The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, November 06, 2009
Squeezing Oil From Planet Rock
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising by Luke Sullivan - When I started writing copy, I bought a stack of books about writing and advertising. I suppose nothing reveals what a slacker I am more than admitting that it took me almost half a decade to get around to reading this one (and I haven't touched most of the others, either). Hey, Whipple is an introduction to the world of advertising from the perspective of a "creative" at an agency. Sullivan not only provides examples of great advertising, but he also offers many helpful tips for those attempting to produce such ads. This book won't make you an advertising genius, but it will set you on the right path -- and give you a few laughs, too. Note: I read the second edition; the third edition came out last year and includes new chapters about "new media" and direct-response TV.

Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska by John Strohmeyer - This book describes the impact of the oil industry on Alaska's government, Natives, environment, and even newspapers as they ride the waves of boom-and-bust from the 1950s to the 1990s. Strohmeyer writes this history in a journalistic style, though he skews a bit to the left in favor of the environment and the citizenry over the oil corporations. Several later chapters describe the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath, which was recent news when this book was published in 1993. This book has restored my pride in being a Chicagoan because corruption here is nothing compared to Alaska's. Considering the rogue's gallery that has led the state so poorly over the past half-century, the title of Sarah Palin's new memoir, Going Rogue, is incredibly ironic (though she was a mere Wasilla city councilperson when this book came out). Overall, Extreme Conditions is a reasonable, readable recounting of the changes that oil drilling and oil money brought to Alaska.

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock's Most Debauched Decade by Lonn Friend - Although I had never even heard of RIP magazine before (I was never into heavy metal enough to read the magazines), I enjoyed this memoir by its former editor. Friend's anecdotes are often funny and sometimes quite touching; despite their angry, bad-ass reputations, many masters of metal are actually decent guys. Most chapters are about a particular band and Friend's relationship with them. This makes Life on Planet Rock a little jumpy chronologically but otherwise works well. I found the chapter about the frustrations of working as an A&R man for Arista Records very revealing. It made me wonder how much great music we've all missed due to the capricious nature of the music industry. One weakness of Life on Planet Rock is the way Friend dances awkwardly around the edges of his marital problems, as if he couldn't decide whether it belonged in the book. Although his earlier personal life is entertaining and illustrative, it becomes a distraction from the narrative during the RIP years and beyond. As a memoir, this book is less thorough but more engaging and fun to read than David Konow's more historical Bang Your Head. Friend tells some great tales, and anyone who loves or at least grew up with this music should enjoy Life on Planet Rock.

Current tally: 85 books finished, 73 books acquired

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Answers & Advertising
Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (& Not-So-Everyday) Questions by Bill Sones and Rich Sones, Ph.D. - The Sones brothers write a syndicated column called "Strange But True" which is similar to Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope". I read a lot of books like this because the format is ideal for reading aloud to my wife as she gets ready for work (a few questions/pages per day). Having sampled this very uneven category, I can say that Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is far better than most. Instead of providing trite responses or mealy-mouthed ramblings, the Sones brothers consult and quote experts to get their answers. The only weak portion of the book is the section about love. Those questions just aren't as scientifically explainable as those about the body, death, and animals. Regardless, if you like this sort of book, Can a Guy Get Pregnant? is one of the best (don't confuse it with Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which is more popular but inferior).

Selling It: The Incredible Shrinking Package and Other Marvels of Modern Marketing by Leslie Ware - The inside back cover of Consumer Reports is my favorite part of the magazine. Each month, the editors put together a page of perplexing advertising and packaging. Examples include garbled English, misleading promises, and oddities like a photograph of a rose bush that appears in several catalogs, each time illustrating a different variety of rose. I was quite excited to buy a compilation of such items, yet this book took seven years to finish. The entries are like bacon -- it tastes great as a garnish, but one can't eat it all the time (and I've tried; eventually the salt and grease overwhelm). Each time I picked up Selling It, I read 5-10 pages, got tired of it, and moved on to something else. Ware's chapter introductions provide some basic consumer education in bullshit detection, but the examples are the best part... even if they don't read well in one sitting.

Current tally: 81 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Advertising Age notes that the greatest impediment to selling absinthe may now be its strongest selling point:
Aspiring absinthe marketers spent the last few years trying to convince government regulators that the mystique surrounding the long-banned liquor -- cited as the cause of Vincent Van Gogh's madness and even linked to murders -- was mostly urban legend that ought to be disregarded.

