From slogans to stardom

Dog walking.

Writing radio scripts for The Beeb.

Some of our fellow creatives have recently left the ad game to do something completely different.

So in this week’s Department of Words, we look back at a selection of copywriters who went on to find fame after switching careers. 


Fay Weldon

Before becoming one of the UK’s most successful authors, Fay Weldon enjoyed a notable spell in advertising.

She was involved in Ogilvy’s famous ‘Go to work on an egg’ campaign.

Screen Shot 2017-03-24 at 16.45.52

And, when working on the Smirnoff account, Weldon proposed the no-nonsense slogan ‘Vodka gets you drunker quicker’.

“It just seemed obvious,” she said later, “that people who wanted to get drunk fast needed to know this.”

Makes sense to me. But despite the line’s unarguable truth, it was rejected.


F Scott Fitzgerald

At 22, a jobless F Scott Fitzgerald was desperate to marry Zelda Sayre – a rebellious and beautiful socialite.

But she wasn’t keen on tying the knot until he could support them both financially. So Fitzgerald took a job writing ad slogans.

And he had some success. His line ‘We keep you clean in Muscatine’, written for a steam laundry company in Muscatine, Iowa, earned him a pay rise.

But Fitzgerald fell out of love with advertising pretty quickly.

“I was a failure,” he later lamented. “Mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home.”

Writing novels seemed like a wiser career choice for such a melodramatic personality. So in 1920, Fitzgerald published ‘This Side of Paradise’, a novel he’d started writing in college.

It was an instant success. And Sayre, knowing she was onto a good thing, agreed to marry him.

The rest, of course, is history.


Hugh Hefner

Before launching his famous ‘lifestyle and entertainment magazine’, Hugh Hefner had a promising career as a professional writer.

In 1951 he was working as a promotions copywriter for Esquire Magazine. But when the business moved to New York, his request for a five-dollar raise was denied.

So Hefner decided to launch a publication of his own.

“I wanted to read a magazine that was a little more sophisticated and was focused on the romantic connection between the sexes from a male point of view,” he said.

And within a year he’d published the first issue of Playboy – featuring none other than Marilyn Monroe on the cover.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 10.45.32

But even as a publisher, Hefner continued to channel his creativity. Impressively, he held the position of Chief Creative Officer at Playboy until the ripe old age of 90.


Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie probably had the most distinguished advertising career of the lot.

During his time at Charles Barker and Ogilvy & Mather, Rushdie came up with lines like ‘That’ll do nicely’ for American Express, ‘Naughty but Nice’ for Fresh Cream Cakes, and ‘Irresistibubble’ for Aero bars.

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 12.32.45

Apparently, the latter was inspired by a panicking, perspiring colleague who was struggling to deal with a client.

“Whatever my colleague was asked, he said he couldn’t do,” according to Rushdie.

“He said, ‘It’s impossib-ib-ib-ible’, and I thought ‘Ping!’

“While he was still on the phone sweating and stammering, I wrote down every word I could think of that ended with ‘able’ or ‘ible’ and turned it into ‘bubble’.”

As this distinguished array of former copywriters demonstrate, going from writing slogans to wallowing in stardom is a real possibility.

So will our fellow copywriters do the same?

Watch this space…

What taking good photographs can tell us about writing good copy

In an effort to buttress the shaky détente between the DoW and our friends at the Department of Pictures, I am willing to publicly concede that words and pictures might have a lot to say to each other.

The insight I’m thinking of in particular comes from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes.

In his book, Barthes develops two concepts with which to think about photographs, which are also useful ways to think about copy: studium and punctum.

Studium is “that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste”.

In other words, it’s all the stuff in a photograph that you like or can interpret using normal cultural references that are open to everyone within a culture. You get the reference with studium; it communicates clearly – but it doesn’t set your world alight. Barthes calls it “the order of liking, not of loving”.

On the other hand we have the punctum. Punctum is Latin for sting, speck, cut, or little hole. It’s the part of the photograph that ‘pricks’: the detail that rises above the ordinary and shakes you out of your complacency.

