That’s what it takes for movies to work.
Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.
We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”
We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)
Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – ”Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.
We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.
Not so in marketing.
In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)
Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)
How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.
No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.
We want to be entertained.
Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?
The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force“ ”¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]
Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]
Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)
Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.
I won’t work for free, either.
As soon as I read the wonderful New York Times piece by Tim Kreider, I knew I had to share it: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!
It’s gratifying to see these facts go “national.” And to see The New York Times bring to light how often the services of professional writers, illustrators and artists are undervalued, or not valued at all.
This Web site is almost four years old and from day one we’ve been writing about the dark side of the Internet, how it has opened competition for creative services to the globe.
Instead of raising the level of quality, the opposite occurred: a drastic lowering of pay levels (lower than could possibly be imagined) along with dropping quality down the toilet.
Instead of seeking professional services directly, many clients now seek out the “online resources” that pit professionals and pretenders against each other, bidding on far fewer projects than there are project seekers. As more and more clients seek the lowest-cost providers online, the rate of pay for professional writing has dropped well below the minimum wage. And the reason for that should be obvious: the third world is in there bidding as well. (Good luck with that.)
I doubt that it’s ever been more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. Although, in the 1890s, the French writer Jules Renard said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
(He also wrote, “Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”)
Just say no.
Some of the worst inventions to spring up in this rapacious, virtual, electronic world are content mills, farms and scrapers. Writers are either paid peanuts for original articles (e.g., $10-15 for 1500 words), or our work is stolen and “re-purposed.” The polite Internet term for this form of plagiarism is “mash-up.”*
So did we spend all those years in school and college and university learning and perfecting our craft to work for free? Or to work for one-quarter the hourly rate of the uneducated masses who say “would you like fries with that?”
Sadly, we writers undermine ourselves and each other every time we accept low-paying projects. Those of us who are professionals are no less professional than attorneys or plumbers or dentists. Good luck trying to get any of them to work for $2 per hour.
Part of the problem – perhaps the largest part – as Kreider wrote, is that everyone thinks they can write. That is, until they attempt to produce a coherent marketing piece, or a truly compelling ad. That’s when the fecal matter usually hits the air rotation device.
The services professionals provide do more than turn out carefully crafted messages and marketing – they help clients look more professional. If clients can’t understand that and still prefer to go for “the lowest bidder,” then vaya con Dios.
Here is Kreider’s description of the current state of affairs: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”
This is the phase of history in which we find ourselves. This is the point in the evolution of the Internet in which we are attempting to ply our craft while putting food on our tables. These are, the best of times and the worst of times.
*[Copyscape can help you learn if your content has been stolen. Simply drop in the URL for your original work into Copyscape's search field. And if you find out your work has been copied, visit this page: blog.kissmetrics.com]
Yes, English is going to hell.
The original meaning of “idiot” was derived from the Greek term for ”individual,” which came from the Greek for “private person.” When someone was called an “idiot,” way back when, it meant: “one who keeps to himself” – neither a gossip, nor someone interested in politics. How it came to mean “stupid” or “moronic” is a history lesson in the devolution of language.
Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those and many other words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.
Why? Because of the devolution of language. The group that defines itself as “descriptivists” (essentially, “linguists”) will disagree. They’ll tell you that nothing is devolving, merely changing with usage. That change is inevitable, they will tell you. Because when usage becomes common, it enters the dictionary.
It turns out that as a “prescriptivist” (someone who cares about the rules of grammar and usage) I am as disturbed as are nearly all other professional writers, editors and proof-readers by the combination of laziness and ignorance that degrades both communication and understanding.
Take “idiot.” You don’t need to look any further for proof of the devolution of language than the astonishingly altered meaning of that innocent word.
The homonym trap.
Homonyms are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. Often, all it takes is changing one letter in a word to alter its meaning. Drastically. How can we possibly expect to be taken seriously if we use the wrong word, with the wrong meaning, in our writing?
Want some examples?
Accept, except / affect, effect / allusion, illusion / capital, capitol / climactic, climatic / compliment, complement / elicit, illicit / emigrate, immigrate / lead, led / principle, principal / than, then / there, their, they’re / to, too, two / your, you’re.
The point is that language can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can illuminate. It can educate. It can paint pictures in the mind. If the person wielding that tool has full control of it.
[update: 10/2/2013 NY Times photo caption: "Tim Hodges, a police officer at Jacksonville International Airport, lead a bomb-sniffing dog around a terminal on Wednesday, the day after the facility was shut down by a false bomb report." Clearly that "lead" should have been "led," an absurdly common homonym error. Alas. Full Story]
Can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten that depressingly incorrect usage in an e-mail response.
It seems that if words sound similar a great many people assume that it’s all right to use either. It’s not.
Speaking of “all right,” there’s really no such word as “alright.” It’s nonstandard English. The American Heritage Dictionary advises “it’s not all right to use alright.” Similarly, “all together” and “altogether” have distinct meanings – they are not the same. Neither are “alternately” and “alternatively.” Or “beside” and “besides” – they are simply not the same.
“Affect” and “effect” are in no way similar. And neither are ”allusion” and “illusion.” “Allusion” is a noun that means “an indirect reference,” as in “His speech made allusions to something that fascinates me.” “Illusion” is a noun that means “something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.”
Look it up, please.
We’re now fully in the electronic age. And that doesn’t just mean computers and smart phones. It means every form of communication. Words are flung at us from every direction because people really are trying to get messages through.
Words matter. What’s a movie worth without a good story? How effective is an ad without a relevant message?
But the ease with which words are tossed around may have a great deal to do with the increasing mis-use and misunderstanding of words. It’s just so easy to text and post. But, by the same token, it couldn’t be easier to look up a word before flinging it into the electronic universe.
Meaning matters. And so does intent. If you’re trying to get a point across and use the wrong words to make your case, your case falls apart.
copyblogger makes the same case and is well worth the read.
Save the language. Use a dictionary.
Some words really need to be looked up to be sure of their meaning because they look and sound nearly identical, even though they are not. “Discreet” and “discrete” are not two spellings of the same word, they are distinct (discrete) from each other. “Discreet” is an adjective that means “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions,” as in “Her discreet handling of the situation put him at ease.” On the other hand, “discrete” is an adjective that means “separate or individually distinct,” as in “Each firm is a discrete entity.”
