labelling and illustration

In advertising, one of the ways to spot an absolute beginner is that they produce concepts that label things.

To reduce this to basics: imagine a picture of a sports shoe, with the line This is a great sports shoe. This leaves no room for the imagination to flex – that’s because the lines are labelling the picture.

Now picture the same shoe with the line Just do it. This, as history has proved for Nike, allows the imagination to go on a journey between the notion of a shoe, and all the things you could “just do” if you were wearing it.

And of course if you had a line This is a great sports shoe with a picture of a pair of sexy Jimmy Choo high heels, that would tell another story altogether.

I’m currently working on a children’s book, which my mother the artist Margaret Hamlin is illustrating.

Naturally the language is quite simple, and the story and the pictures track each other. The picture complements and carries the story. But here’s the point of difference: children enjoy labelling much more than advertising creatives. Children are rewarded when they find something in the picture that was mentioned in the words.

Below, a snap of one of the illustrations from the book – before the text is flowed in and it is set up as a double page. More of my mother’s art can be found here.

A good night’s sleep

Those people who think that people who work in agencies would rebrand their own grandmothers, with a view to marketing do have a point. But the surprising fact is that many people who I’ve worked with have strongly held ethical principles.

And there are certain sorts of writing that can give you a moral sheen of superiority. Writing for charities is always one of these. As a scribe you can sleep happy in the knowledge that your efforts have gone directly to raising money for a charity, and this is invariably a good thing.Writing for pharmaceutical companies may seem less noble. But I would argue it has its ethical satisfactions too. Many patient support programmes are designed to help people to talk to their doctors about their medical conditions.

Even in the UK, where people have access to a national health service free at the point of delivery, still manage to avoid talking to medical professionals about serious problems. And we are also lousy at taking the pills we have been prescribed. Astonishingly, even people who have been prescribed medication to prevent the rejection of a transplanted organ will neglect their medications.

Most patient support programmes I have created or been part of aim to support people in following their doctor’s advice – by taking the treatment prescribed for them. And from an ethical perspective I find this easy to live with.

In fact getting people to talk about the very things they least want to talk about, and encouraging patients to get the treatment they need is something I feel quite proud of.

And if you want to be really contentious… Just compare the spend that a major pharmaceutical company puts into – say – cancer research, versus the many very well meaning cancer research charities around the world. We are talking billions versus millions.

post-rationalisation is for the birds

Sometimes, as a creative, you get a good concept, and you have to retro-fit it to the brief. This is usually referred to as post-rationalisation, and is generally considered A Bad Thing, or at least not ideal.

It shouldn’t be. Sometimes you come up with a gut solution, and only gradually work out how it functions intellectually. The problem is people are used to explaining things in a linear way: so things should start with a problem, followed by a solution. It makes a much better story when you are talking to a client, rather than say… “We had this great idea, which we are now trying to work out just why it fits your brief.” Trouble is, creativity is not usually a linear process. It’s usually more of a mind map than a continuum, with lines of enquiry and exploration heading in several directions at once.

I’m giving myself the luxury at the moment of trying to piece together the poems I have had published over the years. I am trying to reduce over a hundred published poems (of variable quality), into a fighting fit collection of 40 splendid poems which complement one another and are more than the sum of their parts.

In fact, it is a massive exercise in post-rationalisation. When my first poems were published a frightening 25 years ago I just wrote what I had to write. It is interesting to see the themes that have arisen without me being conscious of them at the time, such as exile and freedom. Now I have to tease out these threads as if I had planned them all along.

And the symbols too. I have only recently realised that more than half the poems I have written feature birds in them. Just weird. I’m not especially interested in birds – but these gulls, peacocks, starlings, sparrows, kestrels, kingfishers, eagles, hawks, herons and so on are clearly trying to tell me something.

Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure what. Not yet anyway.

meet the new bacterium, same as the old bacterium

Just watched a TV ad for the Activa New You Plan. In it minor Brit celeb Nell McAndrew endorses Activa every day to “improve slower digestive transit”. She does so wearing garish green, and opens up a garish green fridge, where she pulls out a container of Activa next to a tray of gleaming green apples (curse this Activa green brand colour).

Anyway, what is, “slower digestive transit?” Let me see now… It means digestion which is slower. Slower than what? Pay attention: obviously slower than normal digestive transit. Anyway Activa, which “contains the unique culture Bifidus ActiRegularis, increases your good bacteria and is scientifically proven to help improve digestive transit.” Or, stripping it of its deliberate obfuscation: eating probiotic yogurt can speed up your digestion.

The website offers a startling insight into how you can become “The New You”. It’s easy, what you do is:

  • Eat at least one Activia every day (quelle surprise)
  • Drink more water
  • Eat well
  • Move more
  • Listen to your body’s needs.

Not much to detain us here. It is a straightforward programme to encourage people to take, and continue taking, probiotic yogurt – and fairly well done. When you visit the website it encourages you to tell your friends about the site, and supply your email address and so on.