Now that the wormwood-based liquor is being marketed legally again, look for those same marketers to raise that mystique at every opportunity.
The spirit was banned in 1912, but the newly approved imports "have levels of thujone -- the hallucination-inspiring chemical that derives from wormwood -- that are below the long-held government limit." I'm sure the importers don't want you to know that.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Politics Where You Least Expect It
I was reading a blog entry at The New Republic's site when I came across this comment from "epackard-02":
Has anyone else seen the Charmin commercial where the red bear wants the *strong* Charmin and the blue bear wants the *soft* Charmin.

Subversive, I tell you.
That's the funniest political observation I've heard in months. So was Mr. Whipple a Republican?

UPDATE - I wrote the above before learning that Dick Wilson, who portrayed Mr. Whipple for decades, died on Monday at age 91. Here's some interesting stuff from the AdAge obituary:
Mr. Wilson also received an unusual stipend from [Procter & Gamble] -- complimentary rolls of Charmin shipped each month. He made the "Guiness Book of World Records" for the longest-running TV character with 504 ads, and a 1979 poll (conducted for P&G) pegged him as the third best-known American behind Richard Nixon and Billy Graham.
And I know he was better-liked than at least one of those guys (that poll doesn't say much for President Carter, does it?). Wilson also did a lot of television and movie work (read the list and try to think of a TV series he wasn't on in the 1960s and 1970s).

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Goodbye LaSalle Bank
While I'm not happy that 2,500 Illinoisans are going to lose their jobs when LaSalle Bank merges into Bank of America, I won't shed a tear for the demise of LaSalle's godawful marketing campaign. Let's hope ABN AMRO retains the rights to the word checkilicious, dresses it in concrete shoes, and drops it into a Dutch canal, never to be seen again. Ditto for checking couture.

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Monday, June 19, 2006
Strange Bedfellows
New advertising slogan:
Pig out... Slim down... Nestle
Reaching new heights in hedging bets, Swiss food and drink giant Nestle announced today that it will acquire Jenny Craig, Inc. later this year. Whichever way the diet pendulum swings, Nestle has it covered. Should a personal crisis bring on a round of binge eating, Nestle will happily sell you chocolates. But if you've already had more than your share, Nestle will help you lose the weight. And once you slim down, maybe you'd like some chocolates...

(Note: Nestle isn't the first to do this -- Unilever owns both Ben & Jerry's and Slim Fast.)


Sunday, March 19, 2006
Bastard of the Day
With the Illinois primary elections just days away, today's Bastard of the Day award goes to the purveyors of political phone ads. With an unlisted phone number and my aggressive "don't call me ever again" policy (my wife weasels out with "she's not home right now"), we get very few calls from telemarketers. But in the past two weeks we have been inundated with prerecorded messages in support of either Forrest Claypool or John Stroger for Cook County Board President. Most have been from Citizens for Claypool, but I'm pretty sure one was from Stroger backers (I could be wrong since I don't listen closely before hanging up).

I've been leaning toward Claypool simply because Stroger has been in charge for too darn long. I'd like to see someone else's name on every freaking forest preserve sign in Cook County. Now, however, I am having second thoughts because I tend to support the candidate who irritates me the least. If you want my vote, don't call me. Let your opponent fall into that trap.

(Note: This entry doesn't consider the ramifications of Stroger's recent stroke. A vote for Stroger may really be a vote for the person that the party selects to replace him.)

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Saturday, March 18, 2006
Speedy Delivery!
Whenever I see a bicyclist in an advertisement, it catches my eye. Especially in one of my wife's horse magazines. This ad features a special breed of cyclist, the aerodynamic time trialist. What are they advertising? A container to ship horse semen!

It's a cool photo, but I'm not sure it works here. The ad says "The Leader of the Pack," but time trialists ride alone (except as part of a team in which case it doesn't really matter who is in front among teammates). There is no "pack." A photo of a cyclist leading or breaking away from the peloton would fit the words better. And how would this person carry an Equitainer? It would be funny if they doctored the photo to show an Equitainer strapped to the rider's back. Maybe they should have used a touring bike with a rear rack instead.

Lance Armstrong was one of the best time trialists in the world before he retired. Since there are lots of horses in Texas, semen delivery could be his second career!

UPDATE 03/18/2006 - Somehow I forgot to mention the name of the manufacturer: Hamilton Research, Inc. Coincidentally, Tyler Hamilton is another formidable American time trialist.

