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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #3: Jon

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

The Mysterious Cities of Gold Season 2. The second season of this animated blend of children's adventure, sci-fi and historical fiction has arrived 30 YEARS after the first finished airing. 30. Years. Beat that, David Lynch.

Breakfast LP by Teleman. I heard 'Cristina' while bouldering in Bermondsey, then found 'Skeleton Dance' on YouTube and that sealed it.

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward for the 3DS. I'm less keen on Nintendo since discovering how little they've done to invest in conflict-free minerals (bottom of the list, in fact) but this two-year-old visual novel with locked-room puzzles has me intrigued.

A profound absence of books this year, but then I'm very behind on my reading, especially since I started buying texts in languages I don't understand.

My favourite new word this year was...

'Opuscule'. A minor work; a miniature opus.

My top three books of the year were...

The True Account of Captain Love and the Five Joaquins by John Clegg, a guilt-and-whiskey-soaked tale of comeuppance and pickled heads. This year, however, I've largely been catching up on unread books from times past, so for my other two I'm picking Omon Ra, a black comedy about the Soviet space programme by Victor Pelevin, and the sixth volume of Empowered, an erotically-charged, character-driven pastiche of the superhero genre, written and drawn by Adam Warren.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Don't. Perish, loiter in the netherspace between worlds, then be born anew.

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

A goat. The Yule goat is a symbol of Christmas in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, likely dating from Pagan times. In recent years, it's also become a sort of mascot for Oxfam Unwrapped - just look at how many goats there are on the main page of their website.

I'm also a Capricorn, and I've done a lot of clambering up rocks this year, so a goat I'll be.

If I could destroy any Christmas tradition, it would be...

The John Lewis ad, and every other overblown seasonal commercial that does its level best to make your telly or computer monitor bleed syrup.

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...

The various ringleaders and mountebank-preachers of Gamergate. The article I penned on this ridiculous and morally bankrupt cyber-crusade was probably read more widely than anything I've published this year, except, that is, for the follow-up piece the Guardian asked me to write, which has been shared over 1,800 times.

My proudest achievement this year was...

I hope this isn't a cop-out: it's reaching a point where I'm hugely optimistic about the year to come. My life throughout 2014 has been somewhat tumultuous. I've lived in, and operated out of, six different places - Whitechapel, East Dulwich, Wan Chi and Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, Blackheath and Walthamstow. There have been so many commitments and ambitions to balance that I could very easily have ended the year with my figurative china smithereened across the tiles. That hasn't happened, thankfully.

Other highlights included:

  • winning the Poetry London Competition;
  • exploring ghost towns, munitions tunnels and decaying military installations, and running a macaque gauntlet while working in Hong Kong;
  • reading poetry live at the Royal Festival Hall and on Radio 3;
  • winning the Saboteur Best Collaboration Award for Riotous, along with Kirsty and Cliff Hammett.

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

A Hawthornden Fellowship (writing in a Scottish castle for a month), various exciting creative collaborations, and further development of Copy That and Sidekick Books.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #2: Seb

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

Walerian Borowczyk Short Films and Animation, Arrow's recently released Blu-ray of shorts by the Polish master animator and art/erotic filmmaker. The only Borowczyk short film I've seen, Dom (not included in this collection), I watched at an animation festival in Norwich many years ago, and like most of Borowczyk's full-length films, it's a trip that's hard to forget. I'm told several of the other shorts are equally good; I'm looking forward to seeing Angel Games (below) in particular.

My favourite new word this year was...

Susurration (noun), meaning "whispering, murmuring or rustling"

(With thanks to Will Self, who wrote the foreword to a book I worked on earlier in the year, Subterranean London, compiled by Bradley L. Garrett.)

My top three books of the year were...

I'm very much enjoying William Rothman's Must We Kill the Thing We Love? Emersonian Perfectionism and the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, possibly one of the great Hitchcock studies (I'll have to finish to know for sure), I got a lot from T. J. Clark's elegantly written and insightful Picasso and Truth, and I loved David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire by Martha P. Nochimson. As always, Nochimson's writing opens up so many new ways to think about and experience Lynch that it's hard to take everything in at once. I can't wait to read the book again.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Lean into it.

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

I might be a donkey. I don't know if donkeys ever get jealous of reindeer, the flashier Christmas herd animal, but I wouldn't, because donkeys are cool.

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...

Krampus is a figure of pure terror whose presence in this realm I don't much like to contemplate. But those auto-play promotion videos, maybe.

My proudest achievement this year was...

I'm proud of making this six-second conceptual remake of The Shining with Rebecca Wigmore, for a Vine competition. It was hard work, and we ran up against more fake-blood-related logistical problems than probably either of us was prepared for, but I think it came out pretty well.

Other highlights included:

  • Starting to plan and write a new film-studies-type book
  • Hearing the news about Twin Peaks, series 3 
  • Watching Transparent

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

Sundry editors, artists, translators, academics, writers, artists, poets and general good types that I'm lucky to know and to work with. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Copy That Quizmas #1: Kirsten

In the run-up to the festive season, we're feeling somewhat self-reflexive. Over on Sidekick Books, the press run by myself and Jon Stone, this has taken the form of a daily advent calendar, jingling with poetic delights. 

Here on the Copy That blog, we're taking more of a quizzical approach, with each CT crow giving their tuppence on the year. I'll kick off, shall I?

This Christmas, I am asking Santa for...

The splendidly gloomy Perpetual Disappointments Diary from Asbury & Asbury.
The antidote to the inevitable motivational-poster-fest that New Year will bring. Share your champagne with Chamfort.

