Subbing the world

Righting copywriting wrongs, one word at a time

Twelfth Night, Section 4, Paragraph 3a

Music be the food of love Southwark

Some time ago, I put this horrible sign on my Flickr. I should have remembered it for this blog, but I didn’t.

Now fellow copywriter Tim Rich has used it for his blog. And said all the right things. So you might as well just read him.


Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice, Verbiage

A rubbish tone of voice

Hammersmith & Fulham recycling poster

As I walked along Wood Lane this morning, this truck rumbled past and shouted at me.

Suddenly I’m picturing ranks of blank-eyed Hammersmith & Fulham schoolchildren lined up at their desks, pledging their commitment to a sustainable lifestyle. Black-visored Recycling Enforcement Units frogmarching down the Talgarth Road, barking savagely at any citizens who forget themselves sufficiently to drop their copies of Metro into the normal street bins.

And somewhere, a dank, windowless room (101, perhaps?) where serial non-recyclers are beaten with bulging ring-binders labelled Council Environment and Waste Policy Initiatives Working Group Priority Management Programme (Q3).

Is this the way to encourage positive behaviour? Does this sort of tone have any effect on people whatsoever – except perhaps to ignite a reflexive desire to kick back, and deliberately drop a prohibited Yellow Pages in the green wheeliebin? I suspect not.

Complete crap.

Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice

What next? The Licensed Catering Outlet Quiz?

Harvester pub

Thanks to Twitter, and specifically fellow copywriter Andrew Arnold, I’ve found this admirably cross article in The Publican, by 2009 Beer Writer of the Year Pete Brown. (What a terrific job to have, by the way.)

Pete has been driven to distraction (and, presumably, to drink) by the trend for pub chain companies to avoid the name ‘pub’ in favour of some hideous euphemistic banality like licensed catering outlet or kitchen & eating rooms.

In the article, he resists ‘a sentimental, pub-loving position [to explain] why this campaign to erase pubs is a Bad Thing.’ Which is kind of a shame: I’d like to hear that position expressed.

Instead, he opts, pragmatically, for an argument ‘corporate types’ will understand, about the competitive advantage a ‘pub’ has over every other ‘licensed catering outlet’ in the world. And of course he’s absolutely right.

I suppose there’s a wider question about whether those anonymous, brightly lit monstrosities, gaudily badged with names like Harvester or Chef & Brewer, actually deserve the name of ‘pub’. These chains seem expressly intent on excising any atom of charm, warmth or individuality that might give them the right to that hallowed name. Licensed catering outlet often seems about as much as they deserve.

But then maybe if the companies involved could understand (or, in Whitbread‘s case, just remember) what makes the British pub such a beloved element of our culture, they might stand half a chance of creating environments that don’t induce a dizzying impulse towards violent suicide immediately upon entry.

Filed under: Downright ugly, Good words, Tone of voice

D&AD: Devil & A Detail

It’s such a tiny, tiny thing. But you know what they say about the Devil and details.

D&AD email header

Instead of:

If you are unable to to see the D&AD email below, please view online at…

why didn’t this D&AD email just say:

If you can’t see this email, go to…?

It just sounds nicer and more human. Shorter too.

All these tiny things. They all matter.

Well, all right. They matter to me.

Filed under: microcopy, Tone of voice

Officious, verbose AND dumb. Oh my.

David dropped me a line with this, which needs no further comment from me:

Maybe sign

Filed under: Confusing, Downright ugly, Grammar, Jargon, Tone of voice, Verbiage

I am all the moments I’ve seethed about this sort of thing.

And we’re back. Sorry for the hiatus, but I’m now fully installed in the new house, ready to do battle once more with the verbal vicissitudes of the written world.

Starting right now. Evelina Dee-Shapland (who, it turns out, paints good pictures and used to work with David) sent me this:

Orange bag

‘I thought you might be able to decipher this message,’ Evelina writes. ‘I still can’t make any sense out of it.’

I don’t blame her. I’ve had it in for Orange’s branding for a while. To my mind, it’s at the vanguard of the sort of syrupy, pretentious nonsense so often passed off as brand communications.

It’s the result of too many people sitting alone together for too long, taking themselves a bit too seriously, and forgetting they’re selling a service.

As Evelina says, what on earth does this mean?

Yes, I ‘get it’. A person is the sum of their experiences, the places they’ve been, the people who have influenced them, etc. And, we are invited to infer, Orange is the thing that connects all those elements of life. Not so much a communications company as The Force. It’s all summed up in this TV spot:

I understand the theory. But all I see in the ad is a lot of rather smug-looking people, cookie-cuttered out of someone’s research document on ‘aspirational’ personalities, and a rather gloopy, earnestly everymanny voiceover.

And all I hear in the copy, as on Evelina’s bag, is a rather pompous attempt to pretend Orange has ascended to some subtle plane of cultural activity far beyond the grubby commercial imperatives of selling stuff.

Ultimately, my problem is that the campaign has no charm, or humour. It’s all so desperately serious and important, like a callow teenager trying to get girls into bed by pretending to be deep and sensitive and intense. ‘Hey, you know, I wrote a poem about you. Nobody else understands, but I just know you will…’

I find myself wanting it to back off, stop whispering in my ear and stroking my arm, and just tell me what the hell it wants.