Same with “bimonthly” and “semimonthly.” Totally different meanings. Along with “cite” and “site.” And please, please look up “complement” and “compliment” before dropping a word bomb into your text. Really. Just type “dictionary” into your favorite search engine and multiple choices will arise.
This could go on for quite a while. For example, how “few” and “less” are entirely different. As are “figuratively” and “literally.” Along with “historic” and “historical.” ”Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not the same. And neither are “elicit” and “illicit.” “Elicit” means “to draw out,” while “illicit”means something unlawful. “Farther” and “further” are, in fact, different words with different meanings and different uses. “Farther” means “to or at a more distant point.” “Further” means “to or at a greater extent or degree.”
I guess I should go no farther … except to say that I’d happily be called an idiot … in the original sense and meaning of the once noble word.
This really bugs me.
There are things that bother all of us, gnaw at us in small ways, like gnats. It’s like that for me whenever I hear grammatical laziness – grammatical gaffs that are allowed to stand, or (horrors) used intentionally. They’re buzzing around, diving for our ears, making us swat at the air around our heads.
You want an example? All right. Here’s an example of the collapse of grammar as we know it, in none other than The New York Times: “But a cup or three of coffee ‘has been popular for a long, long time,’ Dr. Freund says, ‘and there’s probably good reasons for that.’”
See that? That godawful mis-use of “there’s?” That’s what drives me nuts. “There’s” can only be a contraction of “there is” (not “there are”) so it can only ever be used with a singular subject.
“There’s good reason” – fine. ”There’s good reasons” – the opposite of fine.
That mis-use, which occurs with horrifying frequency everywhere (TV, movies, media) also popped up with stunning regularity in one of my favorite shows, “House, M.D.” I couldn’t understand that because Hugh Laurie, the show’s British star, must know better. (I mean, his best friend is Stephen Fry, after all – the guy who did this.) I could only assume that he wanted to sound more “American.” Adding insult to injury.
“House, M.D.” was a dazzling concept: take the Sherlock Holmes stories and make them medical mysteries. Wilson was Watson. Cuddy was a female version of Inspector Lestrade. And House was Holmes … get it? They even made House’s apartment number 221B. Great show. Except for the grammar thing, and how often Hugh Laurie said things such as ”There’s lots of things this could be…” “There’s all kinds of ways to treat that…” “There’s people waiting…” Etc.
Back to Dr. Freund. Let’s say you’re Dr. Freund … or that I am … if I were I’d be wishing that the NY Times journalist who interviewed me had bothered to correct my spoken faut pas so that it didn’t appear that I had a “poor grasp of grammar,” to put it politely, no matter how good my medicine.
What do I mean by poor? Bad grammar, bad usage. What makes it bad? It’s entirely incorrect, by what we’re taught, when we’re taught grammar, and by mutual agreement on singular and plural usages, furloughs notwithstanding.
Please, make them stop.
I know I’m not alone in believing that we should, as often as practical and acceptable, correct grammar, spelling and usage. (Since it’s going to hell faster than an ice cube in a hot oven.)
And I know that I’m not alone in feeling that we’re witnessing an accelerated pace of acceptance of poor language, poor grammar, poor usage – in many instances simply for the sake of hipness, coolness, with-it-ness. How fatuous it all seems.
If you were writing dialogue in a story, I doubt you’d ever write. “he said u should phone him @ home.” Yet, that there is what many of our younger planetary citizens are doing. How long before it’s “literature” being taught in schools. How long before the Oxford Dictionary accepts “u” as a form of “you?”
I think we ought to get things “right” before we get them “wrong.” The fact that we can decipher what was written should in no way excuse how it was written. Laziness of mind is laziness of mind. The more we excuse it, the more it grows, like some ancient Japanese movie monster.
Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists.
It turns out there’s a term for those of us who worry about such things. I’m, apparently a prescriptivist. Had no idea what that even meant until someone pointed out, quite recently, in an online discussion, that “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are the names given to the two opposing views on grammar rules.
I had, it turned out, been arguing with descriptivists, with whom there’s no arguing, since they believe less in grammar than they do in “usage.” Descriptivists, it turned out, are linguists first and grammarians second. To them, if the mis-use of a word or phrase (such as “there’s”) occurs with more frequency than the grammatically correct way, then it becomes the rule. (See that black hole of grammar, there?)
The problem that occurs for us professional writers and editors is that without a set of rules to follow and point to, anything goes. And that’s not good for either our professions or our work.
All right, I’ll admit it. I live for this stuff – we are, after all, paid for it. What does it mean to be a writer or editor? It’s all about judgement calls. And how can you make them if you have no basis for judgement?
The New Yorker did a piece on this, which, while quite good, misses one of the greatest (as in largest) points about language. The article describes élitist attitudes, but in its self-same élitism misses why correct and clear language is important. Most of us who became writers were the ones who cared as children when the rules were being taught to us. It meant something to us to master words and grammar. It was even exciting. Because we knew those were the keys to becoming one of the people we so much admired: writers.
How could you be one of those amazing story-tellers without being able to write in amazing ways.
Are we judgemental? You bet. When I meet someone who says, “My wife and me like to go camping,” I know we’re not likely to get along, and not just because I hate camping.
Language is more than communication – and clarity of communication is what the rules are really about, not élitism – it’s literally what defines a culture.
There are mistakes all over the place showing what kind of anarchy occurs when rules are either not known or ignored. Network World printed a doozy. ”Snowden seeks asylum from several countries including China, Russia.” To my mind that could only have been ”Snowden seeks asylum in several countries including China, Russia.” Knowing why is what the whole game is about.
If somebody is writing a letter to a friend, or speaking in a café, I don’t give a damn about grammatical structure and correctness. However, when major publications are allowing these kinds of errors, the apocalypse can’t be far behind.
We were re-watching “Michael Clayton” (an astounding movie) and I cringed when Clooney’s character’s young son was introduced, because at that moment he’s running around his mother’s apartment, shouting, “Mom, where’s my cards?” Several times. Ugghh.
So what about that? A major motion picture seen by innumerable people. What ethical boundaries are crossed when the choice to “accurately render an eight-year-old” risks further imprinting those who didn’t pay quite enough attention in grammar, junior and high school with horrible grammar?