Samurai Ghost and Monster Wars by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
This one is research for a novel, but Utagawa's artwork is stunning full stop. Edo-era woodcuts and vibrant colours bring these diverse and bizarre Japanese monsters to life.

Transvestism and the Onnagata traditions by Minoru Fujita
More research but generally fascinating study of female impersonators in the theatre, from kabuki to Elizabethan England.

My favourite new word this year was...

Callypgian (adj), meaning "Having shapely buttocks" 

(Thanks to Free Word Centre for that gem.)

My top three books of the year were...

Things To Make and Break by May-Lan Tan (CB Editions)
Brutal, tender short stories that swoop from intense sexual exploration to family alienation. Touches of Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill, but distinct and different from both. Compelling.

Aquarium by Michael Conley (Flarestack)
Incredible poetry.  Dark, detailed, downright weird. Don't be fooled by the simple title. This book will take you inside the penguin enclosure, lose you in its machinations then throw you out without your coat.

Tree Language by Marion McCready (Eyewear)
Winner of the Melita Hume and Edwin Morgan prizes, Marion McCready paints in bold, dark red strokes. Motifs of blood, children and uncertainty run through Tree Language. It's often uncomfortable, but always gorgeously written and dizzyingly potent.

My tip for surviving Christmas is...

Cheap Irish cream. In hot chocolate, over ice, as a poultice for your aching head...

If I were a Christmas animal, I would be...

Zero, Jack Skellington's dog in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You get to hang out with the Pumpkin King and fly. Two dreams, one ghostly form.

If I could destroy any Christmas tradition, it would be...
Christmas music playing non-stop in shops. So suffocating it actually makes me turn on my heel and leave. As a teenage retail worker, I would dread this time of year, and nowadays, I seek out and embrace shops playing non-seasonal tunes between November and year's end. Ahhh...

I would like Krampus to carry off in his sack...
Self-proclaimed 'pick-up artist', and noted sex pest, Julien Blanc. Not least for the irony of him being picked up and carted away by a demon with an overlong tongue. 

You can see mine and Harry Man's poetic collaboration on the subject of Blanc here.

My proudest achievement this year was...
Becoming a guardian, along with fellow crows Rebecca and Seb, to Mitchell Wigmanirv, the resident Copy Cat. He's a Battersea boy and apparently part-meerkat.

Other highlights included:
  • beginning to write my first solo poetry show;
  • continuing to write my novel;
  • collaborating with the excellent Harry Man on several weird and wonderful poems;
  • winning (along with Jon Stone and illustrator Cliff Hammett) a Saboteur Best Collaboration Award for Riotous, a hand-sewn collection of tropical animal sonnets.

Next year, I am looking forward to stretching my vocabulary with...

26 (and their incredible annual bash Wordstock), all of our lovely clients and my fellow CT crows Jon, Seb and Rebecca, to whom I will now hand over!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

'Can love be transferred? YES' How to avoid sounding like an evil corporation from a sci-fi dystopia

For a short time, some friends and I bounced around the Twitter hashtag #endofcivilisation. The game was to find subtle indicators of mankind's imminent doom, the most visible of which was marketing copy hinting at the commodification of every facet of lived experience. 'Time Together' being sold in Boots for £99, National Rail offering '1/3 off hugs with Auntie', the title of this piece, discovered on a Western Union billboard, or this text message I received:

“Hi from Orange. We've updated our terms to reflect we're now part of Everything Everywhere.”

It's understandable that brands want to lay claim to invoking or enabling positive experiences, or to being an essential feature of daily life. Without such claims, they're just noise – or worse, annoyances. But Western civilisation has a long and healthy tradition of skepticism toward the corporate pipedream of selling happiness. This is manifested most clearly in the sci-fi dystopia genre, where greasy executives frequently preside over the enslavement of the populace through mass hallucination. Echoes of this genre chime whenever a slogan loudly announces its ownership of some intangible quality of life, and there's an art to avoiding such association.

Consider McDonald's decade-old slogan I'm lovin' it. It unambiguously evokes the idea of customers falling head over heels for the product, but does so without saying anything overt about the nature of that affection, who controls or dispenses it, and falls short of absolute conviction. Suppose that instead Heye & Partner, the agency in question, had opted for You will love it! or We all love McDonald's. Immediately, premonitions of men in logo-encrusted uniforms operating elaborate mind control devices suggest themselves.

Or take EA Sports' motto It's in the game. This alludes to both a mysterious essence and a secret ingredient. It's also understood to mean that each material element of the real life sport is replicated in the video game version. Suppose that the motto were instead We put everything in our games. Not only do the pleasing allusions disappear; it begins to conjure some Tron-like nightmare of insatiable digitisation.

The lesson is simple: confidence works best through evocation, with a measure of allusive subtlety. Blunt and straightforward assertions, mixed with an eagerness to impress, makes us think of Weyland-Yutani.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Man Words: Round 1

Editors and writers who have to make choices about the use of sexist or gender-biased language (and I'd guess that's pretty much all of us) might be interested to read the Twitter replies I got to a question about the acceptability of 'mankind' and 'man hours', collected below (via Storify). I predicted a landslide win for the 'Change both' contingent, and I was broadly right, although one editor did vote for leaving both in most cases, and another said she'd be happy to leave 'mankind'. 'Mankind', of course, can be replaced by 'humankind' and 'man hours' can become 'person hours'; both are straightforward changes, if you choose to make them. But not all 'man' words are so easily transformed, and I would expect more support for keeping terms such as 'craftsmanship' and 'workmanship' – the two words that I'll be looking at in my next post. Tune in to see what Twitter thinks, or, better yet, join the ranks of those kind enough to answer incredibly specific calls for opinions and tweet your own response.

