Nailed or failed?

KFC have just launched their very own fried chicken-flavoured nail polish.

In other words, nail varnish with notes of enriched flour wheat, modified food starch, chicken fat, salt and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.

Sounds tasty.

I get the thinking behind it. Chicken-flavoured nail polish works nicely as a literal expression of KFC’s famous slogan: ‘It’s finger lickin’ good’. And the stunt has already racked up a fair bit of media coverage, which will shift a few more buckets of deep fried delight.

But let’s face it; KFC nail polish is just a gimmick.

Only a few hundred limited edition bottles will be produced, and they’ll only be available in Hong Kong. So very few people will ever have the chance to buy it, let alone try it.

And soon, KFC nail polish will be completely forgotten about, tossed onto the silly stunt scrapheap like so many before it.

But it did get me thinking – are advertising stunts an effective way of building a brand? Or are they just gimmicks?

So I decided to take a look at a few examples and give my verdict on each.

See if you agree…

Great or gimmick?

Sun Band (Nivea)

Nivea ran a magazine ad that included a bracelet with location tracking technology. The bracelet could be torn out and placed on a child’s wrist, and in combination with an app, parents were able to track their child’s movements at the beach.



Too fiddly. And surely parents with very young children shouldn’t let them out of their sight in the first place? 


Bullet Proof Glass Challenge (3M)

3M put $3 million inside a bulletproof, 3M glass case on the street – and challenged passers-by to break in and claim the cash.



It’s a simple and memorable idea that demonstrates of the product’s strengths. However, the glass case actually only contained $500. So maybe 3M weren’t that confident after all.


Clever Buoy (Optus)

Australian mobile network Optus created Clever Buoy – a buoy that uses mobile technology to detect sharks and send alerts to lifeguards.



Great idea. Great name.


Memories Bucket (KFC)

The colonel’s at it again. To celebrate their 60th anniversary, KFC Canada created The Memories Bucket – a bucket of fried chicken with a built-in, Bluetooth-powered polaroid printer.



How many memories are made in KFC?


Beer billboard (Carlsberg)

In 2015 the Danish brewer unveiled a beer-dispensing billboard at The Old Truman Brewery in London, emblazoned with the line: ‘Probably the best poster in the world’.



Simple, effective and on-brand (with free beer).


Instagram your Fridge (Smirnoff)

Instagram a photo of your fridge, and Smirnoff will show you how to make a cocktail from the contents, sending you back a personalised recipe video.



Come on. Where do I start?


My verdicts have probably ruffled a few feathers.

But even though I maintain that fried chicken-flavoured nail polish is about as gimmicky as it gets, the reality is I’ve just dedicated 471 words to the topic.

So in actual fact, maybe KFC did nail it?

On adjectives

“The adjective is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Rousseau never. He had bigger fish to fry. But give him a few hundred years, the ascension of various Creative Directors to the throne, and I’m sure he would have turned his attention to an endemic rooted in our lexicon, nay, society. For the adjective, readers, is being given a good nouning by advertisers everywhere. Stripped of its purpose, humiliated and spread thin across campaigns around the land. Here are just a few examples.

Celebrate your extraordinary.

Unlock your more.

Your best beautiful.

Generate positive.

What’s your active?

Welcome to possible.

And so on. Experimenting with grammar to get attention is nothing new; writers are tricksy beasts. And language lovers even have a word for it: Anthimeria. It involves using one part of speech as another part of speech, such as using a noun as if it were a verb. Shakespeare is the king of this:

“I’ll unhair thy head.” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, v.)

“The thunder would not peace at my bidding.” (Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi.)

And back to those chains, morphing adjectives into nouns is also as old as time itself. We have ‘the rich’, ‘the poor’, ‘the meek’ and ‘the mild’. And some adjectives have transitioned to fully-fledged nouns – ‘evil,’ for example.

Placing words into new grammatical spots as rhetorical innovation is a good thing. Language is there to evolve, to shed its skin and become something else. And the dictionary’s richer for it. But, grammar’s only a medium, and in this case I’d argue it’s not the message.

