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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.