When you get stung by a punctum, you stop being a passive observer and start relating to the photograph in a deeply personal way. Suddenly, you start caring.

One punctum that pierces me is in this photograph by Reylia Slaby. It’s called ‘Never Leave Me’ and is part of her ‘Tales from Japan’ series.

Reylia Slaby, 'Never Leave Me', 2015

Reylia Slaby, ‘Never Leave Me’, 2015

Slaby is obviously referencing John Everett Millais’ portrait of Ophelia.

But look at her model’s right hand.

Where Millais’ Ophelia is a picture of relaxation, all open eyes, mouth, and hands, this model’s eyes and mouth are closed, her jaw is tense, and you can see the muscle tension in her grasping hands. That right hand is the punctum, the arresting detail that opens up the entire photograph.

As this example illustrates, for Barthes and indeed in practice, the punctum is a deeply personal and often unintended thing.

But it’s still a useful idea to bear in mind when writing copy.

Most copy is necessarily studium: understandable, relatable communication. But we should all aspire to include a punctum: a little detail that gets under the skin of a reader and makes her care: that bothers her.

A sting that takes your copy from a piece of rational communication that someone might like, to an arresting, bothersome, under-the-skin love.

And that’s something to which everyone, whether we deal in words or pictures, can aspire.


Big Data, psychometrics, Facebook, and that funny/not-funny orange guy

There’s a very long article that I’ll attempt to summarise so you don’t have to sacrifice one of your limited supply of hours here on Earth. It’s fairly complicated but almost certainly quite important. And like most things these days, it’s got a whole bunch of Trump in it.

Cambridge Analytica is a company that claims to have played an instrumental role in both Brexit and Trump. Their prowess at swinging elections is built on a number of innovations.

First, in psychometrics. Back in the 1980s, university researchers identified key personality traits that enabled them to slice and dice the great sea of humanity. Apparently, we all display more or less of the Big Five traits:

And for once – says the copywriter who’s gnashed his teeth on more than a few naming projects – the damn acronym is both neat and meaningful. I bet there was some serious whooping and high-fiving going on when that was first worked out.

Anyway, back to the spooky stuff. These OCEAN personality traits were a fairly innocuous semi-academic exercise (used mainly for assessment and recruitment of the ‘right kind of people’) until they were accidentally weaponised on Facebook in 2008.

Before Facebook, supplying the info meant filling in a long and pretty weird questionnaire. But researchers created a MyPersonality app on Facebook that made it simple to answer questions and get an instant rating based on the Big Five. Significantly, people could also opt in to share their Facebook data with researchers.

People just love filling in those personality questionnaires, don’t they?

The app was such a big hit that soon researchers found themselves with an unexpected and unprecedented dataset. Millions of people had not only shared insight into their characters based on OCEAN categories, they’d also shared all sorts of details about their Facebook activity.

When researchers mapped the two sets of data against each other, multiple pennies started dropping. They realised you could accurately infer character type from fairly basic details of online behaviour. And you could predict a whole lot else besides. By 2012:

“On the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.”

Now it was simply a question of feeding in more data and continuing to refine the model. Before long they could “evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.”

It seems we’re all way more predictable than we’d like to think.

Soon the lead researcher started to have serious misgivings about where the project was heading. If you could accurately predict personality and core motivations from simple online behaviours, it wasn’t hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where absolutely everyone was absolutely knowable.

In the wrong hands, that kind of insight could be frighteningly powerful.

But by the time he pulled the plug on the project, it was already too late. A company called SCL – the parent company of Cambridge Analytica – had been following the research closely. When their attempt to buy the data failed, they simply went about building their own version.

By creating their own personality quizzes and adding data from all sorts of different sources – including land registries, shopping data and anything from data brokers like Experian – the company was able to build a picture of whole populations in more depth and more detail than ever before. Especially in the US, where data protection laws are much weaker than in Europe.

The question is, though, how useful can all that Big Data be?

This video gives you a good idea. In a slick and faintly terrifying nine minutes, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica explains how they’ve profiled the personality of every adult in the US – and how they used that data to help Ted Cruz (a pretty unappetising candidate) become the only serious contender to Trump for the Republican nomination.

