Why the Aflac duck dynasty?

Why is the Aflac duck still around? A pretty good guess would be that the silly looking bird has worked at bringing in business.

But why has it worked? Another good guess is that a team of writers and visual arts people got together and came up with something from out of left field that turned out to be a stroke of genius.

It’s not hard to imagine how it happened. During a creative meeting, someone said, “Aflac.” Someone else said, “You sound like a duck.” Chances are that was it, for a while. The meeting continued, ideas flying, but nothing clicked. Everybody went out for a beer.

Then, in the middle of the night or maybe in the shower the next morning, one of those creatives heard (yes, actually heard), “Duck. Aflac.” He or she remembered the waddling ridiculousness of those white domesticated pond ducks in the park and thought, “Duck. Aflac. Perfect.”

This is how it happens. Lots of back and forth. Plenty of banter. A good many lousy ideas thrown out. Some pretty good ideas thrown in the hamper. Then, for reasons no one has satisfactorily explained, it all comes together.

The person who brings it all together can be a writer or a designer or an account executive or the janitor who overheard the creative meeting. Somehow, something hits home. Sure, it isn’t always this neat, but often, it is.

This is the essence of teamwork. It’s a creative process, whether it’s done on a basketball court or in a conference room or in a bar. It’s a mystery. Sometimes, it’s a miracle. Always, it’s a joy. Even if it didn’t really happen that way for Aflac.

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Writing for the search engines doesn’t have to mean writing badly

It seems copywriters are now writing more for search engines than for clients and their customers. Keywords are king.

There’s no point complaining about it. Up and coming copywriters undoubtedly embrace the situation. After all, they’ve never known anything else. And that’s fine. Change can be changed, if at all, only with great difficulty, and then change wins anyway.

If there’s a problem with reliance on having a certain number of keywords placed in certain strategic locations, it is that the process can lead to bad writing. It’s not only keywords being placed awkwardly because they have to be there; it’s that the rest of the writing comes second to keyword placement. Sometimes, it seems, keywords take precedence over everything: grammar, syntax, usage, proofreading, editing and so on.

Even terrible writers can place keywords. Unfortunately, awful writers don’t always seem to realize how awful they are, and they don’t ask for proofing and editing help. They just make sure the keywords are where they need to be in the right numbers and toss their trash on the Web.

Part of the problem might be that heavy reliance on keywords has reduced the value of good writing. In the eyes of companies who want their presence felt in the search engine rankings, nothing else matters. They’re willing to pay, although not much, for quantity over quality.

A reliance on quantity might be why an article that should take hours of research, writing, editing and proofing under normal circumstances pays $10 to $20 to the writer. He or she has to churn out one or two of the things an hour just to make a decent living.

There goes quality because there are plenty of people out there who will take the deal.

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Writers and artists work better together

A picture is worth a thousand words.

There’s truth in this old adage, but like most things made of words (or oils, watercolors or any other visual-art medium, including computer graphics), it’s open to interpretation. When I taught English composition and literature at the University of Kansas years ago, some of my students took the adage to mean that pictures were more valuable than words. In the students’ eyes, words were practically worthless. This situation did not make teaching writing and literature any easier.

But how far would Picasso’s works have gone had it not been for all those worthless words spent on reviews lauding his talent and explaining why his artworks were worthwhile? Chances are the works would have languished in obscurity, selling at flea markets for a pittance.

Words carry weight, as any good poem will demonstrate. Well written, they can provide layers of meaning that continue to surprise every time a reader comes back to them.

Of course, I’m not making the claim that all writing offers such richness. Not every painting or photograph conveys unfathomable depths of material for interpretation. Nor does every essay, news story, print ad or commercial merit a literary critic’s attention (although such study might make an English professor’s career).

Words and pictures can both stand alone, but they’re often more powerful together. Many commercial designers and illustrators find it both enjoyable and stimulating to work with writers. Their collaboration on the making of ads, brochures and other projects can help create a better product.

Too often, copywriters and commercial artists operate in vacuum, and their work only comes together when the project nears completion. It’s much more effective if they work together from the outset. When the two minds and visions have room to explore together, the outcome is almost always more effective at doing its selling job.

Of course, the artist and the writer have to respect each other, even if they don’t always agree on a direction. What they have to do is expend the extra effort necessary to reach compromises. Chances are, even the compromise will be better than what they would otherwise create working separately.

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Holidays and sports can bring out the worst in copywriters

Yet one more holiday season is gone. We’re headed into the slowly lengthening but still cold light of January. It’s a good time to reflect – beyond the demands of gift and party giving and before the rising sap of spring.

The memories of the season just past still linger, and among them are thousands upon thousands of ads and commercials attempting to demonstrate how some product or service is a perfect demonstration of or accompaniment to the holiday spirit. No matter how strained the metaphor, advertisers have tried to show how their legal prowess, shoes, tires or razor blades are what Christmas is all about.

Of course, this kind of overreach isn’t limited to the Christmas season. Anyone who has watched a football or baseball game knows what it’s like to be bombarded by commercials loaded with sports lingo: “Don’t get sacked by high prices”; “Superstud Condoms: a home run every time.” And every holiday, including Labor Day and the Fourth of July suffers from the same sad wordplay.