I once sat next to a woman on a bus who underwent a fitful bout of Acute Nouningitus mid-journey. As our bus pulled into a stop, another overtook us. ‘FUCK OFF!’ she cried upon seeing the below emblazoned across the overtaking 73.


She had lost her happy and then some.  She looked at me, ‘I HATE ADVERTISING’, she said. I nodded in agreement. Partly through fear. But also in agreement. If copywriting’s any good, it shouldn’t sound like copywriting. Yes, there needs to be a tone of voice but that voice needs to be a voice. Not one of the crowd, or one that immediately makes us switch off and go ‘those advertisers are at it again.’

And I think that’s the biggest problem with nouning adjectives at the moment. It’s not a grammatical issue. What’s wrong with it is that it’s making us all sound the same. Advertisers are obsessed with the new and unconventional.  So, yes, when Apple asked us all to ‘Think Different’ back in 1997 maybe it was different.  It was definitely clever – turning their product into the physical embodiment of a quality in one line. But it’s not 1997 anymore, and now it’s a convention.

For something that’s only ever had the simple wish to modify a noun or pronoun, I think it’s time to stand up for the humble adjective.  So copywriters, STEP AWAY FROM THE DESCRIBEY WORDS. Don’t just write something down because it sounds like advertising. Write something that’s real and has meaning. It takes much more than grammatical wizardry to make amazing.

A Short History of The Too Big Idea



Every now and then someone in advertising announces The Big Idea is dead. The most recent announcement was only two weeks ago. From Tracey de Groose, the UK CEO of Dentsu Aegis.

2016, eh? Bowie. Rickman. Wogan. Corbett. Victoria Wood. Prince and The Big Idea.

But in 2012, the Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi had already announced that The Big Idea was dead. In fact, its demise has been proclaimed five times in the last six years.

So has it died more than once or is it taking its time? Is The Big Idea faking it?

More puzzlingly, why do these voices want it dead?

Is it that they think the industry oughtn’t be seen pursuing such a goal? What will clients think? How will we explain what it is? Or is it that lots of smaller ideas are easier to sell than one of The Big Idea?

Or is it a fear of where will this end? If there’s The Big Idea, might there then be The Bigger Idea? Then The Biggest Idea? Because if you don’t control creative people with a ball park limit of the right size of idea, you know what they’re like. They get overexcited and you get


For instance…..The most memorable example of The Too Big Idea in UK advertising came in 1987. Instead of doing ads, an advertising agency decided to buy a bank. Saatchi & Saatchi’s idea was bigger than an ad and an agency put together. The acquisition of the Midland, one of the UK’s Top Four Banks, later relaunched as HSBC. As an employee at their Croydon branch (the Midland, not Saatchis) I recall the trepidation on the counters and in the papers.

They tried to buy a bank. How would your agency try to branch out?

They tried to buy a bank. How would your agency try to branch out?

The world didn’t like it. Media and financial institutions sneered at the Saatchi bid as ad hubris. Who did they think they were? How could an advertising agency think of transforming itself with a venture in another sector. It was like changing species.

What would have come of it? Saatchis would have had no problem getting its ads for the bank approved as they owned it. So we would have seen a class of ad that we’d never seen before. And who knows we might have avoided that 2008 meltdown thing the banks laid on, when they were left to their own devices. You know, the thing that makes it hard for young people today to buy a house.

This aspiration to establishment, whether ironic or not, was always part of the Saatchi drive. When they started out in Golden Square, the brief to the smart designer who developed the classic Goudy Old Style identity was to make them look like a City law firm or a bank. In 1987, they hadn’t ditched the idea. In fact, they took it to the bank. The financial community got the fear and the world deemed it Too Big.

Briefed to make Saatchis look like a bank, Nick Darke devised the classic Saatchi & Saatchi identity in 1970 when hair could never be Too Big .

Briefed to make Saatchis look like a bank, Nick Darke devised the classic Saatchi & Saatchi identity in 1970 when hair could never be Too Big .

Who’s to say the financial community were right? Looked at one way, the 1987 Too Big Idea was an opportunity to create a completely new type of organisation. An ideas company with the wherewithal to fund and realise ideas as they please. An entrepreneurial outfit straddling sectors, marauding and disrupting. Is it ridiculous? Is it dangerous? Is it Google?

