Impaled on the Horns of the Freelance Copywriter’s Dilemma.

As if we freelance copywriters didn’t have troubles enough, toiling in anonymity, trying to breath life into lame creative strategies and forever scrambling for that next assignment.

What if we have the urge to go public, venting or ranting about this or that dumb ad or dysfunctional ad agency?

Most freelance copywriters are reluctant to write about the flaws and failings of companies who do marketing and advertising. No one really wants to bite any hands that might, at some point, feed them.

For those of us who, despite this concern, are inclined to raise a public stink about bad advertising or other sorts of bad behavior within this or that agency, the hand-biting risk is always there, as careful as we may try to be.

Me, I’ve always stunk at biting my tongue. Lord knows, there’s no shortage of stuff in Adland to criticize. Whenever I’ve had a forum to criticize an ad or an agency, I’ve almost always given in to the temptation to pull back the curtain in one way or another.

Let’s talk about Capitol One’s longstanding tagline.

What’s In Your Wallet? How many years has Capitol One been pounding away at this tagline? They must consider it to be very successful or they wouldn’t stick with it, right? It may be irrelevant that, by some measures, it’s a stupid tagline. Stupid because it doesn’t really tell us anything about Capitol One. Stupid because taglines in the form of a question are inherently flaccid, and foolish because they open themselves up to evoking the wrong answer.

Their tagline has crossed over to being memorable, easily recalled by just about anyone who is asked, “What’s Capitol One’s tagline?” Is this due to the brilliance of the tagline? Of course not. It’s due to a consistently heavy media budget. And, I suppose, it’s due to hearing the question so often out of the mouths of so many celebrities who have nothing to do with Capitol One. A classic example of borrowed interest in a bad way.

Capitol One isn’t really asking what’s in your wallet. They are asking if the credit card you use carries as many benefits, or benefits that are as good as you get with their credit card. The line is meant to give you pause, and make you realize your current credit card is lacking.

A month of silence from me. What gives?

I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without posting something. Despite my constant monitoring of the tagline landscape, searching for something worthy of comment, nothing has triggered my wrath, (or my praise, of course.)

This is not for lack of new taglines, good and bad. And  there have been examples of really old taglines that are either still around or have been resurrected. The Quicker Picker Upper, for example, is intact, though it seems like Bounty spent many years recently trying out variations on that theme.

One reason that I’ve been reluctant to chime in with comments on this or that tagline is that, so often, that new tagline is guilty of the same sin I’ve made a stink about many times. I’ve made my point so often regarding so many stupid tagfads that even I grow weary of being a broken record.

So, c’mon people, let’s see a little imagination, let’s find some new ways to be stupid with our taglines, shall we? Give me something, anything to work with here. Sheesh.

Now, THATS a tagline.


It is rare to see a company truly embrace their tagline. And even rarer to use the tagline as a demonstration of the brand. Today I spotted the van above. Classic Color is a printing company. I don’t need to know anything more about them than the tagline, and especially the design of the tagline, to know they are a high end, high quality company.

It’s true that Classic Color has an advantage in that they are in a visual, art-related business which lends itself to such a tagline. That might mean something, if I hadn’t seen so many similar companies with pedestrian taglines, treated with a yawn, if they had a tagline at all.

A big tip of the cap to Classic Color. That is a brand name I will retain, entirely based on their tagline and its design.

Road Trip for Tagline Jim!

Before I regale you with road trip stuff, I must take a minute to thank Jim Anderson, who heeded my call for some research help (see previous post). I didn’t really expect anyone to respond to my request, but, as I said, I was desperate to find some info online and was having no luck. So, thanks again, Jim, for your tip on cognitive fluency.

Okay, so what’s this road trip business? My friend, Brian Nash, recently asked if I’d like to give his advertising class a talk about taglines. (Brian teaches a couple of classes at Grand Canyon University in addition to his regular job.)

Brian intended my talk to be via Skype. But I saw a chance to hit the road. So I told him I’d like to give the talk in person. Doing this accomplishes two things for me. First, there’s the road trip. I love the occasional solitary road trip, since I can only spend so much time with the humans, and I’ve spent a ton lately.

The other benefit of giving the talk in person is that I can attempt to videotape the talk, in the hope of adding said video to the Aloud section of my website, which is designed to encourage people to invite me to give talks. All of which is intended to expand my author “platform”, which is apparently a prerequisite to getting my book, Agents of Stupidity: Why advertising is even stupider than you think, if that’s even possible.

Help me! My research is coming up empty.