They went on to use the same techniques to help Trump gain the presidency. Rather than relying on the blunt tools of demographics and geography, psychometrics was added to the mix. This not only allowed voters to be categorised into more meaningful groups, it also meant messages could be honed to resonate with different personality types.

Imagine a group of undecided voters in a swing district. Are you a fearful type? Here’s a shadowy fella climbing through a kitchen window. A traditional type? Here’s a grandfather teaching a cute kid how to use a hunting rifle. Both approaches aim to nudge people towards a pro-gun Republican stance, but do it in ways that best resonate with the audience.

The campaign used sponsored Facebook posts, pinpoint-targeted right down to individual streets and even buildings. The individual messages were tested and refined in real time too, constantly optimised to make the biggest impact on voters. And according to this recent article that may give you nightmares, it looks like AI was used to super-charge the whole process, pumping the handcart to Hell even faster than anyone ever thought possible.

Of course, anything Trump-related can seem instantly sinister. And it really doesn’t help that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica looks like Tom Hiddlestone auditioning for the role of an IT nerd arch-villain in an X-Men film. Or that Steve Bannon, Trump’s deeply creepy strategy guy, is on the company’s board.

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

Tom Hiddlestone plays Spreadsheet, the latest X-Men baddie

But perhaps the techniques themselves are just a long-overdue step forward in targeted advertising. For years, we’ve been told that online advertising allows for hugely intelligent targeting of audiences. But still, most banners and the like seem comically dumb. “Aha, you’ve just bought a laptop. You are clearly someone who likes buying laptops. I will keep feeding you laptop ads. Even though you won’t need another laptop for at least five years.”

So while the Cambridge Analytica approach can appear downright dystopian in the political context, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in consumer advertising.

Will targeting people based on their psychometric profile create more powerful ads for everyday things like cars, trainers, chocolate and pensions? Or does it only really work in areas where emotions run as high as in the recent US elections?

Either way, I’m expecting my first brief from a psychometric AI planner-bot any day soon.


One day, while sat in a large conference room with a group of clients — I started sweating.

It wasn’t because I was nervous about speaking. In fact, I was nothing more than ‘room meat’ at this particular get-together. My job was to sit quietly and nod along.

However, one of our senior people was taking the clients through a PowerPoint presentation about the business. And the beads began to trickle when he clicked onto a slide entitled AGNECY OVERVIEW.

It was a summer day, so the sweat really began to flow when he clicked onto the next slide and it had the same title. And the next. And the next. And the next.

When he wrote it, I guess he just copied the title each time, rather than type it out.

Overall, we went through about seven AGNECY OVERVIEWs. Each one lit up on a 60-inch plasma screen.

Oh well, these things happen eh?


Yes, they do happen. They happen to me. They happen to you. They happen to everybody. And they’re a right pain in the arse.

The word ‘typo’ is a truncation of ‘typographical error’ and its first known usage was in 1878.

Typos have a rich history.

Apparently there are 500 year-old bibles which say “Thou shalt commit adultery” and refer to Judas being nailed on the cross instead of Jesus.

Surprisingly, The Guardian had a massive reputation for typos back in the day. That’s why Private Eye still refers to it as ‘The Grauniad’.

So why are some typos so hard to spot?

Well, I’ll come on to that. Before then, let me just share two of my favourite typo stories with you.

The first is from one of my mates. He was working for a financial analytics company called Curation. It was his first job out of Uni, and after a few months he was given the task of compiling the weekend progress report. This report was sent out first thing every Monday morning to all the company’s clients.

And one Monday morning he was called into his boss’ office and asked to explain this…


Quite impressive really: squeezing two typos into a four-word subject line.

Anyway, he no longer works there, he’s doing a PHD now. (That’s true)

My next favourite typo story is much quicker. It comes from a friend of mine who works for Sky News.

One afternoon she received an all-staffer from her boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. And in part of the email, the gentleman tried to explain that he, and two other senior gentlemen needed to align on a certain issue. His email read: “…so Stewart, Peter and I are going to try and get our dicks in a row this week.”