Now what about that unique culture Bifidus ActiRegularis…. Hmm, good ol’ Wikipedia has got something to say about this…

“Bifidus animalis, strain number DN 173 010, is used worldwide as a probiotic in the product Activia™, produced by the Danone company (known as Dannon in the US). The company uses different trade names in different countries : Bifidus Digestivum (UK), Bifidus Regularis (US and Mexico), Bifidobacterium Lactis or B.L. Regularis (Canada), Bifidus Essensis (Germany, Netherlands, Romania and Austria), Bifidus Activo (Spain) and Bifidus Actiregularis (Argentina, Chile, Italy, Netherlands and Russia). “

So lucky UK just got the name recycled from Argentina, Chile, Italy, Netherlands and Russia (no wonder the brand colour is green) to make it seem as if it were a new erm “unique” ingredient. As Wikipedia says:

“These are not scientific names but trade names designed to sound and look like scientifically named organisms. The scientific name is Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis DN173010.”

But bifidobacterium animalis just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Bifidus ActiRegularis is the same as Bifidus Digestivum.

Just another case of marketing pretending to be science.


the year is done

… And however you choose to spend this season, may it be wonderful for you. All that’s left now, is to wish you a happy and prosperous new year.

Until next year…



This quote from Paul Celan, possibly the greatest European poet of the 20th century, made me think about the difference between art and advertising. Celan said:

For a poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time [durch sie hindurch] through it not above and beyond it.

For most marketing to work, it has to attach itself to time: it has to be targeted at a particular audience, and released at the perfect moment (or at least that’s the theory). A print advert, for example, is not built to reach through time to someone in the distant future. It’s job is to stimulate people in the here and now.

However you do see people enjoying old adverts, say the one below for Guinness. This would never be released now, other than in an ironic way. It no longer sells, but has an art-like quality that manages to reach through time to us still.


stand back – there’s still a pulse!

Day three of working on an immense website to do with cholesterol. I have spent a huge amount of time this year getting my head together with designers to create animations, writing scripts for possible video content with an interactive film maker, driving with strategists the overall messaging, not to mention planning the structure of it with an oddly volatile and passionate information architect.

But when your client is a massive international pharmaceutical company there are many hoops to squirm through. The sign off process is very lengthy. Marketing people have to okay anything you’ve written, as do the medical people and, of course, the legal people. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, your copy can come back clinically dead, with any signs of life carefully excised from it.

Then there are the dreaded words “let’s put it into research”. This sounds very scientific, but it what this means is your work gets discussed in a room full of people who are intent on scarfing free biscuits, and will base their opinions on the fact that someone doesn’t like blue. And there is always the dreaded person in a focus group who will steamroller everyone else into agreeing with their own randomly derived opinion.

Research can also induce narcolepsy, or worse. After the 6th hour of watching people through a two way mirror discuss incontinence, for example, you find that you would rather stick your head into a blender than hear another word on the subject. This is when after checking that your client is safely asleep, you turn to the trolley of drinks, look at your watch (which is telling you it is only 4.00pm) and chug down anything with alcohol in it.

Eventually though, you develop predictive skills, and use the copywriter’s black arts to avoid the whips and scorns of lawyers, and medics and marketing people, and those willing to take a quick £25 and all the crisps they can eat to give you an opinion.

Ultimately there is nothing like getting your work back in something like the shape you sent it off in: alive, warm and decidedly human.


Note to self: not everyone thinks marketing is big and clever.

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

George Orwell


I’m off tomorrow to write about IT networking for a day. You never know what you will be asked to write about. But as the year closes two subjects I’ve dealt with this year stand out. One was describing – quite literally – sticking needles in people’s eyes to treat age related macular degeneration, the other was a job which forced me to thumb through the Bible for appropriate quotes for a church organisation’s material. I must admit I enjoyed thinking of myself as God’s own copywriter for a bit.

One thing’s clear: you never know what’s round the corner.

I’m getting there with my new business site too which will be linked to this blog. There are several bits that need to be improved – but I am having to reign in my perfectionism and desire to tinker. Sometimes you just have to get on with it. At times like this I think of W.H. Auden who said something to the effect that a poem can never be finished, only abandoned. Sometimes you’ve got to let go.

the unwavering gaze that makes you give

It’s always nice when something you’ve done crops up on You Tube, like this direct response TV (DRTV) advert for The Blue Cross, put there in time for Christmas. Direct response ads are so called because they have telephone numbers in them. So, with luck, the viewer will seize the phone and dial – full of the intention to give.

You’ll notice that the dog in this piece looks pleadingly directly at you most of the time. Many other DRTV ads use this technique, especially those for charities that help children. In theory it makes it harder to look away and disengage.

There is a fine line with DRTV. Some TV executions become so emotive, that people are paralysed by what they are watching. After all, the idea is to make them pick up the phone not stun them with misery, and this can be a fine line.