It would seem that, today, fiction is more literate than reality. We never watched “The West Wing” when it was on network television but have been watching it via streaming. It’s amazingly literate, and clearly shows how much literacy matters. Would that it were so in reality.
When aspiring writers attend classes or workshops, they’re often advised to sit in a café and merely listen. When you do, you will hear two things: people typically do not speak in complete sentences, and people typically do not speak with perfect grammar.
The point of the exercise is to guide hopeful novelists toward more realistic dialogue, since hardly any of us will say: “While you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich for yourself, could you please make one for me, as well?” We’d most likely say, “Make me a sandwich, too.” (Despite the fact that the only grammatically appropriate response is “Abracadabra, you’re a sandwich.”)
What we learn in meetings.
Relatively early in my advertising career I was in a meeting with a client, an art director and an account executive. (No, that’s not a set up for a bar joke.) The art director and I presented the creative work for a year-long campaign, and then the account executive presented the total costs.
“Five hundred thousand dollars?” the client wailed. “I could hire ten sales people for that!”
The account executive shot right back, “Yes, you could. But how many prospects could each of those ten sales people get in front of in a whole year? One hundred? Two hundred?” I was listening as intently as the client. “This campaign will be seen by at least ten thousand people from day one and that number will grow exponentially with each exposure in your media plan.”
I was very impressed. No defensiveness about justifying the costs of advertising. No back-pedaling on what we’d presented. No offers of scaling things back. Just the facts. And the facts were enough. I’d learned a big lesson: how advertising can be more effective than feet on the street. (And, by the way, the bigger the budget the less resistance we usually encountered. Million-dollar TV buys were treated like “just another day at the office” by the big boys.)
I had learned the concepts of advertising: why ads we need to be attention-getting; why we write intriguing headlines that pull readers through the copy; why we need a pay-off at the end. But I hadn’t been exposed to the gritty facts of how to sell a campaign, or how clients sometimes look at marketing as a choice between spending money on ads versus sales people and trade shows until I started going to presentations.
I also learned, along the way, that advertising sets the stage for the sales team. If a member of the target audience saw an ad and then asked for a sales call, you had a very warm lead as opposed to an ice cube.
What we learn from each other.
These were not lessons I’d been taught along the way to becoming a copywriter. I learned them in meetings, the same way the clients learned what a good ad agency could bring to the table. Every meeting taught me something new about the client’s perspective and the purpose of advertising, as well as the smarts of the people I worked with. (People in ad agencies are some of the smartest I’ve ever met.)
I also learned how account executives could be crucial to the creative process – from making sure the creative team had all the input it needed to making sure the media plan fit the overall objectives. In some agencies, there was a cold war between creative departments and their account teams. The account teams in those agencies were treated like messengers and order takers. In the agencies where I worked account executives were as crucial to the process of achieving clients’ objectives as copy and art were. We’d even invite account executives into our offices to show them rough concepts and get feedback.
The job of creative teams is to “blue sky” ideas. We get the creative brief and the marketing strategy, then we take off. We look at what the competition is saying then we push the envelope as far as possible. It’s the job of the account team to bring us back down to earth – if necessary. As long as our work was on strategy and achieved the marketing goal, they were fine. But if the work was off-target in any way, they pointed that out. It was often incredibly helpful.
What we learn from clients.
I was part of an agency team that was invited by a client – a computer networking products wholesaler – to meet with one of his primary manufacturers. The very large, northern California maker of hubs, routers and switches (one of the top three) had set up all-day presentations of upcoming products for our mutual client. At the end of each presentation, the client asked the engineers one or both of these questions: “How will this work with the current products in the field?” or “How will this work with the last new product we were shown?” To a man, each engineer answered, “Not really sure. That’s not our department.”
The client, who rarely showed what he was thinking, finally erupted at the end of that day: “How the heck are we supposed to sell this stuff if you can’t explain to us how all the pieces work together?”
That was another incredibly valuable lesson: the client’s pre-advertising perspective. Typically, the client would present us with the products we’d be promoting and he would tell us a cohesive story about how those products made specific improvements in network performance or reliability. Clearly, our client didn’t merely invent those benefit stories – they came from the manufacturers of the products he was wholesaling. If the manufacturer hadn’t figured out how to tell a cohesive product story, our client’s sales people wouldn’t have one … and neither would we.
What we learn along the way.
Good clients ask good questions. Good ad agencies have good answers. Really good ad agencies truthfully say when they don’t have an answer and promise the client they’ll research it and come back with answers. Seeing that in action taught me that the popular truism that “all ads are b.s.” was not, in fact, based in fact. Good clients provide real benefit stories to their agencies. If they don’t know how to do that, good ad agencies know how to draw out those benefit stories in order to differentiate the client’s product or service. That was often my job, as copywriter. (It takes good input to have good output.)
As we move up the ladder in ad agencies, we become the people who answer client questions. What we learn along the way prepares us to have real answers based in fact. Because it’s our turn in the hot seat when the client asks, “Why will this work better than that?” we have to be ready with answers. That’s another critical thing we learn along the way: you don’t just prepare creative work for clients, you prepare to be challenged on the work you present.
And when we move on to becoming independents, then we have to have all the answers to all the questions. “What’s the best media for us?” “Why is an ad better than a brochure?” “Why isn’t our current brochure good enough?” “Why do we have to run ads more than once?”
I was taught quite a bit along the way. That’s why I have most of the answers to most of my clients’ questions.
The marketing automat.
With the introduction of the Mac (January 24, 1984), art direction and design changed forever. This was as big a change to civilization as the introduction of firearms. Suddenly, anyone with a Mac had a slew of tools for creating marketing and promotional materials that used to be the exclusive domain of designers and art directors.
But, to the trained eye, their work was always obvious. They were locked into a grid system, and it showed. (You can see evidence of that in this Web site, too.) The computer could only do its work within specific parameters. A blank page wasn’t really blank – it had to have defined column widths, borders and other elements that gave everything the computers produced a certain sameness.
Then something else happened. Anyone with a Mac (and not long after, anyone with a PC and the right software) could claim to be “a designer.” The automat had come to marketing and advertising. When Web sites entered the landscape – bringing design full-circle, from being created on computers to being delivered on computers – developers, coders and programmers were saying, “hey, I can do this, too.”