You never know, maybe he didn’t mean ducks…

Anyway, I think most of you could explain why you don’t notice typos in your own writing.

And the psychology department of the University of Sheffield has investigated the very question and confirmed what you probably already realise: when you’re proof reading, you’re not properly reading.

According to the Sheffield bods— writing is a very high-level task. And as with all high level tasks, your brain generalises simple, component parts (like turning letters into words and words into sentences) so it can focus on more complex tasks (like combining sentences into complex ideas).

So instead of taking in every detail, you take in sensory information and combine it with what you expect to be there, and then you extract meaning.

When you’re reading other peoples’ writing, this helps you arrive at meaning faster by using less brain power. But, when you’re proof reading your own work, you know the meaning you want to convey. Because we expect that meaning to be there, it’s easier for us to miss when parts (or all) of it are absent. So the reason you don’t see your own typos is because what you see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in your own head.

That’s why the best tips are to change the typeface; point size; and even colour of your text; print it off and then proof-read. Or better still, give it to a friend to do it for you.

That way, there’s a good chance you won’t be causing impromptu clamminess in your agnecy colleagues any time soon.

How to win an election


‘Truth and light’ (lux et veritas) is the motto of Yale University. It serves as a promise. They have educated five US presidents to date.

The new president went one better and opened his own university. Trump University’s motto was ‘One company. One culture. One goal. Achieving sustainability profitability in 2010’. That should have served as a warning.

Trump University had it’s own playbook. It was submitted to the courts and that evidence has now been unsealed, so the PDF is floating around online.

It’s not big on truth and light. It’s dedicated to the art of the sale and especially how to deal with objections.

First you need to set the stage. We’re told, ‘You don’t sell products, benefits or solutions – you sell feelings.’ So when setting up the room for a presentation, you need to get it right. ‘IPod shuffle, adjust volume as necessary, and cue “Money, Money, Money” song (The O’Jays) for introduction.’

Then you got to figure out how motivated people are to give you money. For example, low initiative would be: “My husband dropped me off and said I had to come because I never leave the house.” That’s why I’m at work, in fairness. High initiative: “I’m ready to make a change in my life because I want to provide a better life for my family.’

No matter what, you ‘Always Assume The Following When Approaching An Attendee During The Sales Break:’

  • They are not 100% happy with their job.
  • Their retirement funds aren’t where they want them to be.
  • They took a lot of time out of their day and drove to the event because they want to have a better life.
  • They want to make a lot more money, and have more options available to them in life.
  • They want to attend our three-day training.
  • That they want someone to come into their life, grab them by the hand, take control, and show them exactly what they need to do to be successful- you’re that person that they’ve been waiting for!
  • That the speaker did their job and closed them- you just need to ask for the sale.

But how do you talk to them one-on-one? How do you get them to buy the bullshit you’re selling? Simple. Do The Donald:

  • Be passionate: There’s no such thing as the magic pill or magic response. Just be strong and passionate! People will be left thinking, “There’s a reason he believes in this so much; I want to be a part of it.”
  • Deliver everything with more emotion, more energy, more excitement, and more intensity!
  • You’re in charge of the conversation; you control the conversation the entire time.
  • It’s not just what you say, but how you say it (be excited, passionate, and intense!)
  • Remember that these people want you to take control. They want someone to grab them by the hand, and show them exactly what to do to achieve their goals.
  • When asking for the sale, you can use this to start the conversation: “You look like you’re ready to get started…” or “I can tell you’re thinking about getting enrolled, what can I help you with?” When asking for the sale, you can use this to end the conversation: “What type of credit card will you be using today?”
  • You need to judge within ten seconds or less if this is someone you’re going to be able to close. If you need to get away from someone that you’re confident will waste your time, ask them for the sale! If they don’t say “Yes, let’s do it,” tell them “Thank you so much for coming down here today. I wish you the best of success; there are other people waiting for me to help them get enrolled. Now if you’re really serious about getting our help, grab a seat at the table and as soon as I’m finished, we’ll talk about getting you enrolled as well.” And move on.
  • Do not let potential students have more than one concern.

