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 ___.
Va-jay-jay.
Wait for it…
Just threw up in my mouth.
Really?
Good talk.
And by ___ I mean ___.
Check please!
Awkward!
Shut the front door!
Lady boner.
Rut-roh!
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.
Cray-cray.
Real talk.
Nailed it.
Random!
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.
Sharkweek.
You assclown.
Ridonkulous.
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.

Euurk.

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

The ad Olympics

I was in the US last week so I watched the Olympic opening ceremony on NBC, which apparently stands for ‘Nothing But Commercials’. 

While the rest of the world watched live, US viewers got a one-hour time lag. You could tell because after each ad break (and there were a lot), the opening ceremony would resume exactly where it had left off, as if the leotarded dancers had been obediently freezing in place.

To be honest the whole thing was a bit of a cynical exercise with none of the circusy atmosphere of Superbowl ad breaks. But there were some good spots among the bombardment, so here are my verdicts on which ads deserve to ‘podium’ and which deserve to break their tibias in shocking style.

SUBWAY


The link between sporting endeavour and the product is made so poorly you can hear the voiceover artist’s embarrassment.

UNITED


Perfectly competent but pretty predictable. The creatives (or the client) need a dunk in the Rio rowing lake.

MCDONALD’S


Folksy schmaltz. I didn’t get that the boy is the girl’s dad on first watch, but the message of ‘Our food is slightly less ethically and nutritionally terrible than you think’ will probably do the trick in breaking down tired parental defences.

GILLETTE


“The best a man can get isn’t always pretty. But it’s always worth the chase.” Feels like a confusing pile up of end lines to me, especially in the version of this that aired, which was much shorter than the one above.

DICK’S SPORTING GOODS


I was drawn in by this one at first but I reckon Dick’s Sporting Goods Co needs to have a think about its brand. Should a company with a name like that be making such grandiose films?

ENTERPRISE CAR RENTAL


American agencies have got the genre of the funny and self-aware sales pitch down to a fine art. Here Joel McHale from Community does the ‘here I am in different situations and costumes delivering a voiceover’ shtick, but with a flashy yet simple visual device to hold it all together. This gets ten bullet points of information across in 30 seconds without you even noticing you’d been sold to. Impressive efficiency.

APPLE


I didn’t realise before this how flexible the ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign could be. Here Apple has made an earnest, emotional brand film that feels every inch Apple, but that also functions as a product demo from the first second to the last. Reciting Maya Angelou in a phone ad pushes my pretentiousness meter into the red, but your reaction may differ and the strategy is very smart.

SAMSUNG


One measure of an original ad is, ‘Could you have thought of this?’. The brief for this spot was probably, ‘The new Samsung phablet is the best at making you productive’. From there W&K have taken two creative leaps. One is to fix on the idea that Americans are the most productive people on the planet. The second is to make the pitchman a European who starts off scorning the American work ethic but quickly persuades himself that Americans are the best after all (a la ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?‘). Add in great casting and pacing and this was possibly my favourite 90 seconds of the entire NBC broadcast (interpretive dancing included).

Tumblr of Words

look-right2

We’ve added a group Tumblr. It’s over there to the right or you can go to departmentofwords.tumblr.com.

It’s going to feature a steady trickle of copy, good and bad, that manages to gets our attention.

Some images will be adverts. But we’ll also post other bits of copywriting that we see ‘in the wild’ and that are less likely to win awards or be shared on other blogs. Maybe a well-turned chunk of body copy, a juicy description from a menu, or a passive-aggressive letter from the council.

The bad stuff is for amusement only. The good stuff will serve as a reminder of what it takes for writing to get noticed and not just disappear into the fog of the 1.2 zillion marketing messages we all ignore every day.

Click the images to look closer. And if you see some copy that penetrates the fortress of your brain for any reason at all, please take a photo and upload it at our Tumblr submissions page.

Solving the global naming crisis

babynamingproblems

There are 38,000 Americans called James Smith. Eighteen bands in the world named Bliss. 130 UK-registered companies named RedBox. And two recent bestselling novels named Life after Life, published a week apart. Silicon Valley startups have begun resorting to names including Choozle, Lawdingo, Drippler, Doostang and Oooooc.

Could it be we’re running out of names?