But they all quickly learned that technology and software could only take them so far. To be “creative” means to create something out of nothing, something captivating, fascinating, compelling. At multiple points in the creative process, one’s judgement is the critical element, not CSS (cascading style sheets), plugins, widgets or themes – those are merely the tools in the toolbox.
Our brains are the sexy thing. And our creative judgement is what sets us (writers, art directors and designers) apart from everyone else.
“Hey, I can do that.”
We are indeed in a brave new world where “design” has morphed into “build,” and “build” means software rather than the trained and educated aesthetics of true architecture.
My background is advertising. I’m a writer – not a designer or developer. But 80-90% of the business I get these days is Web sites. I need to work with designers to create those Web sites, because design is a critical element when creating a Web site. Anything “creative” needs a concept and a concept is something quite apart from “a build,” it’s a marriage of design and copy – images and words blended in such a way that a particular feeling is conveyed.
Let me say that again: a concept is a marriage of art and copy – graphics and words – to deliver a message. That goes for movies, brochures, ads, billboards … and Web sites.
The Web is strewn with ill-conceived bastard children of techies who have no clue about “design.”
(There, I’ve said it. And, yes, I feel better.)
What’s the point of all this “creative” work that we do if not to pass on a message? The message is not only key, it’s critical. It’s the reason we’re paid to do what we do. It’s why clients and corporations want marketing materials and Web sites. They want to get the message out.
So, what happens when bad or entirely missing creative judgement comes into play? The message is obscured, or perhaps buried. People – especially the target audience – may miss the message entirely. Then what? Why was the work done? Why was the money spent?
Let the buyer beware.
Sadly, this is where things get tricky. How do clients know they’ve chosen the right creative team? They often don’t until the work is done. This is no different than discovering we’ve chosen the wrong doctor. In both cases one might go through considerable physical pain and even agony before realizing that the person one has chosen has neither the skills nor the know-how to truly help us.
The best advice I can offer is: “look at the work produced by the people you’re considering and ask for references.” That’s the same approach we’d use when selecting an attorney – have they done the kind of work we need done? What’s their track record? What do their previous clients say? And creative services professionals are consultants, just like lawyers and physicians. The same rules apply, in how you choose them and pay them.
Even though technology seems to have made ”amateurism” the new “creative,” don’t be fooled. Just because someone produced a YouTube video doesn’t mean they’re a film-maker. And just because someone may have produced a Web site it doesn’t mean that they’re a designer, a real designer. Our instantaneous, ubiquitous displays of amateurism have engendered the “heck, I can do this stuff” attitude. So it comes down, again, to the centuries-old caveat emptor warning – let the buyer beware.
All of this comes back to our media-centric existence. The Mac, back in 1984, led inevitably to smart-phones that have also contributed to the absurd belief that anyone can be a photographer or movie-maker. Somehow we’ve gone from a society that dreaded being invited to someone’s home to view vacation slides and films to a society that can’t get enough of watching other people’s boorish attempts at movie-making.
What it all says is that we are in an age of rampant amateurism. And I have no idea when it will change or get better. The Web is growing exponentially along with the tools we use to create messaging. Everything is in flux. It’s up to brand and marketing managers to protect their marketing by choosing true professionals. And I fervently hope that they do.
Clarity is everything.
If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.
There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.
A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.
I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.
Imitation is for amateurs.
People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)
It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.
Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)
The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.
A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”
Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”
Be brief, be clear, be compelling.
When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.
I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”
That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”
The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.
Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”
That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.
Write for them, not you.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.
That means, as so many writers have written about, “killing off your little darlings.” That, too, is what it means to be a writer.
Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.
Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”
Marketing dollars predict the economy.
Few economic barometers are more accurate than marketing expenditures. During every downturn, ad agencies and independent creative consultants suffer the most. That’s because marketing and advertising budgets are the first to get cut when profits are down.
And that, in the long-run, is the worst thing that any business can do. If your competition has pulled the plug on advertising, wouldn’t that be the best time to promote and establish your brand? You can’t get bigger bang for your buck than when the competition has left the field.
But back to the topic. Nothing is as sensitive to economic conditions as marketing dollars. As soon as there’s any kind of downturn, marketing budgets are cut. It happens so often because so many companies wrongly view marketing as an optional, rather than an on-going, business expense.
Politics undermine marketing dollars.
Marketing and advertising are the life-blood of a capitalist economy. They’re how companies survive and thrive. They’re how jobs are created and how we make money flow. But they stop when the economy stops the flow of money.
During various Republican administrations, dating back dozens of years, “trickle-down economics” was the big catch phrase. It never worked. Because the wealthy seemed to believe that it would mean watching their wealth trickling away. (So short-sighted.)
The second President Bush gutted the incredibly healthy economy he inherited from President Clinton and the economy still hasn’t recovered. (Don’t get pissy – it’s a historical fact. Biggest surplus in history turned into the biggest deficit … and, no, that surplus was not thanks to Republicans. Not.)
Ever since President Obama took office in 2008, Republicans have blocked everything they possibly could that might have turned things around … and then had the gall to blame Democrats for a sluggish economy. All one has to do is look at voting records and filibusters to see who’s helping and who’s obstructing. It’s right there.
Our current state of affairs can actually be traced to California’s first actor-turned-governor. According to the Congressional Budget Office, from the time Ronald Reagan became president through 2007, income at the top 1% (adjusted for inflation) increased by 281%. Compare that to the paltry 25% increase for the middle 20% of Americans during the same 26-year period.
As mentioned above, when President Bush took office in 2001, he was handed a huge surplus by President Clinton. Bush claimed he was giving that surplus back to the American people. But guess who it actually went to … that top 1%, not to the country as a whole. Bush (Texas’ gift to the world) added more than $3 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. The result? The wealthy continue to count their money while average Americans continue to hope for some. That’s politics.
How we got into this mess.
The Reagan administration (those wonderful folks who brought us “Reaganomics”) is most closely associated with “trickle-down economics” even though the concept was around for decades before. Paul Krugman,* the Nobel prize-winning economist, wrote in The New York Times (during the second Bush years) about the runaway inequality that began under Reagan and continued under George W. Bush: “When the structure of the U.S. economy had to compete worldwide without policies respecting workers is where one should look to understand what’s wrong with today’s economy. That began under Reagan and Reagan alone. And Bush has driven that point of view to the limit and mortgaged the future for the benefit of a few in the process.”