And finally, ‘If You’re Still Getting Excuses:’ ‘…say “STOP!! It’s my job to get you to the next level. You will never get ahead in life with excuses. Mr. Trump won’t listen to excuses and neither will we. Excuses will never make you more money; they will just continue to cost you more missed opportunities in life. You’re here today because you’re ready to change that, make more money, and have a better life. I WILL help you accomplish that. I’m going to help you take your first step. Follow me and we will get you enrolled with Trump University, and while you’re filling out the enrollment form, let us know who you would like to bring as a guest. Congratulations and I’m really excited for what you will begin accomplishing in real estate. I’m putting you on a path that you wanted to take years ago. I’m the same as you; sometimes I just need a little push in the right direction. Again, congratulations.”

As the playbook observes, ‘When you’re direct and don’t allow them to make excuses, they realize you’re right and appreciate you doing your job.’

Hail Trump.

How I got on first name terms with Jeremy Corbyn

When words fail you, perhaps you ought not write a blog for the Department of Words.

Or as the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should remain silent.”

Speechless as I am, I will press on.

What struck me speechless was an email I received from an organisation in which I have, at various times, placed some trust, if not hope.

When Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning to be leader of the Labour party (the first time round), I paid £3 to join as an affiliate and voted for him. After all, Things Can’t Get Any Worse, as the old D:ream Labour anthem went.

From the second I parted with my £3, I received a regular stream of emails from the party. They emailed me throughout the general election campaign. They continued emailing me on a variety of issues, invited me to soirées (tempting), sought my support on marches and emailed me at every opportunity to build on the interest I had shown. Fair enough. They were in Corbyn’s own words “harnessing the advances of new technology to organise political campaigning like we’ve never seen before.”

Then, when the biggest issue of 21st century British political history arose i.e. Brexit, they went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid. Here’s how they harnessed the advances of new technology to open their pitch…..

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 10.54.46Yes, there I was. In an age of targeted, data driven, digital communications, having my most fervent social and political views sought, being addressed as “Firstname” under the subject heading “What about you?”

Who me? Firstname? Yeah, we really want to know what you think, Firstname. Your views matter, Firstname. And then further down the email they suggested I, Firstname, donate another twenty quid to party funds.

Screen Shot 2017-01-27 at 11.00.36

I only wish I had gone to those soirées. (“Prosecco, Firstname?”) Or the Christmas party at the home of my MP. (“Compliments of the season, Firstname, mince pie?”) Oh, the introductions (“Jeremy, Firstname. Firstname, Jeremy.”)

Sorry. Considering I said I was speechless, I am going on. But it is the basics of communication. Get the name right. Know your target audience as well as possible. Or you only make life harder for your message and your brand.

It reminds me of my 25 years as a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder. 25 seasons @ around £350 each plus merchandise and catering. All to watch false dawns rise and fade. Every year THFC greeted me with a letter that began Dear Sir or Madam Welcome to another season at White Hart Lane. After a quarter of a century of a customer relationship, you might think they would have tried a little harder. Try my name. Say my name, say my name. They might have got more than £8,750 out of me.

I won’t even speak whereof they continued to put David Ginola on the season ticket three years after he’d left for another team. I forgive Spurs. You expect farce and incompetence from football now and then. But not from people who would run the country.



Year of the no clams

I’ll get my coat.
A bit of wee came out.
Did I say that out loud?
That went well.
I can’t even.

This poem was written using “clams”.

Not the happy flappy molluscs, but clams in the TV writers’ sense, meaning tired, overused bits of sitcom dialogue.

Even if they don’t make you groan, clams are bad because they remind you of the writer’s clammy hand. (My guess at the word’s origin.)

