Being articulate, convincing, and relatable are assets to both copywriters and social media strategists. So it follows that if more marketers are expected to behave like writers, writers will be expected to act like marketers.

Except a lot of writers don’t want to be marketers. We do not relish the act of closing a sale. We do not subscribe to the Infographic of the Day. Our degrees are in English, journalism, or Traditional Chinese Theatre, not business administration. In the year 2012, admitting this fact can be the difference between getting a job and borrowing rent money from your parents.

As a result, a lot of very good writers are working miserable jobs in companies to whom they believe they’ve sold their souls – after all, what other choice do they have? By the same token, a lot of sub-par writers – and, let’s be honest, a lot of sub-par thinkers – are entrusted with representing projects, brands, or entire agencies. (But that’s another post.)

I am forced to admit that being “old school” is now the exception more than the rule. Many very talented, driven writers are working fulfilling jobs in social media and/or strategic development (and I can feel their resentful eyes on me and my generalizations). As traditional media and digital media intertwine, I suspect that this will become the standard path for many new college grads seeking careers in advertising. But should we all have to? Is it really so bad to love the craft of writing for its own intrinsic value? Can one legitimately argue that writing only becomes “great,” only becomes “effective,” if it is part of some greater strategy or scheme? What happened to the simple elegance of ethos, logos, and pathos?

It may be that, at the ripe old age of 28, I subscribe to an outdated ideology due for its timely exctinction. Perhaps I should be more adaptable. Perhaps creative writers can only be happy if they’re wildly famous novelists or not-as-famous-but-still-pretty-successful TV sitcom writers, in which case I don’t know why I’m not sitting on huge bags of money right now. But for all my skepticism, I hold out a little hope that there will always be a place for words – just words, and the love of them and all they have the power to do – in advertising.

If so, I will find that job, and I will own the everloving shit out of it.

If not, I’m looking forward to my bright, safe, sterile future behind the glass of a museum display case.

William Bernbach doesn’t need your business.

Several years ago, a manager of mine — the creative director at the agency I worked for at the time — recommended I read a book called The Art of Writing Advertising. I don’t remember the specific circumstances of that exchange, but I’m sure he was, in his artfully gentle way, trying to tell me that I knew fuckall about writing ad copy.

I’m not really in the habit of reading books about writing, marketing, and/or advertising. Of course I’ve read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing and Lynne Truss’ immensely clever Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a charming and sincere love letter to the act of reading. I’m pretty sure I’ve fantasized about a threesome with Strunk & White, whose decades-old manual The Elements of Style should be kept on every writer’s bookshelf next to the dictionaries, thesauruses, and personal lubricant.

But in general, books about books, or books about writing, lose my interest early. I’d like to be able to blame the authors for pontificating, rambling, or being straight-up boring, but I think it’s mostly that I don’t like being told what to do.

I took the battered paperback as a polite gesture of good faith (yes, I know how), but I didn’t really intend to read it and I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy it.

It is with real shame that I confess to you, reader, that even writers — writers especially — judge books by their covers.

The Art of Writing Advertising is pretty much Mad Men in book form. It’s a series of interviews with some of the fathers of modern advertising: William Bernbach, George Gribbin, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Rosser Reeves (upon whom Mad Men‘s Don Draper is based).

I know I SAID "Don," but I was really THINKING "Joan." And so were you.

Even if we don’t all know their names, we all know their work. Reeves thought up “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.” Leo Burnett fathered — in what I can only assume was a series of depraved, interspecies entanglements that would make Zeus proud — Toucan Sam, Tony the Tiger, and the Jolly Green Giant. David Ogilvy crapped out more famous ad copy than you could tattoo on the Old Spice Guy’s pectorals. And he was British.

Each interview is fascinating, educational, and full of insight. And though the book’s first run was in 1965, it’s very readable, very modern. It certainly beats the shit out of most of the blogs and opinion columns in circulation today.

