I doubt many epiphanies have been had in Woolwich Crown Court, an unlovely building in south-east London that’s ominously located next to HM Prison Belmarsh. Apart from, “Oh bugger, I’m not going to get away with this one”, epiphanies are unlikely in such drab and severe surroundings. But there was at least one. I know because I experienced it.
Every day of my jury service I winced as I walked past the posters and POS paraphernalia for the resident catering company. That strapline. Every time I saw it, I marvelled at it for different reasons. Who asked for it? Who wrote it? How long did they take doing it? What the hell were they thinking? Were they pleased with it?
And why did they even think they even needed one? After all, there was nothing else for miles around except a Tesco and a McDonald’s, and they were both on the other side of airport-style security hassle you’d expect in a court that does a lot of terrorism trials. We jurors were the second most captive audience in the area.
But try somebody did. And plaster it on absolutely everything somebody else did. And that was the mystery I pondered each time I walked past, or sat slack-jawed in the dining area.
Then after a few weeks of the trial, I came to a realisation. As stinky-awful as the line surely is, it had made me think more about the nature of straplines than any of the good or even brilliant ones I’ve admired as a copywriter.
I started to see it in a different light. Although it was unmistakably bad, it wasn’t all bad. It actually has many of the features of a very good strapline. It’s short and to the point. It uses everyday language. It’s clearly related to the core offering. And yes, it pretty much covers every aspect of that offering. The food division and the drink division were both going to be happy with it.
But what about all the things that are missing? The things that make a strapline a ‘Naughty but nice’, a ‘Vorsrprung durch Technik’ or a ‘Because you’re worth it’. An idea, an angle, some charm. A flash of inspired thinking that makes you smile and helps the brand connect to people’s lives. It’s rare that you see a line with so little of it. But you do see it more clearly when it’s not there at all.
And then on the way home that day, I realised the same was true more generally. There’s often only so much you can learn from truly great ads. Any lessons tend to be fairly oblique because great ideas are by their nature one-offs. But bad ads? They really are the gifts that keep giving. I saw this on the train platform:
Which I suspect tells you more about good layout and telling a compelling story than any book of design best practice.
And I saw this:
Which tells you plenty about how an idea can look good on paper, but end up being confusing in execution. Even with a unicorn.
It all reminded me of a lesson at school. An English teacher had the pleasure of introducing Poetry to the class. We had studied poetry before, but never Poetry. Suddenly a form which had been treated as little more than limericks was being held up as worthy of long and frankly baffling study.
I can imagine the sea of faces the teacher must have seen. Squinting, frowning faces, cocked at quizzical angles. All slowly drooping as the lesson progressed.
The more indifferent the reception, the more insistent the teacher was that we admire the skill and art involved. He might as well have been teaching us didgeridoo appreciation. Maybe after many hours of exposure to the art of didgeridoo, I might be able to spot a master at work. But straight away? No, I think not.
So I made a suggestion. Why not show us some bad poetry first? Then we’d know the difference when he showed us the good stuff. You can’t argue with the logic. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the teacher probably didn’t have a handy book of bad poetry to teach from.
However, we do all have the advertising equivalent. In fact, we’re surrounded by it. We’ve all heard the statistic about being subjected to several thousand marketing messages per day. At least several thousand of them will be pretty terrible.
But I’d argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, that a bad thing can be a good thing.