Here’s a long list of recent clams compiled by the staff of Comedy Central’s Workaholics:

Clam whiteboard 1 (courtesy John Quaintance)

Clam whiteboard 2 (originally posted by John Quaintance)

Can you not?
I can explain!
Let’s not and say we did.
I didn’t not ___.
Wait for it…
Just threw up in my mouth.
Good talk.
And by ___ I mean ___.
Check please!
Shut the front door!
Lady boner.
I think that came out wrong.
Uh… define ___.
No? Just me.
Why are we whispering?
That went well…
Stay classy.
I’m a hot mess!
That’s not a thing.
It’s science.
Bacon anything.
Real talk.
Nailed it.
Awesome sauce.
Thanks… I guess.
Little help?
Laughy McLaugherson.
___ dot com.
Oh helllll naw!
Epic fail
Did I just say that out loud?
Douchenozzle. Douche anything.
Soooo, that just happened.
Squad goals.
I just peed a little.
Too soon?
Spoiler alert.
Um… in English please.
Note to self.
Life hack.
Best. ___. Ever. Or worst. ___. Ever.
It’s giving me all the feels.
Garbage people.
That happened one time!
Well played.
I’m right here!
Hard pass.
Are you having a stroke?
Go sports!
We have fun.
Who hurt you?
I absorbed my twin in the womb.
I’ll take ___ for $500, Alex.
Thanks Obama.
That’s why we can’t have nice things.
I think we’re done here.
Wait, what?
Shots fired.
You assclown.
Debbie Downer.
I can’t unsee that.
That just happened.
I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.
See what I did there?
I’ll show myself out.
Here’s the line, here’s you.
___ on steroids/crack.
Swipe right.
White people problems.


A few of these wouldn’t be so bad by themselves. If given a twist they might even be funny.

But doesn’t reading them all in one place make you cringe? It does me. What a lot of lazy comedy and copying had to happen for all these lines to become so familiar.

Advertising: a hotbed of clams

Advertising has clams, too, and they’re just as bad. I don’t mean jokes, but lexical combinations we’ve all heard too often. Maybe once clever, they’ve now become patter that suggests our custom isn’t worth careful or original thought.

So, as a public service, I’ve started writing a list of advertising clams. (This was quick to do by the way – sadly, I’m full of them.)

End line/headline clams
The power of ___
Tomorrow’s ___ today
___ matters
The ___ people
Welcome to the ___
__ the possible (or anything with ‘possible’ as a noun)
There is an easier way to ___
One ___ that won’t ___
Big on ___, small on ___
Our __, your ___
Be more you (or anything with ‘you’ as an adjective’)
___ has arrived
___ has landed
The new ___
___ is the new ___
From ___ to ___
What will you ___?
What’s your ___?
Open the door to ___
Discover ___
Rethink ___
Rediscover __
There’s a ___ for that
Unleash ___
Release your inner ___
Taste the ___
Experience the ___
We all ___
It’s [fake language] for ___
The ___ you want, the ___ you need
Are you ___-ready?

Body copy/selly clams
But wait
Don’t take our word for it
In today’s ___
In an increasingly ___
The world is getting more ___
You and your family/business
The big picture
Game changing
We live and breathe ___
Today and tomorrow
We go the extra mile
At ___, we ___
We know ___
We believe ___
That’s why ___
We never rest
Our mission is to
We see a world where
Why not ___
No wonder ___
Act now
These days
The answer is clear
Now there’s a solution
Ticks all the boxes
In other words
You could say
But remember
Don’t forget

Again, euurk.

Not every entry on this list is awful on its own. But together, they make up a bland, regurgitated soup that people have no choice but to swim in.

So for 2017, I earnestly invite you to join me in cutting down on copy clams wherever possible. Okay, it’s not the moral crusade of our times but it costs nothing. And it would be rude to the audience not to try.

Here is a picture of a copywriter considering a selection of clams. If he’s a pro, he’ll soon move on in search of fresher catch.

Man with clams


I met one of my mates for dinner a few weeks ago. He’s training to be a clinical psychiatrist. That means he’s been a bona-fide ‘medical doctor’ for a few years, and now he’s going to specialise.

Over a starter of spicy chicken wings, he told me all about his tuition. He’s been in and out of NHS psychiatric hospitals around London for the last six months. He even spent a few weeks at Broadmoor, the infamous hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane.