Interested readers can find out more about 'masculine generics' such as 'mankind', and the main arguments for abolishing them, in an excellent paper by the psychology and philosophy researcher Brian D. Earp called "The Extinction of Masculine Generics", available here.

(If you can't see anything below, you can also find the Storify here.)

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Madness in Copywriting, Part One: The Redundancy of Offence

Every so often, you'll see a story like this pop up in the paper: 

And reliably, as soon as the weary sub-editor hits Publish and the story goes live, the tired protests over oversensitivity, political correctness and freedom of speech are wheeled out for some air: We can't do anything in case it offends a minority, it's just a joke, there are bigger problems in the world than a card, don't you miss the good old days when we could say anything and we didn't have to say 'sanity-challenged', etc.

As someone who does live with mental health problems, I'm not offended by this card. I'm deeply saddened and I'm concerned that it's been so casually tossed out there to make money from laughing at people with bipolar. But I'm not offended. Why not?

1. Offence is a very insular concept. To say one is offended is to say "this insults my worldview". Removing the problem from a social context allows a company to reduce the complaint to a few isolated voices. It also attributes a personal stake for the complainant in the situation changing, and while this may be true, it's not a strong position to argue from. Better to frame the debate in terms of the real risk to a broader group.

2. What does 'offence' even mean? It conjures images of sour-faced individuals posing for the local newspaper with their arms folded, in front of a graffiti penis. Since most companies produce their content to emotionally appeal to consumers, is it not better to point out how hurtful and triggering the sight of such a card might be, and indeed how potentially damaging to an already vulnerable group of people?

3. To express that something causes you offence allows the offending entity to pigeonhole you, and reduce your complaint down to a symptom of an agenda. Mocking bipolar only hurts bipolar people, after all! In the car crash of Twitter replies that issued forth from the Joy account regarding the lithium cards, we encountered such gems as:

If thine right eye offend thee, and all that.

4. It is remarkably easy to ignore or write off 'offence' as a concept, and therefore ignore the very real misery brought about by a thoughtless or cruel action. Think of the passive-aggressive grievance buffer of "I'm sorry you feel that way." See this (presumably non-bipolar) tweeter's chipper defence of a vulnerable corporate entity against the tyranny of Twitter.

The Fry quote is interesting, if problematic (like the man himself), and I can't help feeling it's unfinished. To express being offended is not "a whine". It's simply an ineffective, official-sounding way of saying "That did not feel right to me, and I desperately want it to stop." We need to stop using "I am offended" as a way of avoiding pinpointing exactly what it is that is causing the pain. Once we have the root cause, shucked of its rhetorical casing, we can begin to reword in a more socially aware way.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Nietzsche's Metaphors

And so, apropos of almost nothing, here are my five favourite Friedrich Nietzsche metaphors:

1. When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed.
2. It is not when truth is dirty, but when it is shallow, that the lover of knowledge is reluctant to step into its waters.
3. One virtue is more of a virtue than two, because it is more of a knot for one’s destiny to cling to.
4. Does wisdom perhaps appear on the earth as a raven which is inspired by the smell of carrion?
5. Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, and simpler. [1]

Nietzsche is making some serious points here of course, but for Nietzsche – and this is why he remains relevant not just to philosophers but to all writers, including copywriters – the substantive content and claims of a piece of writing were only ever one part of the story. What drove him as a philosopher was the idea that philosophy can change people’s attitudes, and what gives philosophy this power, he thought, are all the stylistic devices philosophers have at their disposal when they sit down to write. So when we read Nietzsche we get passages full of aphorisms, jokes, personal reflections – and vivid, intelligible metaphors nevertheless marked by that sort-of lateral quality which lets us understand something in a more immediate way [2]. As a copy-editor and writer, I deal with metaphors probably on a daily basis, and I still look to Nietzsche’s for inspiration. To me, they’re one of philosophy’s minor marvels.

[1] 1. is from Human All Too Human (1878), 2. and 3. are from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), 4. is from Twilight of the Idols (1888), and 5. is from The Gay Science (1882).
[2] A good overview of Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s style is Brian Leiter’s chapter in The Oxford Handbook of German Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century (there is an “essentially final” version of the chapter available on Leiter’s Nietzsche blog); for some interesting reflections on metaphors (set to animation), see Jane Hirschfield’s talk ‘The Art of the Metaphor’.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

A Hash of Inspiration: The Pun Game as Marketing Tool

Ever looked at a corporate hashtag and thought “Who voluntarily uses that?” The short answer is normally “Someone who wants to win free stuff”. Without such incentives, though, there is a fine art to convincing the denizens of Twitter to take your message to their heart/feed.

Every brand dreams of appearing in the hallowed left-hand Trending column, without paying for the privilege. Major sports and entertainment events are always going to create a buzz, and then there are less predictable trends (‘Smash’, anyone? ‘London’?), which hit the sweet spot by pure serendipity. For the regular Twitter user, following trends that promise no clear reward is about feeling part of a community. One popular trend provides a major opportunity for creativity in marketing.

At any given time, a pun-based game will be trending on Twitter, and more often than not, it will be for little or no reward. The reward for the user comes firstly with the satisfaction of coming up with a good pun and secondly from the acknowledgement of the tweet. Take for example the #RuinAMagazine game trending as I write. It’s not been organised by a company or promoted, but it’s captured the community’s imagination. So much so that it’s extended beyond mere text entries into lavishly Photoshopped images.

A brilliant example of a business embracing these games was the @Foyles #BookGame. Each Thursday, the independent book chain would set a topic and invite users to tweet their best thematic rejigs of book titles. There was a modest prize – books, of course – but the real value came in the kudos and the community. Show off your knowledge of books and your linguistic gymnastics, enjoy the sheer geekery and get your efforts retweeted by a cult bookstore.