Some of us at the Department of Words have been busy working on a company naming project and we’ve been reminded just how hard it is to find a unique moniker these days. Not only do candidate names have to be meaningful and memorable, they also have to clear a whole series of hurdles:

  • Domain availability. Ambitious companies typically want the dotcom URL – and typically someone else is using it (or squatting on it).
  • Legal checks. Depending on the company’s feelings about getting sued, each name has to be checked against company registers in multiple categories and territories. Even soundalike names with novel spellings often lead to cease and desist letters.
  • Ready for worldwide. Global businesses need names their customers can say without getting tongue cramp. R is hard in China, I and EE get mixed up in Spain, H is often silent in French, and on and on. Then there are names with accidental meanings. Finding one that everyone can say and that doesn’t mean bum in Mandarin is a rare thing.

These difficulties have led some companies to give up and choose names that sound like computer passwords (e.g. MedXL8r, Type32), while others go full ‘rando’, like US ad agency The Wexley School for Girls.

Sadly these esoteric names may soon be used up too, and we might have to coin names that include mouth clicks or hand gestures à la Fry and Laurie.

Okay, the naming crisis isn’t global warming. But with an astounding three startups launching every second, the shortage is only getting worse.

Ruckus juice

Foxfire Book

What a great book this is for anyone who wants to be a mountain man.

Topics covered are “hog dressing, log cabin building, planting by the signs, snake lore, hunting tales, faith healing, moonshining and other affairs of plain living”.

There is plenty of good Appalachian slang in it, but I will just quote my four favourite phrases from the chapter on moonshining (or ‘farming in the woods’ as it was euphemistically known). I would definitely be raiding this list if I ever got a Jack Daniels brief:

Blubber: the bubbles that result when moonshine in the proof vial is shaken violently

Dead devils: tiny beads in the proof vial that indicate the whiskey has been proofed sufficiently

Dog heads: huge convulsive bubbles that boil up one at a time when the beer is almost ready to run

Goose eye: a good bead that holds a long time in the vial

There are a few good names for prohibition-era whiskey, too: ruckus juice, conversation fluid, corn squeezin’s, corn, white, thump whiskey, headache whiskey, blockade juice, busthead and popskull.

Compare contemporary words for cocaine: Baltic tea, Belushi, Bolivian marching powder, ching, coca, eight ball, girl, nose candy, onion, rippers, snuff, speedball, witney, yay, yayo and about 400 others.

It just goes to show: if you want a display of linguistic inventiveness, all you have to do is ban something.

Inspector Sands and coded communication

As the escalator carried me down into the tube the other day, a dulcet BBC voice came over the tannoy: “Would Inspector Sands come to the control room?”

I was suspicious – surely it had to be pre-recorded? Only on later Googling did I learn that ‘Inspector Sands’ is a codeword for a fire or bomb scare. (The name derives from the buckets of sand used at theatres to put out fires.) If I’d known this, I’d have turned around and gone back up the escalator but, of course, avoiding panic is why they use a codeword in the first place.

This got me thinking about other mass communications that attempt to talk only to a specific audience. Lots of codes are used in hospitals: ‘code pink’ means a child’s been abducted, ‘code brown’ means what you’d expect. Apparently police use ‘There is a K’ to mean a dead body.

What about coded communication ‘above the line’? This sprang to mind:

MichaelHoward

But actually dog whistle messages are a slightly different thing, in that they’re supposed to have different meanings to different people. ‘Inspector Sands’ is designed to be heard as background noise by the majority and ignored. (Exactly like quite a lot of advertising, then.)

This week’s word of the day: hippophage

Cheval

Are you a hippophage? Have you indulged in hippophagy?

If you’ve eaten frozen lasagna lately, you might well be one, because it means ‘eater of horse meat’.

A pleasing word for something I have to admit I ‘squeam’ just thinking about.

On a related wordy point, isn’t it interesting that we don’t have a special word for horse flesh? A cow’s meat is beef, a pig’s pork, a sheep’s mutton.

These dual names supposedly come from our Norman past. Anglo Saxon words were used for the living beasts because the peasants were the ones who had to live with the animals and feed them. French words were used for the meat because the Norman lords were the ones who actually got to eat it. (‘Boeuf’, became beef, ‘porc’ became pork and ‘mouton’ became mutton.)

It seems that in those days the French were not the hippophages they are now. Horse eating across the channel only came into style in the late 19th century when the people were revolting against perceived irrationality in all its forms, including dietary taboos.

Perhaps this explains why we don’t use the word ‘cheval’ to mean horse flesh today?

Food for thought, anyhow (even if not deemed suitable for consumption by us English).

For now, our art directors are safe from the machines

I read about a “metaphorical search engine” named Yossarian Lives at the weekend.

Supposedly it can take any word and generate visual metaphors from it. Sounds like what an art director is for. Could Yossarian Lives be a handy tool for the lazy gits? Or might it one day replace them entirely? (Needless to say an awful prospect.)