But for all that the book has to offer, there is one interview in particular that sticks out at me. And by “sticks out at me,” I mean “whips out of its trousers with the turgid, lewd confidence of a porn star at a prom.” It comes from William Bernbach, who is well-known for his agency’s ingenious Volkswagen ads. Here is his quote in all its veiny glory:

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that a very, very big prospect once said to me, “What would you say, Bill, if you were told exactly where to put the logo and what size it would be.” I had over $10,000,000 riding on my answer, and I said, “I would say we are the wrong agency for you.” Now, in the long run I think this makes for a very healthy agency because we preserve our point of view. It lets us do the kind of creative work we really believe in and not prostitute that talent for 15%. Because, as I say, in the long run the client forgets how he told you to do something. He only remembers whether it worked or not.

Bold is mine. I wanted to put the whole damn thing in bold, but I suppose that would defeat the purpose of emboldening.

I ask you, reader: does ANYONE do this anymore? I ask because I truly don’t know the answer. I assume that the guys at Wieden + Kennedy, or Ogilvy and Mather, or Saatchi & Saatchi, have the clout and wherewithal to tell prospective clients, “Sorry, we’re not your monkey.” But it seems to me that, by and large, we — agencies, freelancers, anyone who stands to make a buck off someone else — don’t know how to articulate the word “no.” We’re afraid to lose their business, yes. But more than that, I think we’re afraid of confrontation. We’re afraid that people won’t like us. It’s easier to just smile and suck it up than to defend the creative integrity of your work.

That’s how you get shit like this happening:

It’s not that creative agencies don’t have any integrity. As individuals, creatives and the non-creatives with whom they work are more committed to doing a project well than to making an easy buck. No one likes to think of themselves as a corporate shill, not even the actual corporate shills.

But we live in a culture where everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone is a special snowflake with their own point of view and their own line of reasoning. We want to be respectful. We want to be fair. We want to hear each other out — even when it’s clear from the get-go that the guy holding the purse strings is a maniac who wouldn’t know a color wheel if it ran him down in cold blood.

So we don’t fight the good fight. Instead of speaking up in defense of our work, we hit the mute button on the speakerphone, curse, bitch, roll our eyes, and then smile through gritted teeth: “Sure, I think we can make all of those changes by tomorrow. 2 p.m.? Heck yeah! I was HOPING you’d ask for even less time!”

This is demoralizing. It’s counterproductive. And it leads to shitty work that no one would otherwise want to put their names on. If you want to earn a reputation as a doormat, this is the fastest way to do it. See what that attitude does for your employee turnover. See what it does for your schedules. If you don’t draw the line somewhere, you will never draw it anywhere. Yes: in the short term, you get the satisfaction of a check and a pat on the head. In the long term, you are well and truly fucked.

It’s true that we have to pick our battles with clients. Sometimes a fight really isn’t worth fighting — and if creating something is an act of communication, then the client-creative relationship must be one of give and take. I really, really believe that when a client hires you to create something, it’s not just because you have a set of skills that they lack (although you do, and you should leverage the shit out of that). They are paying you for your judgment as well as for your expertise. The onus must be on us, the creatives, to try to educate our clients — gently, diplomatically — about why a given decision makes sense for them. Stand behind your work. If you don’t believe enough in what you’ve made to defend it, then you shouldn’t have put that garbage in front of the client to begin with.

If all else fails, be ready to admit that you might not be the right fit for that client. It’s kind of like sex (yeah, yeah, with me it’s always about sex). You need to lay some ground rules out at the start, and discover each other’s quirks and kinks with plenty of respect. But if your partner doesn’t quit tweaking your nerps when you yell out the safe word, or if their idea of a good time involves you, a leash, AND the dog, then you might want to back away slowly and never speak of this again. (And maybe change your address. Just to be safe.) Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

Otherwise, prepare to be spanked. Hell, maybe you’re into that. But before you invest in a good set of knee pads, take a look at your business card — what does it say? “Creative Professional” or “Daddy’s Little Bitch”?


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