So this Too Big Idea from UK advertising was roundly told it was too big for its boots. Shareholders rejected the Saatchi bid. Get back in your box, Too Big Idea. In 1987, the world couldn’t deal with disruption on such a scale. Though you can’t help but admire the bravery, some might take a little persuading to bank all their dough with an ad agency.


The attempted Saatchi bank job is not the biggest Too Big Idea an adworld person has ever tried to get going. For that you have to go to Chicago. It’s December 1942. An advertising copywriter called James T. Mangan and his creative partner are discussing “stuff”. Mangan’s partner allegedly looked out of the window up to the dark sky and stated there was “plenty of stuff out there.” I don’t know if they were stoned or drunk. Anyway, James T Mangan allegedly replied “I wonder who owns it” and then he declared…

Yes, naturally, he declared outer space a nation. All of it. And then he declared himself Head of the Nation of Celestial Space. As ideas go, you don’t need a degree in rocket science to see it was probably too big at the time. However, there is always a certain industry pride in seeing an ad person thinking so freely and then trying so hard to make his Too Big Idea reality, not to mention trying to solve London’s property problem before it even had one.

Big Art Deco buildings are known to inspire creatives to Big Ideas. The idea to buy outer space was launched on the 43rd floor of the Chicago Board of Trade building.

Big Art Deco buildings are known to inspire creatives to Big Ideas. The idea to buy outer space was launched on the 43rd floor of the Chicago Board of Trade building.

Mangan drafted in a typographer friend to design his letter to 74 earthly states, requesting they recognise his space state. His outer space nation’s flag briefly flew in front of the UN building in New York. He later had official stamps, coins and passports designed. (The passports were sent to US AND Soviet astronauts when early space travel started to grant them safe and legal passage through Mangan’s territory.) He also tendered 42 earth-sized plots of space for sale at $1 each. Reasonable.

James T Mangan, the copywriter who tried to buy outer space. His #space nation flag has a strangely familiar look.

James T Mangan, the copywriter who tried to buy outer space. His #space nation flag has a strangely familiar look.

In one touching sentence, Mangan explained the idealism in his thinking.

“My nation might give people enough bigness of thinking, enough bigness of disdain to make them feel international squabbles are petty.”

He might be hinting this nuttiness was actually a publicity stunt to get earthlings to live more harmoniously than in the Cold War climate of the 1950s. Although he might also have been serious. In fact, I believe he was. Because Mangan seemingly specialised in The Too Big Idea.


Mangan’s biggest Too Big Idea was an altogether bigger deal than owning outer space. It’s possibly the biggest deal humans can do. The ownership of inner space. A contract between human conscious and subconscious. And (this is where we get back to words) Mangan attempted to do it through a coded language with which the conscious could give a brief to the subconscious for success in any situation. (Opportunity to try this for yourself alert.)

When you read Mangan’s explanations, they feel like a mix of mysticism, neuro-linguistic programming, the Law of Attraction, self help and con. His concept is Switch Words, a vocabulary of simplicity and strangeness, that allegedly the subconscious understands. It’s derived from Freud and expanded in his 1963 work A Design For Perfect Living.

Available in all strange bookshops since 1963.

Available in all strange bookshops since 1963.

At its simplest, you consciously define what you want to do, find the relevant switch word. Repeat the switch word regularly, (sometimes in conjunction with other switch words) then wait for your subconscious to realise your goal.

For instance, “to get in mood for writing” (Mangan’s definition), the word is GIGGLE (Mangan’s capitals.) Say GIGGLE over and over and start writing. (I haven’t tried this. After you.) “To meet a deadline” (I used this for writing this blog), the word to repeat is DONE (it worked with a day to spare).

Below are random pages from The Secret of Perfect Living (available today in all strange bookshops or on Amazon). If you want “to stay young and look young immediately”, “to banish lonesomeness” or “to dispel an attack of the blues”, Mangan might be your man.

Click "to get in mood for writing."

Click “to get in mood for writing.”

Click "to dispel an attack of the blues"

Click “to dispel an attack of the blues.”