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the U.S. tax system has never been the same. So-called “supply side economics” – the promise that if we drastically cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans they will create jobs – simply didn’t work. It may have looked good on paper, but it never made it into reality. Another Republican, the first President Bush, George H. W. Bush, perceptively called supply side economics “voodoo economics” and talked about its weaknesses.
Here’s what supply side economics ultimately achieved: the wealthy took their tax cuts, but instead of creating jobs in the U.S. they took advantage of weak trade policies and created jobs in other countries – China, India and Pakistan. Why? To make even more profits. For every union worker in the U.S. looking for $20 dollars per hour there were people in other countries willing to do the same work for $1.
Those Americans who owned stock in those off-shoring companies were thrilled. Profits were higher than ever before. They simply never looked down to see that they had shot themselves in both feet.
What Reagan’s own say.
David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in a 2010 article titled Four Deformations of the Apocalypse: “The day of national reckoning has arrived. We will not have a conventional business recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing. Under these circumstances, it’s a pity that the modern Republican Party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach – balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline – is needed more than ever.”
Currently, while U.S. companies continue to pay criminally low wages in developing countries, seeking obscene profits by avoiding paying American workers, bonuses at those companies for C-level staff are reaching record highs. It’s so obvious what would happen if those jobs were brought back to the U.S.: workers would invest their pay back into our economy. Those short-sighted, profit-centric companies not only benefit from cheap labor while hurting the U.S. economy, they also use Republican-written tax codes to add even more profits. And they actually receive tax cuts for creating jobs in other countries. (See comment above re: shooting oneself in both feet.)
Too bad it’s turned into “us” vs. “them.”
President Obama has stated he wants to end tax cuts for companies that ship jobs overseas and instead give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs in America. (The Republicans are howling. Can you hear it?)
After President Bush took office in 2001 and handed more than $3 trillion in tax cuts to his buddies, he also took us to war in two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. spent trillions of dollars in Iraq (which, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11) while private companies such as Halliburton reaped profits. In addition to thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost, the U.S. taxpayer had to pay the cost of both wars. That’s you and me. While jobs were scarce, the economy sucked and marketing dollars were scarcer and scarcer.
President Obama is on-track with his campaign promises to bring home troops. But if a Republican takes over the White House in the near future, they’ve made it clear that they will happily go to war with Iran. As of now, the majority of American people have spoken and made it clear that we don’t want to start another war, because the cost in both dollars and human life is just too great.
Tax breaks for the wealthy made us broke.
During the Reagan administration, the wealthy saw their tax rates drop from 70% to 28% within eight years and union workers found themselves without jobs. When the ill-advised Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 was signed into law, banks found it far easier to do business … and hurt the American people in the process. Allowing big banks to merge and set their own interest rates was a rare gift. The banks and Wall Street found it far easier to make money while we, the American people, struggled.
With tax cuts and deregulation on the move, Reagan tripled the national debt, raiding the Social Security trust fund in an attempt to cover up the massive loses. As the years went on, Wall Street reform was never seriously on the table. When the economy started to pick up again in the 1990s, President Clinton raised taxes on the most wealthy, bringing in the revenue needed for the government to function. Then, in November of 1999, with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, President Clinton buckled and agreed to repeal the Glass-Steagall act that had helped keep big banks from overtaking the markets.
Less than a decade later the economy collapsed. Too much power had been left in the hands of too few. In 2010, President Obama signed the ”Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” into law. It helped consumers and began putting financial responsibility back on the big banks. The bank bail-out of 2008 angered the American people. The Wall Street reform bill put an end to future tax-payer bailouts of big banks. The passage of that bill was a start, but we need to do much more to get back to where we need to be.
Me, me, me? Or, us, us, us?
Do you like well-maintained roads kept in drivable condition? How about being able to dial 9-1-1 for police and fire protection, or an ambulance? Good public schools? Decent hospitals? Rapid emergency services? A postal service? Those are just some of the services supported by taxes. There’s a reason we pay them – taxes keep society running. Taxes keep us safe and on an even keel. (In more enlightened societies, taxes also mean no worrying about healthcare of any kind, or education, or retirement … wish I spoke Danish.)
If the Republicans have their way, they’ll cut all taxes and then blame the bankrupt government for not providing basic services … even though they know full well that it’s their greed and selfishness that’s the root cause. All those southern states crying for secession? Guess what would happen to them when they suddenly have no federal funds of any kind for any of the basic services they now take for granted.
Getting an economic balance back is the only way the economy can get back on track. Making everything about taxes is about as wrong-headed as one could be. The issue isn’t taxes, it’s people. It’s about the country. It’s about our ability to function and do the things we’re good at. It’s about having marketing dollars to spend again so that capitalism can do what it does best: provide healthy competition among competitive offerings and let the best product or service win.
(*Krugman also won the Prince of Asturias Awards, the John Bates Clark Medal, and the H. C. Recktenwald Prize in Economics.)
Tag lines tell us who you are.
Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns: truly good tag lines.
Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.
Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.
For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.
Copywriters, not clients.
Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.
The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.
What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)
A tag line defines the brand.
Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.
Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)
When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)
When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)
When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)
When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)
When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)
In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?
Great tag lines through time.
Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)
Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.
Here’s a Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)
That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)
But that’s show biz.
Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.
This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.
I’m thankful for:
- clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
- clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
- the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
- returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
- clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
- clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
- clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
- clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
- the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
- being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
- the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
- the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.
Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.
So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.
“I always wanted to be a writer.”
Do you remember being taught and encouraged to write as well as you possibly could? To write a first draft, set it aside for a couple of days then come back to it and cut out everything that made you stumble?
That was called “crafting your writing.” We were also encouraged to read the greats in high school and college, and were told it was important to understand what made them great … maybe even to emulate them. Perhaps, like me, you wanted to write as well as Conrad, O’Connor, Hemingway, Woolf, Dickens, Melville, Austen, Carver, Munro … et al.
When did all that striving toward quality turn into … teen vampire erotica? When did that emphasis on quality writing disappear in favor of … content?
If content is king, why is the writing so poor?