It’s tiresome.

All this isn’t to say that ads and commercials with a holiday or sports theme can’t be clever and fun. They can, but it takes a little imagination, usually more than what’s necessary to come up with a pun or some graphics featuring firecrackers, reindeer or footballs.

I’m trying to think of an example. I’m sure there is one.

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When change comes, words show their value

It snowed here in Kansas City last night, the first dusting of the season. The skiff remains in thin patches even after noon because the little storm came in on the leading edge of arctic air, dropping the temperature into the low 20s.

For better or worse, things can change so quickly. Shirt-sleeve weather suddenly changes to parka weather. Hoses go into storage, and snow shovels come out. From deep in chests and drawers, gloves and stocking caps appear, and the freedom of lightly clothed summer disappears.

But whatever the season, however much more difficult one time of year can be than another, somehow people manage to make it through – as long as they have the right tools at hand.

It’s easy to forget that the written word is a tool that adapts to any season. After all, it’s such an everyday thing, always there in one form or another. Frankly, it’s so commonplace that its value can be easily overlooked.

Any practitioner of public relations or any other form of marketing should know how important the written word is in good times and bad. However, the difference between someone who knows this fact and someone who knows how to use it to a business’s advantage boils down to training, experience and, yes, talent.

Words do make a difference. Whether they help forge the right difference at the right time and in the right place takes more than the ability to hold a pen, type on a keyboard or form a coherent sentence. It requires intelligence, insight, foresight, planning and skill.

Every business needs someone who knows how, where and when to use words deliberately to further the organization’s progress. Choosing that person should be among management’s top priorities.

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Tread with care in the grammar war zone

Being a grammar scold is dangerous business. Pointing out other people’s flubs can make the scold a target of even more aggressive purists.

There’s also the problem of definitions. “Grammar” is a technical term having more to do with being understood as opposed to “usage,” a clumsy moniker that has to do with the use of words and punctuation. Usually, grammar scolds say they’re correcting (or objecting to) someone’s grammar when they’re really referring to usage.

For example, “You ain’t got no class” can, arguably, be called grammatical in that the person reading or hearing the sentence can decipher what it means, even though it’s a usage nightmare, at least in what’s called “standard” English.

On the other hand, “The find do chimp job the to” isn’t grammatical because it’s difficult or impossible to figure out what it means. It might say, “Find the chimp to do the job,” but, then again, maybe not.

Recently, a newspaper columnist for The Kansas City Star made the mistake, while criticizing someone else’s grammar/usage, of identifying an adverb as an adjective. The other grammar scolds came out of the woodwork, and he had to devote another column to apologizing. This situation encourages a few questions for the scolds, such as, “Just how many cats do you have?” and “How long has it been since you stepped out of your house?” and “Have you considered the possibility of life beyond the crossword puzzle?”

Tempests in a thimble like the one just described recall to mind what Winston Churchill thought about the ridiculous pseudo-rule that bans ending a sentence with a preposition. It is, the old statesman is reputed to have said, something “up with which I will not put.”

Winston’s phrase is grammatical, and the usage is correct, but the pomposity of it makes it a slappable offense to the English-hearing human ear. (Yes, there is no such word as “slappable.” Live with it). Yet the preposition battle is still being fought wherever grammar scolds are found. There are other recurring skirmishes, equally silly, that will be dealt with in later posts.

Does all this attention to other people’s use of language make this a grammar scold’s blog? Heaven forfend.

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The “who”/”whom” problem teaches a bigger writing lesson


“Whom” is on the way out. Most people who concern themselves with the English language agree that this stilted-sounding word has been pretty much entirely supplanted by “who,” no matter how “who” is used.

So what? Almost nobody says “whom” in everyday speech and, increasingly, it’s giving way to “who” in everyday writing as well. Good riddance.

But, using a recently published comic strip that plays on the difference between “who” and “whom,” there’s a point to be made about how people can look foolish when they inadvertently use words incorrectly when they write.

The strip (“Prickly City” by Scott Stantis) features Kevin, the Lost Bunny of the Apocalypse, and his wife. In part, the dialogue goes this way:

Kevin’s wife: “This conversation is over, Kevin. I’m running for your senate seat, and you’re going to let me have it.”

Kevin: “Says who?”

Kevin’s wife: “Whom.”

Kevin: “What?”

Kevin’s wife: “Whom. Says whom.”

Unfortunately, Kevin’s version is right, and his wife’s is wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the joke. The consequences are distraction for anyone who catches the error and a bump in the road to the punch line, which is in the next frame. The cartoon loses some of its effect.

This might seem like quibbling, but anything that distracts a reader from the point the writer is trying to make weakens the message. This is why grammar and language usage are important.

The upshot: “Who” and “whom” might not be a problem much longer, but there are plenty of other stumbling blocks in the world of the written word to trip over. A professional writer should recognize and be able to handle them. A good editor and proofreader can also help prevent embarrassment.

Addendum: Writers should also beware of silly grammar and usage rules, such as:

• Never end a sentence with a preposition

• Never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.)

• Never split an infinitive (to do, to see, to go, etc.)

These rules aren’t really rules at all, more just hobby horses for the creatively impaired. They’re bunk.

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