The regularity, flexibility and thematic coherence of the game made it hugely popular. Too popular, almost. Foyles faced good-natured outcry when they finally closed it down.

Once Foyles had relinquished #BookGame in 2011, mainstream rivals Waterstones attempted to appropriate it in conjunction with a hard-sell link. Breaking the spell of playing for playing’s sake (and a handful of books), they broke the golden copywriting rule: if someone realises they’re being sold to, they will stop reading. Thankfully, the original #BookGame spirit prevailed and the game was adopted by independent bookshop @PetersBooks, minus the clumsy corporate drive.

The lesson to learn from this is one about human nature. A hashtag that invites engagement works if it requires a little effort and creativity on the part of the reader. This, importantly, is not seen as work or hassle but fun and satisfying. As philosopher Bernard Suits put it, playing a game is “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. Why would we do that? Because we just love a good challenge. As for this particular format, pun games work simply and effectively with Twitter’s short-form restrictions: they’re short, they’re quick and they’re an instant contribution to a community activity. As the old internet maxim says:

For more on the importance of fun in marketing, check out our post 'Art versus Copy'.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Hardy Weeds of Wackaging

Around three years ago, the knives came out for a trend in copy-writing dubbed 'wackaging'. Running amok were smoothie cartons and tube adverts affecting to be on-the-level, down-to-earth jokesters. They weren't trying anything as hard-nosed as selling the product; they were just 'letting you know' or 'giving you the low-down', while tossing around various bits of dated slang, dropping in a pun or two, or displaying a jocular self-awareness.

The Wackaging tumblr was soon set up in response, while articles in the Sabotage Times and the Guardian ripped into brands for their "faux homespun pish" and for "swaddling us, suspended in a fruit-filled Neverland, where we wake to find ourselves the life partner of a packet of ethical crisps". In short, these articles complained, consumers were being treated like children.

But wackaging survived the assault and continues unabated today. Here's a sign in the window of Oddbins I walked past on Friday:

Yeah, DH, you dawg. Come and buy some wine, and then we'll run it back to the Kiowa Ranch for you. Wait, I think we're addressing the customer now.

If this tone of voice is so obviously excruciating, why, then, does it persist? Possibly for the same reason there will always be people we find socially inept and infuriating. Brands, just like people, project a persona, and personae are always in danger of misfiring, always poised on the edge of caricature, particularly when they are freshly minted for an occasion. A person or brand that strives for an image of scrupulous professionalism can very easily (and arguably in the majority of cases) come across as humourless and inflexible. Similarly, and more spectacularly, attempts to appear relaxed, jovial, approachable and so on can manifest as the greasy, creepy advances of a chancer. It's from this we get the stereotype of the suffocatingly talkative door-to-door salesman.

But while we might take note of – and object to – such failures, the successes are likely to pass us by. Thus, the continued proliferation of instances of wackaging is probably the result of brands successfully transitioning to a friendlier tone of voice. Where they go, others follow, making missteps along the way, just as the unfunny clown at the pub is attempting to mimic his wittier, more elegant peers. So while wackaging still makes us cringe, instances such as Sainsbury's game of pun tennis with a customer over Twitter are hailed as PR successes.

The 'scrupulous professional' tone still has two major advantages, of course. Firstly, it has a solid grounding in tradition, with corporations being well-practised in inhabiting the persona of the no-nonsense businessman who can make you successful. It is a lived-in suit, a neutral grey that is less likely to raise hackles.

Secondly, it gels more readily with the practical need to disseminate dry facts about the business in question. The most egregious instances of wackaging include attempts to make information 'fun':

This jarring juxtaposition means that a friendlier tone of voice is prone to coming across as particularly disingenuous, when in fact, there's little to differentiate the promises of these brands from, say, a bank that proclaims it wants to 'do business' with you or make your life easier. One throws an arm around your shoulder while the other extends a smartly cuffed hand for you to shake, but both are gunning for your trust and loyalty.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

'Pet' versus 'Companion Animal'

I have a pet, and his name is Mitchell. Mitchell almost certainly doesn’t know that he belongs to a class of beings commonly referred to as ‘pets’, having his own cat business to take care of and his own cat language with which to communicate (and if he’s shown limited promise as an English speaker, I’m sure I’ve shown about as much promise as a Cat speaker). He is even less likely to be aware of the term ‘companion animal’, an alternative to ‘pet’ that has been in use for at least the last few decades. The question implicitly raised by the existence of the latter term is, obviously, does Mitchell have a reason to prefer not to be referred to as a pet? Or, since he is pretty unmoved by such questions, do we (if we care about and respect animals) have a reason not to use the term ‘pet’ and to prefer ‘companion animal’?

Some people think that we do have a good reason. I first came across the term, I think, when some UK newspapers reported that animal ethicists writing in the Journal of Animal Ethics, published by the University of Illinois Press and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in the UK, had argued that we should dispense with the term ‘pet’ and instead use the less derogatory or more respectful term ‘companion animal’. Here’s the Daily Mail  (the writer is listed as ‘Daily Mail  reporter’):

Animals should not be described as ‘vermin’, ‘pests’ or even ‘pets’, animal ethicists have decided. […] They say words like ‘pests’ and ‘vermin’ should be dropped altogether, and ‘pets’ replaced by ‘companion animals’. […] 
The call for a new ‘animal language’ has been made by the editors of a new academic journal, the Journal of Animal Ethics […] They said: “Despite its prevalence, ‘pets” is surely a derogatory term both of the animals concerned and their human carers.” […] 
“Our existing language about animals is the language of past thought – and the crucial point is that the past is littered with derogatory terminology […] We shall not be able to think clearly unless we discipline ourselves to use less than partial adjectives in our exploration of animals and our moral relations with them.”