This is an act of desperation. I’m always looking for new insights about taglines, and recently I’ve been looking into certain aspects of many taglines that studies have show the brain to be attracted to. For example, certain kinds of poetry, especially poetry that rhymes, seems to be pleasing to the brain. I’m trying to learn more about how that works in the brain. I’ve already come across some source material that hypothesizes just how the brain processes puns and other forms of humor and how the brain deems these pieces of language to be pleasurable.
Now for the desperation part. Intuitively, it seems to me that the brain is drawn to short pieces of language that “wrap things up in a tidy bow.” They either summarize something neatly or in some other way encapsulate stuff that might otherwise be messy or complicated. The brain must work efficiently in processing language and all the cognitive input it is inundated with constantly. It only makes sense that it would be attracted to language that “short-handed” stuff or somehow made its job easier.
But I’ll be danged if I can find any material out there that supports this idea or examines it. It doesn’t seem possible that no one has studied this topic or something related to it, right? So, if you pride yourself on your research chops, please spend a few minutes probing around and let me know if you come up with anything. I would so appreciate it. Thanks.

Addendum to the Australia Post.

In fairness to Australia, I did come across two other taglines that I thought were worthy of some mention during my recent trip.

One was for a company called Purple Brick that apparently helps you sell your house without having to pay a commission. Theirline is:

Save Yourself from Commisery.

Now, I must say that I would have modified that line to read:

Let Us Put You Out of Your Commisery. This wording would have leveraged the way in which that expression is ordinarily used, but still, at least they made an effort.

The other tagline, which I really like a lot, is for a bank of all things.

It’s Qudos Bank’s tagline:

Why the dearth of good taglines in Australia?

I’ve just come back from a month in Australia. We covered a lot of ground in that month, and I kept my eyes peeled for taglines the entire trip. I was very surprised and disappointed to find almost no interesting, engaging, funny,charming or otherwise evocative taglines. Granted my time watching TV, reading magazines and being online was limited. On the other hand, I saw a lot of trucks, the sides of which can be a tagline goldmine. The only tagline that elicited even a tiny smile from me was for a nut company called Nobby’s. The tagline is: Nibble Nobby’s Nuts.

It is baffling to me that a culture so imbued with strangeness,charm and humor hasn’t produced taglines that reflect those qualities. Some of the advertising was goofy and funny or clever, often a little quirky. But not the taglines or straplines or whatever they call them there.

Finally, in an act of mercy, I took a side trip to DDB in Sydney, dropped off a stack of my business cards, explaining to the receptionist that the creatives there seemed to be in desperate straits, tagline-wise, and I was volunteering to help.

Paranoid or Pariah?

Have I been shooting myself in the foot relentlessly for decades? Early in my career, I took to heart Stan Freberg’s idea of offering “more honesty than the client had in mind.” As a full time employee at what was then Tatham, Laird & Kudner, (now Havas), and then at FCB and Sturm Communications, as well as during my nine-year “full time freelance” stint at DDB, I always tried to stick to that goal.

I felt the value these agencies got from me, beyond the brilliant advertising ideas, was that I readily shared my thoughts with upper management about how the agency was doing, what it was doing wrong and how to fix things. Sometimes my “suggestions” were given consideration. Sometimes they got me in hot water.

I recall one time when I was full-time-freelancing at DDB, I resided in Beyond DDB, the “integrated marketing” branch of DDB, where all the stuff that the “regular” creative didn’t want to deal with got done. I’m talking about direct mail, promotions, business-to-business advertising, event marketing, all the stuff that wasn’t a TV spot or print or radio ad.

The Single Worst Word in The Tagline Lexicon.

Nope, it’s not “solutions” or “best” or “quality.” Those are merely meaningless.

It’s not “we” or “us”. It’s not “life” or “matters” or “innovation.”

The worst word is “trust.” With few exceptions, using “trust” in a tagline is self-negating. It erodes trust just to invoke that word, in most cases.

The reality it, trust is always something that must be earned, never something that results from simply saying “Trust us.” And it is something the company or brand is saying about itself. Better to turn the arrow around to point at the customer and what benefit they will derive.

Erie Family HealthCenter. Trust. Heal. Care.

Now, THATS a tagline.


It is rare to see a company truly embrace their tagline. And even rarer to use the tagline as a demonstration of the brand. Today I spotted the van above. Classic Color is a printing company. I don’t need to know anything more about them than the tagline, and especially the design of the tagline, to know they are a high end, high quality company.

It’s true that Classic Color has an advantage in that they are in a visual, art-related business which lends itself to such a tagline. That might mean something, if I hadn’t seen so many similar companies with pedestrian taglines, treated with a yawn, if they had a tagline at all.