Finally, as an ad person, Mangan helpfully supplies his fellow industry professionals with a switch word of their own. If you are trying, in his quaint words to have ideas in order “to secure publicity”, the word you need to repeat is…..I am not making this up…..RIDICULOUS. RIDICULOUS. RIDICULOUS.

Keep saying RIDICULOUS and you might have a Big Idea that secures vast publicity for your clients. Except don’t forget what was reported in Campaign, The Big Idea is dead. Until they’re reporting The Big Idea is Back, why not, like the Saatchis or James T. Mangan, try a Too Big Idea while you’re waiting?

My English just isn’t good enough.

And neither is yours.

It’s not our fault, it’s the fault of our language.


For example, how would you express the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply, but too late?

Difficult isn’t it? Not if you are French. They have a phrase, “L’espirit de l’escalier” which sums it up perfectly. It means “staircase wit” and conjures up the image of you thinking of the perfect retort, but the moment, like the people involved, has passed.

How about tasting or eating small pieces of food when you think nobody is watching? The Norwegian for that is “tyvsmake”.

Ever eaten past the point of satiety (and comfort) due to sheer enjoyment? I know I have. Georgians call that “shemomechama”.

If only there was a word for the joy of meeting someone you haven’t seen in a long time. Think how much time and ink that would save. The Norwegians have this one covered too: “gjensynsglede”.

And how about when you want to shed your clothes to be able to dance without inhibitions? The Bantu phrase for that is “Mbuki-mvuki”. Try saying when you are drunk, which is probably the only time the thought would come into your head.

But perhaps the language with the most advantages for expression over English is German. Because Germans can just make up new whole words by stringing existing words together. Surely we all know someone with a “backpfeifengesicht” or a ‘face badly in need of a fist’.

A few Dept. of Words writers made our own German word up recently: “Nachübungselbsgefälligkeit”. It’s the smug feeling you get after exercise.

Our German designer has pointed out that “Nachübungselbsgefälligkeit” should really be “Geübtheitsselbstgefälligkeit“, which just goes to show that even making up new words is precision engineering in Germany. He also added that his favourite word of this kind is “Erlaubnistatbestandsirrtum” which means that someone imagined a scenario where their conduct would have been justified from a legal perspective, if that scenario had existed at that time. Who says the Germans have no sense of humour?

We also realised, after a few beers, that we could adapt that to “Nachlagerselbsgefälligkeit” for the smug feeling you get after a few beers too.

So perhaps we should be a little more Teutonic with our own language. In which case, I’ll wrap this up before you get the feeling of “Idon’twanttogiveupreadingbeforetheendbutthisisreallystartingtogonabit”.



How you tell ‘em

'Interesting. But my version is better, no?'

‘Interesting. But my version is better, no?’

If someone asked you to explain an idea, what would you say? The answer, of course, depends on who’s asking.

Here’s Steve Jobs, in an internal meeting, explaining how he came up with the ‘Think Different’ campaign. ‘We [Apple and their advertising agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day] started working about eight weeks ago. And the question we asked ourselves was: Who is Apple? And what is it we stand for? At the core…we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. We wanted to find a way to communicate this. And what we have is something that I am very moved by. It honours those people who have changed the world. The theme of the campaign is ‘Think Different’. It touches the soul of this company.’

But then there’s the version Rob Siltanen tells in his 2011 Forbes article. He was the Creative Director at TBWA/Chiat/Day and he credits one of his art directors, Craig Tanimoto, with coming up with the campaign. He briefed four teams and gave them five days to work. When they regrouped and pinned all their scamps up, ‘virtually all of it was mediocre. But there was one campaign that jumped out at me. I loved it. But at the same time, the work seemed in need of explanation.’

So he asked Tanimoto to explain his scamp. Tanimoto answered, ‘IBM has a campaign out that says “Think IBM” [for their ThinkPad], and I feel Apple is very different from IBM, so I felt “Think Different” was interesting. I then thought it would be cool to attach those words to some of the world’s most different-thinking people. The rainbow-colored logo served as stark contrast to the black and white photography, and, to me, it seemed to make the “Think Different” statement all the more bold.’

As we all know as creatives, there’s often a big gap between how you came up with an idea and how you sell the idea. And in the gap between the two, a lot of money is made – and reputations.