(Notably, perhaps, it was not the Daily Mail article but the Guardian article that featured the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’, though the piece is written in the ironic-infuriating tone that is the trademark of the ‘Passnotes’ column; see here.)

The article obviously raises some recurrent and hard-to-settle philosophical issues about language and ethics that I will leave aside here because I am writing as a copy-editor and this is a blog on writing and editing. So: say you are an editor or writer of some kind, and you’re keen to stay up to date with current usage issues, especially if they concern ‘disrespectful’ or ‘derogatory’ language. What should you know about the term ‘companion animal’ that will help you judge how it should be used?

First: definitions. Not all dictionaries list the term, but of those that do, almost all define it as ‘pet’ or something very close to ‘pet’. Oxford Dictionaries has “a pet or other domestic animal”, for example; Collins goes for “an animal kept as a pet”. Macmillan’s more detailed definition is “an animal that someone keeps for company and enjoyment. The more usual word is ‘pet.’” There also seems to be a definition that emphasises health benefits: “a dog, cat, or other pet that provides health benefits to a person. Companion animals may help relieve stress or serve a more active role, as do guide dogs for blind persons and dogs trained to detect telephone or doorbell sounds for deaf persons or seizures in epileptic persons and signal for help” (Mosby’s Medical Dictionary). This is a more specialist usage most likely confined to medical contexts, but it’s probably worth remembering it exists, in case an author intends to make a distinction between such animals and animals that simply live with humans in their homes.

Next: usage patterns. ‘Companion animal’ appears to feature most often in scientific texts, particularly in veterinary medicine. But it’s been used increasingly frequently for the past thirty years or so, at least according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, and it seems to be making inroads into more mainstream culture. There’s a Companion Animal Clinic in Roseburg, Oregon, for example, and in the UK there’s a ‘companion animals team’ that works with the RSPCA. So you can expect to find it in commercial and charity animal-care contexts and the like, and you can expect readers in these contexts not to be thrown by it.

What if you’re a more politically restless writer who wants to ensure that the ‘animal language’ you use is not just ‘the language of past thought’ but reflects a respectful attitude towards animals? Should you do away with ‘pet’ altogether and use only ‘companion animal’? Here I think the philosopher Peter Singer has a good answer – although he is actually discussing the terms ‘animal’ and ‘nonhuman animal’, which in many ways mirror ‘pet’ and ‘companion animal’. This is from the preface to Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975), the first book I read on the ethics of animal rights and animal welfare:

Since there exists no other short term for the nonhuman animals, I have, in the title of this book and elsewhere, had to use ‘animal’ as if it did not include the human animal. This is a regrettable lapse from the standards of revolutionary purity but it seems necessary for effective communication. Occasionally, however, to remind you that this is a matter of convenience only, I shall use longer, more accurate modes of referring to what was once called ‘the brute creation.’

This kind of ‘middle way’ seems worth considering here too, given that ‘companion animal’ is more cumbersome a term than ‘pet’ and that not all readers will know what the longer term means. Maybe someday a shorter term will come along that catches on, though, and using the term ‘pet’ will come to seem to many like, say, using the term ‘little lady’ to refer to a woman in her twenties. As with many things, we can’t know yet, but one day we might – it’s what makes the future so exciting.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Fictional Marketing: The Mystery Machine Gang

As Jon pointed out in his post 'Art vs Copy', marketing doesn’t have to be a chore. In this segment, we look at ways to boost the business profile of fictional characters. Many small businesses have a compelling tale to tell, but need to know how to communicate creatively, so the idea here is to play with exaggeration. These ideas are suitably quirky, given the fictional clients, but designed to work in the real world too.

This issue: everyone’s favourite meddling kids.

Uh, we're here about the implausible hooded vampire yeti...[1]

Like Copy That, the Mystery Machine Gang has its strength in numbers, and they sure know how to decorate a camper van. However, there's no 'I' in team and one member dominates the group’s branding:


Scooby Doo is a good mascot for many reasons. He’s an animal, he’s loveable and he talks (sort of). Ultimately, though, the gang’s USP is not dogsitting but solving paranormal mysteries, and Scooby isn’t the greatest Sherlock.

So let’s look at ways to get the band back together. We got some work to do now, after all.

There are five full-time members in the Mystery Machine Gang.

Velma Dinkley is the resident genius codecracker and clue solver. She knows Morse Code and has perfected a wrestling move called ‘The Flying Dinkley’.

Daphne Blake is a self-defence expert and lockpicker. She’s also the gang’s style guru, though don’t tell Fred that.

Fred Jones is the all-American leader of the group. He generally sticks to the same strategy (“Let’s split up, gang”) and designs traps for enemies.

Shaggy Rogers is Scooby Doo’s owner, and is often used as bait. Riddled with fear but fun-loving and food-obsessed.

Scoobert “Scooby” Doo is the gang’s mascot. He’s cowardly and gluttonous like Shaggy, but somehow triumphs over the bad guy nonetheless. Fond of dressing in drag.


OK. Let’s assume the gang has a serviceable website. So what content can we add to show clients what every member brings to the party?

1. Let’s kick off with a video introduction to each member, hosted from the gang’s YouTube channel. A sort of living Top Trumps deck of the gang. Released one by one, these intros will put faces to the work and engage clients looking for a range of skills.


2. Everyone loves How-To videos, so Daphne could capitalise on her “danger-prone” nickname and create a video tutorial on escaping capture. Similarly Fred could have a regular ‘MacGyver Time’ slot, showing viewers how to make their own bad-guy traps and hacks.