“Honestly mate, some mornings you get the urge to say, ‘Look, just stop being silly!’”

Anyway, as the main course arrived he asked how my work is going.

subliminal—    “All good thanks. It’s great fun you know, advertising.”

Leaning back in his chair, and nonchalantly tossing a sweet potato fry into his mouth, he replied:

“It’s mainly subliminal though right? That’s how a lot of adverts work.”

Now, dear reader, you may think that my mate is a dickhead for thinking this. I’ve often been tempted to ponder his dickhead’ery myself. He’s a ‘medical doctor’ after all, and hoping to be one that deals exclusively with the human brain.

But I reckon that’s because you probably work in an area related to advertising or marketing.

And we haven’t just seen behind the curtain, we live behind it.

I’ll wager that when average people hear the word ‘advertising’, many minds jump to a myth that first arose from a bestselling book by Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


It was first published in 1957, and the overall message is that advertising shamelessly exploits the general public, manipulating them into buying things they don’t really want or need.

subliminalIn his fourth chapter, Packard refers to research that aimed to find out why a man repeatedly chose a certain make of car. And how under hypnosis he “was able to repeat word for word, an ad he had read more than twenty years before”.

Then having raised the reader’s concerns about how vulnerable we are to mind-probing techniques such as hypnotism, Packard described an experiment reported in the Sunday Times. This experiment apparently happened in a New Jersey cinema and comprised pictures of ice cream being shown at a “sub-threshold” level, meaning below the level of conscious perception.

The result was apparently a ‘clear and unaccountable boost in ice cream sales’ — the first ever documented case of subliminal advertising.

But it was all bollocks.

We now know that the boost in ice cream sales was due to exceptionally hot weather. And that Packard’s arguments were conflated with another experiment, set up in the same year by a chap named James Vickery.

In Vickery’s experiment, phrases like ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Hungry? Eat Popcorn’ were exposed at 0.3 milliseconds, and apparently created an increase in Coke and Popcorn sales of 18% and 59% respectively.

But that was all bollocks too. Vickery later admitted it was a hoax.

We now know from continuous experiments that ‘sub-threshold’ messages repeatedly exposed at a frequency below about forty milliseconds, don’t have any enduring effect on us whatsoever. Certainly no ability to affect our brand choices.

subliminalBut Packard’s book set a ball rolling which clearly rolls to this day.

Despite ‘subliminal advertising’ being banned in the UK and USA from 1958, as recently as the 2000 US presidential election, the newspapers were plastered with stories about a TV ad aimed at the Democratic Party candidate, Al Gore, in which the word ‘rat’ had supposedly been inserted below the level of conscious perception.

Again, bollocks. (And I’m sure you’re gratified to see that American politics has become far more grown-up and sensible since then)

One of America’s most influential admen of the 1960s, Rosser Reeves, wrote a book named ‘Reality in Advertising’.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


In a chapter titled ‘The Freudian Hoax’, Reeves wrote (in shouty capitals):


Perhaps I’ll send a copy to my psychiatrist-to-be mate this Christmas.

Well, that’s it. I hope you think this was a good blog.



Roald Dahl’s Daily Routine


John Fountain. McCann Enterprise

Roald Dahl books sell at the rate of twelve a minute.

Every day of the year.

He is perhaps the most imaginative writer of all time. Yet, as a young man he had no recognisable creative ability at all.

As a budding corporate businessman working for Shell and without any particular creative ambition, his life was destined to be dull, academic and insignificant. Then things took a very dramatic change. The Second World War came along.

You may remember that Roald joined the RAF and signed up as a fighter pilot. After just a few hours of action he was forced to crash-land his fighter plane in the desert and seconds later it caught fire. Somehow he managed to release the canopy, tumble out of the wreckage and extinguish his burning overalls by rolling in the sand.

Having survived that ordeal – along came another. Next the crippled aircraft’s machine guns caught alight and started firing live rounds directly around his body. 8 Browning .303 machine guns (4 in each wing) opened up, pounding the sand just inches from his body. The next day, when he was found by an RAF patrol, his overalls were so burnt and his face so disfigured that he was almost unrecognisable as an RAF officer.