What we have online is far more often merely content vs. actual writing. Why? It’s a conundrum with multiple, dead-end answers. Here are a couple of stabs at the why. Content was desperately needed when, in the early days of the Internet, there was an explosion of Web sites desperate for clicks. (No content, no visitors.) But because of the nature of the Internet, Web sites also exploded our competitive frame of reference. Suddenly, anyone, anywhere, in any country could see and bid on writing jobs posted on the Internet.
It’s common knowledge that bidders out of Asia and Africa (many of whom barely have a command of English) will take peanuts compared to the Western world’s concept of fair pay … so, we have “Web site content needed: will pay $50.”
Too many clients cared too little about quality. Most wanted to fill up their pages for as little cost as possible. Or, as one ill-conceived boss out of my past put it with deep regret: “I guess we need some words on those pages.”
The problem created by the flattened earth (brought to you by the Internet) is that lots of folks in far-flung places think $1-2 per hour is just dandy, thank you. For those of us who live and work in an $8-10 per-hour minimum-wage economy (as in, $8-10 per hour to say, “Welcome to Walmart”) it’s the opposite of good.
That’s part one.
Part two is that content mills and farms (oDesk, Demand Media, guru.com, Elance, etc.) are stockpiling generic “articles.” They’re paying $10-15 for 1,000-1,500-word articles. Then, when starving publications (thanks to the Internet) go shopping for content, the mills and farms offer some that’s “good enough,” and underbid actual writers by treating written work just like stock photography.
And you do know what stock photography did to professional photographers, don’t you? For a frame of reference, prior to content mills and farms, actual writers of actual articles were getting $1-2 per word. (Per word.) A 1,500-word article could mean $3,000 in those days … and an o.k. income if you could sell 10-20 of them per year.
Any writer worth a damn will spend at least four hours on a 1,500-word article. (Way more than that when being paid properly.) At $10-15 per article, that’s $2.50 to $3.75 per hour. Hence, that’s why largely developing country respondents are writing those “articles.” And that’s also why the quality of much of what we see online is deplorable and has significantly downgraded the relevance and value of the Internet itself.
Apart from only fair-to-middling writing, we also have endless mash-ups – original content “re-purposed” and rehashed again and again so that when you go online to look up “concussion,” you’ll see multiple hits that are virtually indistinguishable and entirely unhelpful.
Wake up writers or you’re all through.
Part three is that we’re letting it happen. “We” means writers. Ours is a lonely, isolated profession. (All the more reason to take advantage of the online communities for writers – one of the good things about the Internet.) Some o.k. writers, who are desperate, accept the pitiful pay, which establishes precedence and perpetuates the developing world pay level. But there’s no crafting of copy. Who would bother at $2-3 per hour?
The Internet has been a tremendous boon. Yet it has also been a life-altering phenomenon. Most of us, today, go online first for news and research, so traditional pubs are losing sales and subscriptions (more every day). Advertisers are increasingly shifting away from traditional media and into “online efforts.” What’s the result? Less actual writing being done by actual writers. Way more “content” is cluttering our world. And the quality of writing and information is falling like a dead duck.
The outlets where we can still find quality writing are diminishing every day. They’re still there, but there are fewer of them every day. Literally. Saying no to the mills and farms is one way to stop the attrition. And supporting the few publications that still demand quality writing is another.
I’m certain it will take some time for the tide to turn, for people to get fed up with being fed garbage rather than quality writing. In the meantime, here’s a fairly pithy forbes.com article titled: Why you shouldn’t be a writer
Only if you’re a member of Congress.
“Write what you know.”
Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.
For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.
This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)
We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.
That’s the first secret.
Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)
Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.
Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.
When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)
Are you convinced, yet?
Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”
Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.
Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.
Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?
The opposite of truth.
We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.
Tobacco advertising requires health warnings – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.
My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.
The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.
What are we talking about when we talk about marketing?
The meaning of “marketing” seems to become more and more confused every day. Social media hasn’t helped: mere opinions are stated as fact. (Hey, don’t give me that look. I’ve been working in advertising and marketing for more than 30 years. No mere opinions here …)
Marketing titles have also blurred the lines between marketing and sales. “Marketing Director” has come to mean nothing in particular, and everything in general – both sales and marketing in some cases, so that both the roles and functions have become confused. Pure marketing has always been about communication.
But what you’ll see in all the articles and online “marketing groups” is something disturbingly obvious: mystification and misunderstanding of the true purpose of marketing.
Marketing has always been about communication. For communication to work, it must be on strategy. That strategy must be arrived at before materials are created, and it must be communicated through compelling messaging. To be compelling, the marketing communication must be relevant to the true target audience.
If your message isn’t clear, it won’t get through.
Marketing has been pummeled as a topic. It’s even been turned into a pseudo-science. Shills are selling the secrets to marketing. Get-rich-quick-gurus will gleefully guide you to wealth and happiness. Webinars promise you’ll learn everything you need to know about marketing in 90 minutes. (Ha.)
Ever wonder, “if their stuff is so good and so effective, why do they need to sell us their baloney?”
But no matter how complicated we get about it, when you boil marketing down to the bones, it will always come down to: what are you saying, and to whom.
To achieve clarity in marketing, you have to be crystal clear about what you’re communicating, and to whom. It’s not enough to generate messages. You have to know that you’re sending the right message to the right audience. You have to know – with complete certainty – what your true target audience cares most about.
No matter what you’re trying convey – no matter how complex or arcane – effective marketing requires effective communication.
1) understanding and clarifying your key message/benefit
2) understanding and clarifying your true target audience
3) defining your key competitive differentiators
4) understanding the messaging of your closest competitors
5) clearly communicating your key benefits/differentiators to your true target audience.
(Hey, this is good stuff, here. Are you getting this?)
If you’re not sure who your target audience is, you’d better find out.
Marketing only works when it’s properly targeted. Example: you’re watching a particularly bad TV show and you begin to wonder, “who watches this stuff?” The answer will appear in the next round of commercials when you’ll find out who the real target audience is. (Sometimes that’s embarrassing.) What you’re selling may have great value to a particular audience, but they need to know that you’re speaking to them.
Here’s the scary part: it’s not enough to build the ideal widget; you need to know if there’s a market out there for that new, improved product. That’s what business plans are all about. They involve research into a particular marketplace and the potential for a new item or service in that finite arena.