Undoubtedly part of some cunning Jones plan. [5]
3. Once the gang has built up a following, how about a peek inside the Mystery Machine? We'll just have to hope no embittered funfair owners are taking notes.

4. Let’s dispatch Fred to handle the Twitter scheduling, with retweets from each member’s individual account.

5. They could even let the unofficial intern, Scrappy Doo, on Twitter, and get the little firebrand composing 140-character missiles. Uncle Scooby might want to keep him on a short leash where trolls are concerned, though.


6. Blog content is obviously a great way to build SEO, and foster a community. How about these for some viable MM topics?

'Top Ten Ways to Spot a Villain', in which Daphne runs through the giveaways of latex masks and suspect body language/manic laughter.

Fred's (Scooby) dos and don'ts for good team-building and leadership under pressure.

And since Velma’s predictably intelligent relations include doctors, archaeologists and marine biologists, the team have plenty of subjects for interviews and guest posts!

7. Over on Pinterest, the gang could make a board for their ever-growing rogues’ gallery lists, and Daphne and Fred could compile their recommendations for chic-yet-practical adventurewear.


8. Meanwhile, voracious eater Shaggy could Instagram his epic recipes and Scooby Snacks-based canine versions. If this guy's food can convince perennial coward Scooby to face off against creepy ghouls, it must be good.


9. And if all else fails, the internet does love a dog video.


What ideas would you give Fred, Velma, Shaggy and Scoob to boost their baddy-busting business? Comment or tweet us via @HelloCopyThat.

NB: keep it clean; we've all seen the Velma fan-art.

Image credits: 
[1] CaptainJackHarkness, via deviantart
[2], [4], [8] and [9] via
[3] via
[5] Mike, via Flickr
[6] MrResponseClips, via YouTube
[7] via

With thanks to the fantastic Scoobypedia.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Semiotics of Emojis

For my debut CT! blog I have chosen to write about a subject that is enormously dear to my <3 – the complex world of emoji semiotics. Cross-browser compatibility prevents me from utilising them in the prose, but please enjoy an enlarged version of my Muse Of The Day: the glorious Nail Polish (née Personal Care) emoji:

The Apple iOS version, possibly the most eloquent of all the renderings.

Wait, emoji? Is that like an emoticon?

Nope. No word pictures here. No words at all, in fact. Emojis are tiny picture icons that can be inserted into text messages, emails and tweets. First developed in Japan in the late 1990s, they have since been standardised and added to a range of different devices and services across the world including: Apple iOS, Android handsets, Twitter, LG and Samsung phones.

The Nail Polish emoji as rendered on different platforms.
Android going for the bold single finger here.

Just hold on here. I have left my youth far behind me and I do not believe this subject is relevant to me 

It's true that the emoji has been dismissed many times as the inarticulate language of adolescence, but if we examine things more closely, it seems a language of extreme subtlety and esoteric regional dialects is being born before our eyes. The most commonly used emojis (and the ones that come in for the most grief) are the evergreen smiley face and heart combos, but there are hundreds of emojis whose meanings shift and slide beyond the purely representational to an expressive form.

The most recently-used emojis on my phone.
This reveals more about my inner life than I am generally comfortable with.

Think of it like this: in the same way that the Japanese have a word for someone who looks worse after a haircut (Age-otori), emojis provide a way of expressing complex emotional states in just two presses of the thumb. In fact, even if you have the temerity to be over 30, a Futurecasting article from NY start-up site Alley Watch [1] posits that: "In 2014 we are going to see emojis ... go mainstream and beyond teens and millennials ... A job of the future is 'emoji semiotics.'"

There is a PhD contained within this pairing alone [2]
To the uninitiated, all this can seem an unnavigable minefield. Fear not, however – Copy That! is here to help. So let's look again at the Nail Polish emoji.

Why is this emoji significant?
The Nail Polish emoji stands at a particularly potent junction between gender, race and class, a position that shifts significantly when viewed on different technological platforms. By way of illustration, let my Twitter feed break it down for you.

This is the purely illustrative interpretation – the Nail Polish emoji can denote a particular type of 'prettifying' self-care, literally illustrating when the user has gotten themselves all fancy. There are plenty of tweets that bear out this interpretation. I spent an hour watching the real-time NP tweets on Emojitracker [3], which shows the rate of Twitter usage of every emoji in real time. Like all worthwhile experiences, there's an epilepsy warning:

As you can see, the users of Emoji in a literal context were, as you might expect, young women who wanted to show off their manicures. I estimated the age range at 15 to 25, based on profile photos. This is a perfectly legitimate way to use an Emoji, but it doesn't really showcase the expressive qualities that might require the mythical Emoji Semiotician of 2014. However, there is another commonly accepted usage that is almost solely the property of Black Twitter [4] :

Here the meaning lies somewhere between a studied diss, a putdown that implies the user has more important things to deal with than the comment, gesture or attitude they're responding to, and, as @varanine [5] put it:

 photo Barbara-Stanwyck-Denies-The-Pass-At-Her-In-Baby-Face-Gif_zpsab2f0843.gif
"Stanwyckian haughty disdain for the mooted proposition."

It can also be used as a faux-disinterested acknowledgement of praise – the example I've harvested below is from a male user – it says something about this emoji's elasticity that what seems like an overtly gendered symbol can be happily used by someone who self-identifies as ThePussyologist.