Now. A lot of very bright people have thought long and hard about this campaign. I should know, because I work in that world and I know how difficult and complicated it is to put something like this together. So perhaps I’m being very unfair.

But if we’re talking tone of voice (and we are), all I can say is that Orange’s tone of voice turned me off the brand pretty violently when I was a customer, and I feel heartily glad not to have any association with its furrow-browed, navel-gazing solipsism now.

(It doesn’t help that I also felt the service fell short of the rather lofty positioning – a very quick way to irritate customers.)

For the other side of the story, you can see Orange’s former UK Brand Director Justin Billingsley, and Magnus Jabber from Fallon (the agency), discussing the campaign here. I suppose I probably shouldn’t expect a call from either of them any time soon.

Filed under: Confusing, Tone of voice

It’s not ‘laying people off’, it’s ‘synergy-related headcount restructuring’

I’m afraid I’m recycling an old post from an old blog here, but I think it bears repeating.

Thanks to my friends at writing association 26, I was alerted to this quite extraordinary bit of corporate language-mangling by Nokia Siemens Networks.

Nokia nonsense

And that’s just the first paragraph.

I’m not sure what people feel is gained by this sort of language. We all know what they mean, so why not be straight about it?

They’ve merged, which means they don’t need so many people. It’s an unpleasant fact of corporate life, but it is a fact and we all know it.

Jargon like this makes the brand look silly – surely they don’t think anyone is fooled by it? It also makes them look pretty shifty and evasive, unprepared simply to stand by their actions.

Listen to this, from further down the release: ‘At the completion of the planned synergy-related headcount restructuring activities, Nokia Siemens Networks expects to have in the range of 7,000 employees in Finland, from an initial base of approximately 9,200.’

Seven stodgy paragraphs in, and they’re still not letting go of that enormous phrase, ‘synergy-related headcount restructuring’. In fact, they’ve added to it, tacking that entirely redundant ‘activities’ on the end. And they’ve also tied themselves in linguistic knots trying not to say, ‘We’re cutting about 2,200 jobs.’

We can all do the maths; we can all see through the smoke. So why bother?

All this reminds me of a News Quiz show on Radio 4, in which Jeremy Hardy ruminated that new jobs are always ‘created’, but cut jobs are simply ‘lost’, as if it was something that just happened. ‘Sorry, Bob, your job’s lost. We’ve looked everywhere – can’t understand it. Anyway, bye.’

Filed under: Downright ugly, Jargon, Tone of voice, Verbiage, , ,

Saying nothing, twice.

Facebook clip

Sarah Porretta of Cadbury has found time in the midst of being eaten alive to send me this message she got from Facebook.

In case you can’t read it, the message says:

Could not post to Wall The message could not be posted to this Wall.

It annoyed Sarah not, she says, ‘just because of the copy itself, but because Facebook are unable to explain to me either why I could not post to wall, or why the message could not be posted to this wall.’

Refusing a request without any explanation is bad enough. In this case, Facebook has decided to do it twice. Which does seem unnecessarily rude.

Filed under: Confusing, Contributions, microcopy, Tone of voice

I know, let’s use a rape victim’s screams!

Rape ad

There’s no doubting the importance of this message.

But I can’t believe this expression of it got past (presumably) quite a lot of people without anyone saying, ‘Hang on everyone, I know we’re trying to be clever but this is just a crass, exploitative idea that seems almost to make some sort of sick joke of the whole issue.’

Filed under: Downright ugly, Tone of voice

Cry God for Harry, England and Our Primary Aim

Swannery sign

On a family trip to the Abbotsbury Swannery (which is lovely, as long as you really like swans), I spotted this sign at the entrance.

It’s one of those cases where there’s nothing technically wrong with the writing – it’s just dull.

‘Our Primary Aim’. It’s hardly inspiring, is it? Difficult to imagine the hearts of swan-lovers swelling with pride as they contemplate Their Primary Aim.

Vision and Mission are greatly overused words these days, but even one of those would be better, I think.

The Aim itself seems a bit obvious: ‘to conserve the swans and other wildlife in this very special environment’. Well, yes. (‘Very special’ – almost got a bit carried away there.)

And then, ‘Your visit will help us to achieve this aim.’ Well, hurrah.

Not something like, ‘Thank you for helping us care for the swans and other wildlife in this wonderful environment.’

Or, ‘We’re working hard to conserve the swans and other wildlife in these beautiful surroundings. Thank you for your support.’

There are lots of possible ways, as ever, to write something like this. And you don’t have to be a brilliant writer to do it. You just have to stop and think about how the words will sound to human being reading them for the first time.

So much writing we encounter seems not to have been produced to be read, but rather to satisfy the requirements of an internal committee.

‘Item 2b on the Agenda – Communicating Our Primary Aim. I believe Sheila has generated a form of words commensurate with the founding principles of the organisation. All those in favour?’

Like the sticker on the hotel book, this bit of writing seemed quite at odds with the reality of the organisation. I have no doubt the Swannery is run and staffed by people who truly love nature (especially swans), and go about their work with passion and delight.

What a shame all of that disappears into this dry, bureaucractic writing as soon as they put up a sign.

Filed under: Tone of voice

Let's start with this blog. The name's just not right, is it? It's much wider than sub-editing. It's just as often about words that are technically correct, but tonally all over the place. Oh well. Anyway, please feel free to send me your own examples of horrible copy (but please, no more erroneous apostrophes): mike[at]


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