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Friday, March 17, 2006
Bastard of the Day
Today's award goes to John Cougar Mellencamp. If I see that old fart with his band on a basketball court singing "Rockin' in the N-C-Double-A" one more time, I'll scream. Of course, this Hoosier has been on the downward slide for a long, long time. Even his best albums like Scarecrow contained their share of filler and pop garbage. Heck, "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." sounds inspired compared to trash like "Lonely Ol' Night." At least it was better than American Fool. I hate "Jack & Diane" with every fiber of my being -- except the fibers I reserve for hating "Hurts So Good."

One of the first times I can recall my future wife making fun of me was when we heard Mellencamp on the radio (circa 1997), and I said, "It's John Mellencamp, trying to stay relevant." She thought I was goofy to use a word like "relevant" to describe a performer (as if a woman who has memorized Slayer lyrics has any right to judge my rock criticism). But I was right, and even then he was losing the fight. Aside from dusting off the ol' guitar to play "Rain On The Scarecrow" at Farm Aid, this guy should have hung it up a decade ago.

But I have a special reason for directing my vitriol at Mellencamp now. He and his freaking NCAA basketball March Madness are on CBS, and some of my favorite shows aren't on this week because of it (I lucked out with the Olympics since I don't watch NBC). That makes CBS and the NCAA honorary bastards. I have always hated basketball, probably because it requires two things I don't have: height and coordination. I didn't watch the Fighting Illini in the Final Four last year. Even when Michael Jordan, arguably the best player ever (if you would argue, you're not from Chicago), was working his magic for the Bulls, I hardly paid attention to anything more than the last five minutes of a few playoff games. It's okay if they want to show this stuff on Saturdays and Sundays -- I don't watch TV on weekends anyway -- but don't waste prime time on some lousy first round college playoff game like Goober Tech versus Bumwipe State.

And to think, I have to put up with another two weeks of this.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2004
One Small Calorie
I thought everyone remembered the Diet Pepsi jingle from the 1980s:
Now you see it, now you don't
Here you have it, here you won't
Oh Diet Pepsi one small calorie
Now you see it now you don't
I always wondered how that bottle had one calorie, no more and no less. I pictured a guy dropping a single calorie into each bottle just for the sake of marketing. Whatever the case, I thought it was a pretty memorable ad campaign that distinguished the product from others. In the past week, however, I have heard two other diet colas mistakenly described as having "one calorie."

First, I overheard a woman saying that she likes Diet Coke because it only has one calorie. As far as I know, it has always had zero, or as their web site says, "less than one calorie," attributed to traces in "aspartame, caramel color and citric acid" (the label says zero because of FDA rounding). For more than you ever really wanted to know about this topic, check out the Diet Coke Product FAQ. I quizzed my wife last night about which drink had "just one calorie," and she said Diet Coke, too.

Then yesterday a co-worker was complimenting my choice of beverage, Diet Rite: "That's good stuff. My mom drinks it. And it's got just one calorie, you know." Well, actually, Diet Rite doesn't have any calories. Technically, the presence of caramel color and citric acid means it probably has a tiny amount, so I'd put it in the "less than one" range like Diet Coke.

I always thought Diet Pepsi had an effective and memorable ad campaign. Now I wonder, have people confused the ads for these diet drinks over time? Or did the old Diet Pepsi ads make people think that all diet drinks have one calorie? The kicker is that nowadays, even Diet Pepsi doesn't have one calorie--it has zero, too!


Friday, September 03, 2004
Desecrating Baseball's Hallowed Bricks
I suppose it was inevitable that the Cubs would try to place advertising on the bricks behind home plate at Wrigley Field. After all, at least one television station already superimposes their own computer-generated ads on the wall during broadcasts. Still, the overt commercialization of sports has been a major factor in driving me away from them.

The team complains that player salaries keep going up, so they need more revenue. This is a problem that Major League Baseball must resolve. Let's face it, nobody deserves a million dollars a year for any kind of work, especially in sports. I will allow that if someone is willing to pay it, then they should get it (this is capitalism, after all), but I can't see why the owners are willing. Salary caps make a lot of sense. Tell the players they can't make more than, oh, $1.5 million a year (rather generous, I think). If they don't like that, they can always go work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart like people who can't hit or pitch do. I'm amazed that the average American sports fan tolerates this whacked-out salary scale, especially when the teams want to wallpaper the ballpark with advertising to support it (read
Jim Hightower or Naomi Klein, and you'll discover just how much advertising has infiltrated our every activity).

Wrigley Field's traditional look is a huge draw in these days of bland, antiseptic stadiums. I don't think it is wise for the Tribune Company (owners of the Cubs) to desecrate the ballpark by selling off its nostalgic value to the highest bidder. Allowing ads behind home plate is the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope that will someday see the ivy ripped from the centerfield wall, replaced by assorted corporate logos.

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