So what does this mean for copywriting? Well, it's arguably incumbent on anyone who has an interest in language to take a real interest in the evolution of emoji and their meanings, if only so they can keep abreast of the nuances in digital communication. We are still at a point that emoji semiotics are extremely malleable and where meaning can be actively created. This is especially true where the gaps between Japanese and Western culture have created a vacuum between original intent and subsequent interpretation, leading to a corral of seldom-used emojis, ready to have new meaning assigned to them. We're not even close to needing a full-time emoji semiotician – we're still in our caveman state, learning the rudiments of this new language. And this is a deeply exciting state to be in. The fretting over the emotional vacuum of a :), to be found in too many op-ed pieces [6], is the panic of writers who lack the requisite fluency and curiosity to take this mode of visual linguistics seriously.

But, y'know:

Clicking on all images of Tweets will take you to their authors' individual feeds.

[2] Start your journey here.
[3] Emojitracker: they're not kidding about that flashing thing.
[4] There are lots of people more qualified than I am to talk about this phenomenon, which, like any community, is highly nuanced and multi-faceted. Start here and branch out.
[5] Source:
[6] Here's a recent example from The New Republic: Ambiguous, superficial, and cute, they’re perfectly suited to a generation that sends Hallmark e-cards ironically, circulates step-by-step guides to "being deep," and dismisses "deep meaningful conversations” as "DMC's." [link]

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Art versus Copy

True story: I’ve just won a major poetry competition. I’m about to get a profile boost. People will be googling my name and stumbling on my website. Good! I’ve been writing poems and making books for a decade now, and the more people know about them, the better.

But my website, like many writers’ websites, has fallen into disrepair. Not only is it not up-to-date; parts of it have stopped working altogether. Before I can celebrate, I’ve got to fix the old girl up, and in doing so, enter into an uneasy negotiation with myself about the merits - and the perils - of self-publicising.

By and large, writers - by which I mean fiction writers and poets - are bad self-publicists. They’re bad because they’re reluctant, and they’re reluctant because so much of the business of self-publicity seems grubby - even, dare I say it, shameful. Shameful that you aren’t important enough for someone else to be doing it for you. Shameful that you’re stooping to ‘sell’ yourself like a brand of washing powder. Shameful because what you really want to write about is other people, other subject matter. If you were an attention seeker, you’d have gone into stand-up comedy. As a writer, you want people to look at you only so that they can then look where you’re pointing. There’s something inevitably absurd about your name being rendered in imposing letters at the top of a web page, as if people were coming to watch you dance or make a speech.

But to think of self-publicising purely as a matter of touting one's credentials, or 'brand' management, or placing oneself centre-stage, is to miss the opportunity to treat it as a creative enterprise. Art and publicity are not on opposite sides of the fence, the former for dreamers, the latter for schemers. Good copy shares much in common with good poetry - it is memorable and concise. Both can be used to tell the truth or make a beautiful lie. The point is to bring people closer to something.

One of the hardest parts of renovating my website is cutting down the word count. I’ve written a lot of poems and made a lot of books, employing different techniques and making use of, so I’m told, ‘a wide frame of reference’. Every project is different. Heck, every poem is different. But I can’t expect a visitor to want to pick their way through a full run-down in the hope of finding something that piques their interest.

I have to start by introducing myself, just as if I were meeting them in person. If I want them to follow my outstretched finger, I have to be an engaging guide. It's just like the first page of a book, or the first line of a poem - nobody likes an infodump. A brief summary of what I do and some examples of the range I cover can, I find, be folded into a short explanation of the layout of the site. I do want visitors to wander, and become lost, eventually. In this respect, I intend to be treacherous. But initially, at least, I would like them to feel they’ve got the measure of me, so that the (inevitable) majority who only stay for the briefest of visits can go away with an accurate impression.

Complications and setbacks can provide an impetus to do something unexpected. wasn't available when I was shopping for domain names, so I had to settle for Not as catchy, but at least I can have some fun with it. I add randomised text above the masthead, so that instead of just being my name in bold type, it reads 'Go to your room, Jon Stone' or 'Go crazy, Jon Stone'. This performs two additional functions: it's a little self-deprecating, which weighs against the egoistic focus of the site, and the randomisation means the site looks slightly different on each return visit.

I deploy endorsements, but try to choose ones that accentuate something odd or unique about me, rather than general praise. I keep the menu headings simple, but use subheadings so that I can add a variety of content. I want the site to look neat and navigable, but to have hidden depth. This is, after all, the first creation of mine that some people are going to encounter, I reason, so it should reflect the skill and attention that characterises my best work. It should not seem like something perfunctory, something that exists because a publicist told me I had to have a website.

And that's it, right there. Self-publicising is grubby when it's treated as an artless enterprise. Say it with feeling, and it need not be so.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Steven Pinker on Academic Writing

Writers and editors might be interested in this lecture by Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker on style in academic writing, which I revisited yesterday ahead of the release of Pinker’s The Sense of Style, a style and usage guide informed by evolutionary biology. There’s lots of useful advice here, some of it familiar (keep in mind the "reader over your shoulder", show a draft to a non-specialist reader, and so on), and some of it quite surprising or radical-seeming, at least to this occasional academic writer. For example, Pinker advises against starting an article with a paragraph that positions the discussion within recent developments in the field ("In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to [XYZ]", etc.), on the grounds that most readers are interested not in what academics have been doing over the past few years but in the actual phenomenon under question. He is also no fan of "hedging", the insertion into sentences of qualifiers such as "somewhat", "fairly", "to an extent" and "in part", which obviously serve to protect the writer against accusations of overstatement, but which, Pinker claims, are not really necessary ("You can count on the common sense of readers to fill in the missing hedges"). In response to a question at the end, Pinker admits that conforming to all these principles may be a tall order, especially given the expectations of other academics, and that most authors will have to "muddle through in a middle way". But academic writing, like many things, is compromise; the value of well-reasoned advice is that it helps us recognise the opportunity to do better when it is there.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Childhood Heroes: Authors Dress Up for Oxford Story Museum exhibit

On 5th April 2014, the Oxford Story Museum will host an unforgettable series of author portraits. 26 Characters is a project in which 26 famous authors have dressed up as their favourite children's book characters, to spectacular effect. I can only assume this was the most fun photographer Cambridge Jones has had on a shoot.