My curiosity whetted, I went to the website. First, I had a look at the team responsible – a lot of PhDs in computational linguistics. Lots of logos of seed capital companies. Impressive.

Next I had to set up an account – this was an exclusive search engine. My expectations were rising.

Finally logged in, I typed a few words associated with our clients. First, for reasons not worth telling, I tried ‘thrive’. These were the first few images:

yossarian1

Getty-tastic! But conceptually right on the button. These images captured not just growth but the natural connotations of ‘thrive’. I was very impressed.

Maybe it was time to start buying goodbye cards for the art directors.

Then I tried the word ‘home’, for a hotel client who specialise in being welcoming, and got this:

yossarian2

OK, with a long, drawn out emphasis on the O. Just as odd, further down the search results were a lot of soft porn images. I guess it depends whose home we are talking about.

I searchd ‘sharing’ for a confectionery client we have, and got this:

yossarian3

Whuh? Because US ideals are for sharing? Don’t get it. Next I tried the word ‘possible’, part of another client’s positioning, and got:

yossarian4

At this point I felt like I had started chatting with a stranger who was friendly at first but was now having a pencil-related meltdown before my eyes.

We will check in with Yossarian Lives again in a few months to see if it’s improving, but it seems fair to say that, for now, our art directors are safe from the machines.

Waterboarding the brief

Jack Bauer interrogating suspect

‘Interrogating the brief’ is a basic agency skill. But a lot of times it’s hard to get the answers you need, even if you put the account guys in a stress position with Britney Spears looping at top volume. (We’ve all done it and, yes, it is a lot of fun.)

So, your interrogation effort stalls and you find yourself taking on a brief that’s lacking in fact. Maybe you don’t know what the selling point is because the product isn’t ready yet. Or you’re advertising buildings and, six months in, not one of the dozen people who’ve worked on the account knows whether or not said buildings exist. (True story.)

For a while, working on such an ‘information-light’ brief can be fun. You can fabricate product highlights or fill a brochure with eye-opening-because-made-up statistics. The idea is that when the client sees what you’ve done, they’ll be provoked into disclosing the truth. (Just calling and asking for it without a brightly coloured PDF to wave around would never work.)

But things will go downhill. You will have guessed wrongly – that’s guaranteed – and the factoid you’ve built your campaign around will turn out to be not-so-fantastic. Suddenly you have copy that reads: “For every toilet roll you buy, we will plant 0.00034 trees.”

And it’s unlikely you’ll be able to warp your work to fit the facts. You’ll end up producing something schizophrenic, or having to start again.

Which is why we would (somewhat idealistically) advise copywriters everywhere to be totally relentless in that initial interrogation.

Do not be nice. Do not be railroaded. Don’t pick up a pen until you’ve got the information you need – unless you’re going to use that pen to stab someone in the eye.

Someone knows what you need to know to do your job, and you are going to become Jack Bauer until they cough it up.

Did you write this Morrison’s advert?

One of the things we would like to do with this blog is acknowledge copywriters who labour in anonymity – the unsung practitioners of the craft.

Take the nameless person who put these words in sequence:

IMG_20130110_193016

‘The naughty foods you love. Now on their best behaviour.’

Now, this is not flashy stuff. A sturdy headline, no more. It successfully gives a bit of new life to the familiar personification of sweet food as naughty. When I saw it in the gym yesterday, I think it caused the release of a solitary dopamine molecule in my brain. I thought: that’s okay. I would have been happy with the line myself had the brief come to me.

To be clear, this won’t win any awards. But neither would a sturdy, honestly laid brick wall, or a wooden shelf put up properly.

Sorry if this sounds like faint praise. It isn’t meant to be. An analogy:

Imagine the many unknown craftsmen employed to decorate cathedral a millennium ago.

medieval bosses

I picture hundreds of men lined up, stony faced and sack clothed, in a some kind of vast stone studio, each one engrossed in making a small ceiling adornment. It would be hard to call these men artists – they were a paid-up part of the medieval power system, probably mainly motivated by the thought of an extra goat for their families. They were undoubtedly skilled but there is little reason to think they were geniuses.

Yet, within strict parameters, these people had a degree of creative freedom and must have toiled quite sincerely over many years. I would like to imagine, during a break for mead, one man looking over at another’s painted clay roof boss and – thinking it not bad – giving a silent nod of recognition. From one unsung craftsperson to another. It would have communicated something like: “You’re okay, I hope you don’t get smallpox.”

This post is meant in the same spirit.

If you wrote the ad above, please get in touch and we might feature you on the blog. We won’t celebrate you exactly. But we will respectfully acknowledge you.

It’s better than nothing, right?