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  • Writer's pictureJohn M Donovan

National Widget Bites (and Other Advertising Tales)

Thirty-seven years seems like a long enough time to spend writing advertising copy and having it peed on by clients, co-workers, and people who couldn’t write a declarative sentence at gunpoint, so I’m retiring from the biz on January 1. My intention is to spend the rest of my life getting all these novels, short stories, essays, blog entries, stage plays, radio comedy sketches, and haiku out of my head.

I have occasionally threatened to write a memoir about my years in advertising but always knew I couldn’t be mean enough to name the names of people who sucked the fun right out of it. So, if I ever do write that memoir, part of it will have to take place at a fictional agency called Acme during a period of years that doesn’t fit in the time-space continuum we all know and love.

Some of the anecdotes that might appear in such a memoir follow.

o While I was at Acme I wrote annual report copy for a company that wanted to inform shareholders that they expected their sales in Mexico to grow substantially because the population in the area was projected to explode. My copy contained something along the lines of “The latest projections show that there will be 30 million more Mexicans in the year 2020.” Client didn’t like this line. “Mexicans is a derogatory term,” he explained.

o Another client of Acme’s wanted a testimonial ad for their widgets. The ad copy ran for three or four paragraphs, and, following proper punctuation technique, I put a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph but at the end of only the final paragraph. Client said it looked funny. I explained that that’s the way it’s done when one quote goes on for more than one paragraph. Client said she’d never seen it that way. I refrained from stating the obvious, that clearly she had never read a book or newspaper in her life. She went on to say that she always sees quotation marks at the end of each paragraph. I refrained from saying that that was called dialogue. (You do a lot of refraining in advertising.) Client’s other complaint was in my last line of copy, which was originally “What more could you want?” She thought the line should end with an exclamation mark, because testimonial ads are always more effective if the guy giving the testimonial seems to be shouting at you. I gave in on that one so the ad would at least have the proper quotation mark punctuation. What more could you want! Huh! Why aren’t you answering!

o Acme had a good-old-boy client who considered himself an advertising genius. He wrote a note to his assistant that said “Acme will never come up with a creative headline—we must feed it to them!” I know he wrote this note because he wrote it on the list of headlines he fed us, none of which were anything to write home about. I kept that note and laminated it.

o One of Acme’s clients made super-powerful widgets, so in one brochure I noted that these widgets performed at a Herculean level. Our client contact, whose real name was not Ms Ditz, objected and said “What does that even mean?” I explained through our account manager that it was a synonym for strong and powerful. A few days later Ms Ditz called the account manager and announced triumphantly that the copywriter was wrong. “Herculean,” she said, “means ‘pertaining to Hercules.’”

o By the way, I wish I were making these up.

o I moved to Iowa in 1999 to start working for CMF&Z, a venerable old agency that was, unbeknownst to me, already circling the drain. Doesn’t matter why. At some point in 2001 or so the firm was sold to a holding company run by a couple of Chicago weasels who were planning to create a national network of B2B agencies. There was optimism among the remaining employees, who numbered about 75 percent fewer than when I started, but who were now thinking that things were going to turn around, we were going to start winning some big clients again, and we’d return CMF&Z to its former glory. So how did the holding company approach this challenge? Did they have some clients already lined up? Did they bring in a hotshot creative director who would make it impossible to ignore our creative output? Did they work day and night to market us as a phoenix rising from its ashes, an agency committed to serving clients on a Herculean level? No. The holding company’s approach to saving the agency could be summed up in two words: Dress code.

o One day at Acme an account manager sent out a company-wide email announcing that the new website for National Widget was live, and thanking everyone in the agency for their hard work on the project. I was not one of the people who worked hard on the project because the copy was provided by the client. (Client-provided copy is a lot like patient-provided healthcare in my opinion, but that’s a topic for a different time.) I opened the link and started reading the National Widget copy, and fifteen seconds later I found a typo. Yikes. Home page. Not good. I pored over the rest of the site and found, in addition to a number of poorly constructed sentences and questionable style choice, three more legitimate errors—either misspellings or utter incoherence. I crafted a diplomatic email to the account manager and noted the four major errors but not the overall poor quality of the copy. The account manager replied and CCed one of our IT guys, asking him to correct three of the four problems. Not four. Three. The account manager admitted that yes, we should have done a better job proofreading.

We? Who was this “we”? I hadn’t seen the copy before it went into programming. Our full-time editor/proofreader hadn’t seen it. Nobody who writes or edits for a living had seen it.

That National Widget website cost more than a hundred thousand dollars to produce, and the line-item for proofreading was $0.

o One final story before my dander rises to a dangerous level. For years I wrote and Acme produced the monthly company newsletter for National Widget. I neither loved nor hated it, but I found it fairly easy to turn corporate-speak into something interesting that both white- and blue-collar readers would appreciate. At some point, though, they decided to farm the newsletter out to someone else. It was going to be laid out by some boutique agency, I believe, and would be written by a local writer who was sort of the poor man’s Erma Bombeck. This writer introduced a new column into the newsletter, a collection of tidbits, stray scraps, and other fare that didn’t warrant a full story. I can only imagine the executives' horror and the union workers' laughter when they read the title of this column: National Widget Bites.

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