The project has been a collaboration between the Museum, Jones and writer's association 26, who you might remember from my Throwaway Lines post a while back. Here's where the writing part comes in. Each of us was assigned a portrait and the challenge to write a sestude (a 62 word poem) about the photograph as a whole, taking in both the character and the author's work.

I was lucky enough for my author to have chosen one of my absolute favourite childhood reads. Adventure, danger and unseen worlds right beneath our feet. I can't say any more, or I'd spoil the surprise, but keep your eyes on the Museum website and follow them and 26 on Twitter for updates. Oh, and look out for the sestude writers going rogue nearer the time, as we talk about our own favourite characters, and try dressing up ourselves. It's going to be magical.

What's that? You absolutely can't wait and want a sneak peek? OK then. Straight from the Museum's website, see if you can recognise the cult author playing Badger from Wind In The Willows.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Bitten off of an otter: 5 linguistic reasons to love Viz

We're big Viz fans at Copy That. Granted, that could be partly due to half of the crew being northern, but it's also down to their witty linguistic tinkering.

Viz play a Tommy Cooper role with language, acting the fool with boob jokes and children's cartoons, while smuggling into its pages a sharp knowledge of convention, tone and trope that conjures something remarkably cutting.

Here are 5 of our favourite Viz-isms, putting the copper bolt in copywriting:

1. Spoonerisms on the cover.

With such mucky-monikered icons as Terry Fuckwitt and Spoilt Bastard on its roster, Viz has had to get creative to keep their billing centre stage and uncensored. Simultaneously childish and brilliant, this is the publishing version of insisting to your parents that you said "ships" and not The Other Word.

 2. Tattle-Mag Satire.

Nobody spoofs tabloids or cheap women's magazines quite like Newcastle's finest. Take A Shit, their homage to coffee-time scandal mag Take A Break, mimics the style so disturbingly accurately that the surreal stories could almost pass for real ones. Using the headline conventions of "This Happened ... And That's Not The Half of It!", they send up the exaggerated tone and content perfectly (my favourite being "I'm pregnant with a million baby crabs ... and I'm keeping them all!").

For its more Daily Star-style articles, Viz also throw in gleefully silly Easter eggs. Scattered throughout a piece about a pensioner conning himself out of his own life savings, are the sub-heads 'upstairs', 'downton', 'rieviaux', 'fountains' and 'dib-dabs'. It's only after finishing the article that you notice the writer has been sticking their tongue out at you the whole time.

3. Strip Tease. 

Gilbert Ratchet is a Viz regular. At the start of each strip, the schoolboy inventor will usually be promised a reward for making a custom invention, and will spend the entire episode battling duff prototypes until inspiration or good luck strikes. But his triumph is short-lived, as a homophonic error always means his reward is not what he thought. A much-anticipated "giant cup of tea" turns out to be an immense statue of author Truman Capote and poor Gilbert is left wondering why, yet again, he didn't see this coming.

In contrast, Finbarr Saunders (and his Double Entendres) pulls the opposite trick. Throughout the entire strip, his mum and her neighbour Mr Gimlet will exchange pleasantries, blissfully unaware that their unintentional innuendo is sending Finbarr into apoplexy. It's only in the final panel we see that the joke's on Finbarr.

4. In-jokes and deliberate mistakes. 

If you squint at the phrase "bitten off of an otter" or "stang off of a bee", you were clearly home-schooled. There's something about seeing a phrase you remember from childhood given the gravitas of print and the context of a serious article that makes it twice as funny. It's like Chris Morris extremely soberly telling viewers that David Owen has emerged, "shattered, from Oliver Reed."

Further playgroundisms abound. Remember when you thought all vampires were Draculas? Or the Ernie Wise-style use of 'what' instead of 'that' (see: "a play what I wrote")? Viz does.

5. Bad ads. 

The small ads in Viz are pin-sharply observed satirical gems. In any given issue you might find a chintzy decorative plate ad featuring deliberately confusing terms involving double negatives and threats of home repossession in a miniscule font, or ludicrous kinky phone lines catering for hot scientist/terrorist/priest action (sample: "I'm r*v*rs*ng the p*l*rity of the d*l*th*i*m crystals!"). By starring out their words, non-sexual characters are suddenly given a new, hilariously inappropriate guise.

One of my favourite issues of Viz came in the wake of the Market Rasen 'earthquake', when the following steamy ads were published, elegantly lampooning Britishness:

I also have a soft spot for their niche cigarette brands and their accompanying health warnings:

There are so many more little flourishes and winks between those Fat Slag-filled pages that it was hard to narrow it down to five favourites. In case regular Viz readers were wondering, I've deliberately avoided delving into Roger's Profanisaurus (steady, Finbarr), because that's an article in itself. Overall, though, Viz's ace in the hole is repetition, through which the feeling of "wait - that's not right..." or "I don't understand" is overtaken by a growing familiarity and expectation. Eventually, reading Viz becomes like meeting up with your weird but witty mate. The one who happens to read Engels and Nietzsche and has fifty words for fart.

I'll leave you with this gem, for anyone who's ever been tempted to learn a language:

Why not share your favourite Viz tics in the comments below?