True marketing has always been about getting people to march into stores or pick up their phones. Today, of course, it’s more and more often about getting people onto specific Web sites. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds. If your target’s already online, then your home page is a click away, right? But, if you’re wasting their time, they won’t waste a second clicking away.
If your targets are in a car and hear a commercial, or sitting in doctor’s offices and see an ad, they’ll have to care enough to remember your Web address. Tricky. You have to give your true target audience a real reason to visit your Web site. Motivate them and they will remember your Web address.
Marketing creates awareness. Sales seals the deal.
Sales and marketing are inextricably, symbiotically connected. The ultimate job of marketing is to support sales. And the ultimate job of sales is to execute on the promise of marketing. Marketing is about driving awareness and interest. Sales is about closing the deal. They’re connected, but distinct. They need each other, but cannot do each other’s jobs.
The bottom line is that marketing is a sales aid, not a sales tool. Think of it as a support system to help bring customers and sales people together.
Marketing is also at the core of branding – it’s how we create crucial awareness about a product or service within a specific targeted audience. It’s about defining the benefits of your product or service and how best to communicate those benefits.
Marketing creates the tools that support sales. If the tools are not working, sales has to let marketing know and, together, you have to redesign those tools to end up with communication that does work.
If either marketing or sales gets the idea that they’re running the show, someone in charge needs to sit them down, straighten them out and then turn them loose to try it again.
Can grammar affect sales?
I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?
Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?
This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)
Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.
The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.
The problem with ‘no problem.’
A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:
“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”
Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.
Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”
When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”
(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?“ It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)
Commas change everything.
The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.
Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.
How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote: ”Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.
Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.
Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.
Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: ”After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”
The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”
It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.
Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.
Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos
The L.A. I grew up in is gone. Los Angeles gave me my start in P.R. and marketing. From working in the record business at Capitol and RCA Records, to pursuing a new advertising career with UCLA extension classes in marketing, my career was formed there.
While at the record companies, I worked with the major movie studios whenever movie soundtracks required it. I got to know Hollywood pretty well. And, in many ways, Hollywood defined L.A.
I just returned from a short trip to L.A., visiting some friends I grew up with, and little was the same. First, the number of cars on the road was daunting, making it extremely difficult to get anywhere at all times. It’s certainly logical that it would be that bad since the state of California has more people living in it than the entire population of Canada … and that’s only using the official census.
More than 40 million people now live in California. And around 17 million of them are in Los Angeles. That’s one factor that has changed the character of the city. Another that’s related is the Phoenix effect: L.A. now has high humidity. When that many people are living and working in a place, running air conditioners, watering lawns, filling pools, etc., the environment has to change. The formerly dry desert environment now feels like San Francisco when the fog rolls in. Damp.
I left L.A. about 30 years ago. It’s shocking how different it has become … and how much like some of the sci-fi visions of a future Los Angeles. It’s not full-tilt Blade Runner yet, but clearly minorities and immigrants are everywhere, so the city’s accent has changed.
As a result, I’d have a hard time advising someone in Los Angeles how to manage a marketing campaign. Target marketing requires having a clear picture of audience demographics. That’s a tough call in L.A. And one of the friends I met with (who left for England when I left for New York City) said that there’s now clearly a separation between “the haves and have-nots.”
New York City has always been a melting pot. That, in many ways, has been what defined New York. Now I have to wonder if Los Angeles is heading the same way. When I left L.A., there were clear target markets: glitzy Hollywood style, upscale (or conspicuous consumption) Beverly Hills style, coastal living style, and “the valley.” Those distinctions seem to have melded and reformed while possibly being displaced by “inner city.”
According to the 2010 census, New York City has just over eight million people living there. That number swells every day with commuters, but they leave at the end of the day. Compare that to the 17 million in Los Angeles – and that’s only the official tally. That could mean 20 million or more people are there. And they never leave.
So I can only guess that marketing in L.A. is a process of “self-elimination.” You put out the message for your product or service and let the right people for your target audience find you. But even so, the level of “noise” and “clutter” that marketing has to break through seemed overwhelming.
I used to think I missed L.A. What I missed was the memories of an L.A. that is no more. What’s there now is a marketing nightmare.
Are we what we buy?
I find myself more and more frequently coming back to the remarkable visions of Philip K Dick, a science fiction author who transcended his genre. He died in 1982 at 53, long before the release of the eight major motion pictures based on his fiction. In both Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and, even more so, The Minority Report, highly personalized and targeted marketing plays a significant and sinister role.
Dick foresaw a future – nearly our present – where incessant messaging became a prominent aspect of “modern” life. Now it seems his visions, like those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are becoming fact. A recent NY Times article describes the use of analytics to do “predictive marketing.” [NY Times February 16, 2012, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets."]
Based on tracking our online purchases, posts and comments (and, yes, that information is available to those who want it) companies like Target can now “target” specific life events and send marketing materials to us based on those analytics. The in-depth NY Times article focuses on “the holy grail of marketing: new parents.” The concept is that when life-changing events occur – such as having a baby – shopping habits can suddenly change and consumers (us) are up for grabs.
Haven’t I seen you here before?
Apparently we (the generalized, averaged “we”) shop habitually – according to set habits that are hard to break. But during busy, disorienting times in our lives we apparently don’t care anymore where we buy certain things, just that we can get them as easily as possible. Target, and other mega-stores, hope that by tapping into our consciousness at those times, we’ll decide that we can keep on going back for other things we might not habitually buy there.
This is not merely theoretical: it’s now a proven fact. However, it is a tad insidious, and Target doesn’t want us to know they’re doing it. Once they got the gist of the NY Times writer’s intentions and subject matter, they shut down communications and prevented him from visiting their offices.
That’s because, according to the article, what they’re doing will only work if they don’t alert expectant moms and their families that they are doing it. If that happens, the fecal matter hits the air rotation device.
The article mentions one very pissed off dad storming into his local Target, demanding to see the manager, then thrusting coupons for Pampers, etc., into the poor, confused person’s hands. The man angrily said his daughter, the recipient of said coupons, was still in high school and was not pregnant. However, when the distraught manager (who had no clue about the corporate program) phoned the man a few days later to apologize again, the father sheepishly said he owed the manager an apology – he had recently learned that his young daughter was indeed pregnant.