At the underground Army Field Ambulance Station in Mersah, he was patched up, sedated, and sent by train to the Anglo-Swiss Hospital in Alexandria where he was treated for burns, severe concussion and spinal trauma.

Initially, his face was so swollen that he could not open his eyes and it was impossible to assess whether the accident had blinded him. The doctors did not know whether he would ever see again. For almost a month he inhabited a hazy world of total darkness, uncertain of time or surroundings. Concussed, blind and isolated from family and friends, he was disoriented and totally alone.

Remarkably, all this isolation and darkness had a positive impact. Something happened inside Dahl’s brain that electrified his imagination. His thinking changed from that of a corporate businessman to a man bristling with thoughts, ideas and weird stories. His brain became supercharged. And from the darkness and the confines of his hospital bed, he went on to develop a completely different way of looking at life.

Like having all his teeth removed.

He reasoned that natural teeth are just too much trouble. All the cleaning, the regular dentistry, the aches and pains, it was all unnecessary. So, one by one, while still in his twenties, he decided to have every tooth pulled out and wore dentures for the rest of his life. Even in old age, he continued recommending false teeth to everyone he met.

When his ex-wife, the actress Patricia Neal, suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralysed, unable to walk, partially blind and with severely impaired speech, Dahl devised a brutal recovery regime. He had no experience with treating stroke victims yet his tough approach is now standard therapy for stroke victims. Against all expectations, she returned to the screen to win a further Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration.

When his son Theo had a skull injury, Dahl found a toymaker who constructed a new valve to his own design. The design that Dahl came up with went on to be used on over 3,000 other children. It even saved the life of his agent’s son.

And when it came to his work, his approach to putting pen to paper was so disciplined and methodical that he abided by the same process every day – without fail.

He only wrote in the hut in his garden and he always worked the same hours of the day. And for usually no more than two hours. “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”

He wrote every day including weekends and Christmas.

His lunch was always the same: Norwegian prawns and half a lettuce.

He wrote with six yellow pencils in a jar beside him – “Always six, there must be six”.

He always wrote upon American legal paper, which he had imported as it was slightly larger than the UK size. He had a thermos full of coffee and an electric pencil sharpener next to him. And while seated in the same armchair, looking out of the same, small, grimy window, his mind was then free to create masterpieces of fiction.

And when the time came that he could feel a story starting to come together, and the words falling into place. At that very moment when he knew he was onto something great, he would stop.

Get up from his desk.

And do something else.

He explains his thinking thus; “Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day, all the way through the year.

If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!”

Hillary Trumped

Did you see Hillary Clinton’s TV ads? They were powerful stuff. Simple and honed, mercilessly hammering the opponent’s weak spot: all those crazy things Trump kept saying on the campaign trail.

What was striking about the ads was the simplicity and bravery of the approach. Often they seemed to feature little except the words themselves, with only a minimal touch to emphasise just how horrendous the sentiments were – and how far the candidate was from what you’d expect from a political leader.

The young women looking in the mirror:

The young children watching the TV:

The veteran doing the same:

It reminded me of the ‘shot on iPhone 6’ campaign.

What’s the best way to demonstrate just how good the camera is? Put real photos up there on the billboard. Let them do the work and demonstrate the truth. There’s no need to spoil it by doing anything else. Just repeat, repeat, repeat until the message is plain to see and impossible to dismiss.

In a similar way, what’s the best way to demonstrate how unsuitable your opponent is for high political office? Show all the awful stuff he’s said in public. No need for editing or trickery. Just play it back and let him disqualify himself, again and again.

I was really impressed by the ads. I thought it was a properly powerful political campaign. And 60 million Americans may well have agreed – but clearly not the 60 million who mattered on the day.

Perhaps the problem was that Clinton needed to connect with voters who actually liked many of the things Trump was saying. The more outrageous his statements, the more popular he became.

So in hindsight, maybe a campaign that amplified all the things he said may not have been the smartest move…