It’s also true that the tagline, were it designed in a more ordinary way, the way their brand name is, would not be anything special. But it’s not. The tagline and its design are one entity, so that the actual words of the tagline are made true by the design.

Hey, all you big brands. PLEASE stop embarrassing yourselves.

I know I’ve railed about this particular tagline crime before. But it just keeps happening. Will this torture never end?
This is the far from complete list I’ve compiled.

AAA Membership. For Life.
Abbott. A Promise For Life.
Ameren Corp. Focused Energy. For Life.
American Institute of Architects. Building For Life.
Bosch. Invented For Life.
AAA Membership. For Life.
Cardinal Health. [Something?] For Life.
Constellation Brands Tastes For Life.
Daikin. Comfort For Life.
Dominicks. Ingredients For Life.
Dux. The Bed For Life.
Everest. With You For Life.
Everest. For Life.
HealthKey. Unlock Your Potential—For Life.
Heatmaster. Comfort For Life.
Horizon Pharma. Innovative Therapies For Life.
Iams. Good For Life.
Kubota. For Earth, For Life.
Medtronic. Innovating For Life.
Panasonic. Ideas For Life.
Perl Mortgage. Your Leader For Life.
Siemens. Ingenuity For Life.
Spectra Energy Corp. Energy For Life.
TNO Innovation For Life.
Tridivisions. Real Technology for Real Life
TwinLab Multivitamins. Answers. For Life.
Valcucine. Innovation For Life.
Varian Medical Systems A Partner For Life.
Victorinox. Companion For Life.
Volvo. For Life.
(I forget which Prescription Drug.) Take It For Life.
[Several companies.] Your Lender For Life.

Now another big pharma company joins the bandwagon. Maybe this isn’t even a new tagline for them, but it’s the first I’ve seen it.

Bye-bye “Slogan.”

Laura Ries, daughter of the legendary Al Ries, wrote a book a few years ago called Battlecry. It’s a book about slogans/taglines, and I’m very grateful to her for having written it. Precious few books consider slogans/taglines in such depth, and she has much of interest to say.

However, I strongly disagree with one of her contentions. It has to do with the distinction between a slogan and a tagline. I’ve written about this topic in a LinkedIn article recently, so I’ll contain my comments here to Laura’s argument and in particular one of her examples.

Laura contends that a tagline is just the catchy little something that occurs at the end of a commercial. It doesn’t reflect or indicate the brand’s positioning. Whereas slogans are all about expressing the positioning of the brand.
She gives, as one prime example, Motel 6. The tagline of their commercials is We’ll keep the light on for you. But the slogan, which you’ll find at the top of their website home page is, “Lowest price of any national chain.”

Hellmann’s’ instructive tagline journey.

I am a consumer of Hellmann’s mayo—and a consumer of their taglines over the years. For a long time, they stayed with Bring out the Hellmann’s and Bring Out the Best. They weren’t phased by Budweiser’s similar Bring Out Your Best tagline. They had a good tagline and they held their ground.

A few years ago, they changed direction, deciding to focus on “real”. They launched an ad campaign anchored by a new tagline, It’s Time For Real. I took them to task back then because I felt this was a vacuous tagline. What were they talking about? In retrospect, my sense is that they must have had research that told them people were looking for “real”, “authentic”, as opposed to “artificial”, which was helping to drive the whole push for eating local, blah blah blah.

Did they think people perceived their competition, especially Miracle Whip, as not real, or less real? Miracle Whip doesn’t claim to be mayo at all, but people find it in the same place on the supermarket shelf as Hellmann’s and other brands of mayo. So was this an attack on Miracle Whip? Or did they just want to emphasize their own pure, simple ingredient story with no artificial stuff?

Silk’s new tagline—such a beautifully subtle, effective little sleight.

As with most commercials, I don’t recall the content of the Silk commercial, other than the tagline. I’m sure I’m more susceptible to this kind of selective memory and perception than most, given what I do. In this case, As is often the case, with me at least, the rest of the content, aside from the tagline, is secondary, even inconsequential.

So, let’s talk about this tagline.

Silk Tastes Like Better

They could have just said Tastes Better. This would put them in the ranks of hundreds? Thousands? of other brands of food products. And it would have rendered the tagline impotent, meaningless and invisible.

But, in the simple act of transforming the adjective “better” into a noun, the tagline provides that little bump, that nanosecond of pause and replay in the brain that forces just the slightest engagement, the slightest bit of processing. And this, in turn, renders the tagline meaningful, visible, effective.