Yes, we are being watched.
So, how did Target know when the girl’s own dad didn’t? Online postings and patterns. We are – as Philip K. Dick predicted we would be – being watched. And the people watching are looking for specific patterns and indicators in order to sell us stuff.
I don’t know about you but I’m mostly casual and often incautious when posting online. I assume I’m among friends. When we’re on forums and online groups, we respond in the moment and move on. I don’t usually think about those tweets or forum posts for any longer than it takes to type them. And I’ll bet it’s the same for you.
So are we really only what those rapid-fire posts and updates say about use? Obviously, no, we’re not, any more than Chief John Anderton was what his fellow cops thought he was when he was set up. But it seems it’s enough for desperate marketing departments.
There are, of course, more standard ways to slice and dice audiences, such as motor vehicle registration. It’s reasonably possible to predict who a person is, down to gender and age, based on the vehicle that’s registered. For example, the owner of a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle (euphemistically called a rice burner or a crotch rocket) can reliably be predicted to be a male, between 17 and 24. Certain Buicks and Toyotas can reliably predict age groups, and with the addition of car color, possibly gender. But then there’s the name on the registration. That helps.
Another method is magazine subscriptions. If you want to find a certain audience, traditional methods have been fairly reliable for a number of years. But things are changing, rapidly – both how marketing is being done as well as to whom.
Is marketing evolving or devolving?
This is a bigger deal than it may sound like. It’s not just about Target and it’s not just about selling us stuff. We may not end up running for our lives like the characters in Philip K. Dick stories, but a whole lot more about us will be available to way more people than we ever thought possible, thanks to this tracking trend.
It’s one thing to have broad-based demographics for magazines and TV shows that tell us where to place marketing dollars based on the media content, and quite another to send coupons and offers that are just a little too close for comfort, just a little too personal.
Demographics are based on the population at large, not specific individuals. And they’re typically made up of generalized data. Tracking, on the other hand, is all about us, up close and personal. Do we really want that?
The newly developed practice of “predictive analytics” (… yep, The Minority Report, again) isn’t just about understanding consumers’ shopping habits – it’s about figuring out what’s going on in our lives, and our personal habits, in order to more efficiently market to us, specifically, individually.
As stated in the New York Times article, predictive analytics is “the science of habit formation … a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs.”
Feeling manipulated, yet? Feeling invaded? It will only get worse. Statisticians, scientists and mathematicians have been increasingly in demand at places like Target, Walmart and Amazon.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
There apparently are positive applications of predictive analytics and the studies of habit formation, such as turning around sports teams, improving safety records at manufacturing plants and the ability to diet effectively. But there are also those nasty, “marketing from the dark side” applications.
Am I over-reacting? Well, is this really only about selling us paper towels and laundry soap? I don’t know. We’ve come a long way in limiting the intrusiveness of advertising, perhaps too far. So “they” are fighting back. They’re having a much harder time reaching us via television and radio, or a near-impossible time. And our online reading has been eroding print media at an alarming rate.
It’s been a symbiotic relationship for nearly ten decades. Commercial magazines and newspapers, as well as radio and TV shows, still are unable to exist without advertising dollars. That’s always been the case. But our ability to zap commercials, listen to anything but radio and selectively read what we want online has precipitated tectonic changes in target marketing. Many companies are grasping at the straws of SEO and social media, but find those still-developing alternatives fall far short.
So, they’re constantly working on new tools to achieve sales quotas. As technology advances, so do marketing techniques. We can now be tracked merely by having cell phones, and GPS devices in our cars. Potential employers can see everything we’ve posted online, should they choose to. Do we really want everything we do, say and buy, as well as everywhere we go tracked at all times in the name of marketing?
Sadly, our new lifestyles based on interacting with an online world means that we may lose the great journalists for whom doing in-depth, investigative reporting paid off. Not only is the pay for providing content on Web sites abysmally bad (see my posts about content mills), the newspapers that they wrote for are disappearing.
Of course, everyone knows that television journalism has already been replaced with infotainment. It’s all about ratings, just like sitcoms, not informing the public or the journalistic integrity of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Ever since the O. J. Simpson televised car chase, news has become a spectator sport.
Privacy is less and less so every day.
Our private lives used to be private. Period. No hazy edges to it. We apparently have given that up for the freedom, ease and flexibility of the Internet. As soon as we began spending so much of our time online, privacy stopped being black and white. We have to proactively tell the sites we visit and the search engines we use to not hold onto our data.
The newly developing practice of “predictive analytics” couldn’t achieve anything if it had no data to analyze. Everything we do is being tracked to create that data. GPS. Credit card purchases. Online ordering. And forums. We provide the data.
Will all this tracking become merely white noise to us? Will we simply stop noticing and carry on as if it doesn’t matter?
As of this writing, Google’s privacy policies are making a lot of news. Their purpose in tracking where we go online, which videos we watch, which businesses we visit, and even just plain searches, is not as invasive as it might sound. For the time being, they aggregate data rather than drill down to specific individuals the way Target and others are doing. Their objective is to have data to sell, not our actual e-mail addresses or other personal information. But who knows what the future holds?
Data mining is the gold rush of this era. In a way, we haven’t left “them” any choice. We’ve circumvented the standard marketing options of television, radio and print ads. Pretty much all that’s left of the classic media buy era is outdoor board. And we’ve all learned to not even notice those.
So what’s seemingly free – all that stuff we do online – does have a cost, which we pretty much suspected all along. What they want us from us in exchange for our time online is to know where we go, how long we stay there, what we buy, how often we buy it … and whether or not we’re their target market. So far it’s about selling stuff. Someday soon, though, as Dick foresaw, it could become about a whole lot more.
Our calendar is barely 430 years old.
Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.
As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)
That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar. You know what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.
Easter, by the way, was calculated using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of the last supper was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.
Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on religious celebrations.
Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.
Is it New Year’s everywhere?
2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps. Brazil has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.)
So, bearing that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.
That diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.
What do we measure when we measure time?
Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time? It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.
But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we measure when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun up, sun down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.
Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years, but for his brother back on earth several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)
It’s all relative.
My point? Time is not as fixed as we think it is, or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using. We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star.
Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, subjective starting point.
In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming.
New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.