The Word Works

Reading Matter


Saying everything won't sell. Say one thing well.

Published By: John on 03/02/13

Reading this essay, I wish I had read it much earlier. A younger me would have had fewer problems as a teacher, a scholar, and later an adman if I had had the good sense not to try to show off everything I thought I knew every time I spoke up.image

I am listening to the orientation for the campaign to launch a new product. There is a long list of sales points, each of which is important to the client, who wants to communicate them all. I understand his feelings. Several hundreds of millions of yen will be spent on this campaign, and in tough times like these the client has to find some way to sell his product.
To cover all eight points in a 15-second TV spot is, however, impossible. In newspapers on on the Web it might be possible to list them all.  But TV or print, that kind of communication is meaningless.
In Japan, design and manufacturing technology are mature. People who obsessively check every product spec are rare. When you buy an electric fan, the blades will turn. Whichever car you choose,  you don’t have to worry about breakdowns. Product quality is no longer something that consumers check. They assume that, “If it comes from a reputable maker, that’s sufficient.” They have no reason to to worry about product quality.
In today’s market, however, products without a single clear edge can’t win. A long list of benefits weakens the message and destroys the product’s presence in the market place. Without that one compelling benefit, the message is weak; the product won’t stand out. Products without a strong “Something new!” start out too slowly and never achieve strong sales.
If a TV commercial has one overwhelming benefit to talk about,  we can ignore the other features. If we communicate that one key point successfully, consumers won’t worry about the rest. The more we run on, however, jumbling together this point and that one, like running our fingers through a heap of precious stones, the weaker that one, absolutely important, point becomes. The product loses its raison d’être.
If the hair tonic says “prevents dandruff,” “prevents itching,” “keeps scalp healthy,” “protects against sunburn,” and “prevents dryness,” what happens?  We lose sight of the key claim, that it helps hair grow and prevents baldness.

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In some times, "love" works. In others "love" doesn't work.

Published By: John on 02/25/13

When I read this essay, I remember the 1985 campaign for Kirin Beer. It featured Sylvester Stallone with the headline “Love, Courage and Can Beer.” To me it was memorable. Now I wonder if it was a dud.

Time doesn’t stand still. The times are always changing.
Companies, businesses, the consumers we target, the creators who make ads: all are swept up in the flow. All have to deal with changing values and zones of concern. The rhetoric with which we touch consumers’ hearts is always unsettled.
Advertising is always changing. It has to. There are periods in which certain words seem right but also periods in which they don’t. Let’s get specific. Up until the early 1990s, big, splendid words were out. They wouldn’t move anyone.
In advertising, the ulterior motive is obvious. The bigger and more splendid the words, the more they stink of lying. Those who hear them are put off. Overused, they induce loathing.
Ads that people hate are pointless. To use a company’s money in this negative way is a rotten thing for any professional to do.
There are some words that never work: “best,” “ultimate,” “reliable.” If people believed what they say, there would be no need for copywriters. The only thing worse is the kind of language that politicians use in debates. Use them in advertising and people will think you’re an idiot. Make no mistake about it. They will never trust you.
Back in the 1980s, we couldn’t use big words like “love” and “courage.”  But now the times have changed. “Could be love. Love” for Suntory Cocktail Bar canned cocktails broke the spell. When I saw that headline I said to myself, now we can use “love” again.
But we have to be careful. The “love” in this headline is not what love used to be. The combination of “Could be love” and “Love” is new.
Now that it is possible to use “love” again, we can also use words at the same level. So, for example, I wrote “Sometimes love. Sometimes courage. We carry invisible things.” That headline was for a corporate image campaign for the railroad company JR Kyushu.
Now at least some big words once again touch those who hear them.
“Love” and “courage.” How much longer can we use them?

In Nakahata’s examples the use of “love” hesitates. The Japanese suggests concern that “love” is a possibility, but not a burning, imperative passion. Very different this is from “Love, Courage and Canned Beer” with Stallone in full blown Rocky and Rambo mode.

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Good advertising is a bonus for employees

Published By: John on 02/20/13

We think of advertising as speaking to consumers. But what about the sponsor’s employees?

The family is watching television. It’s evening, after supper. A commercial from dad’s company appears on the screen. It combines a sentimental idea based on product features with copy that feels realistic and empathetic. It’s charming.
Mom says, “That commercial is really good.”
The daughter, now in junior high school, adds, “The kids at school really like it.”
Dad says, “Really?” He is trying to look cool, pretending that he is indifferent to the praise. Inside he is bubbling with joy.
Commercials like this one, that families praise and make dads feel good are a bonus for employees of companies that sponsor them.
As employees, we receive our pay, then think about what to buy.
After clothing, food, housing and the children’s education, we have a bit left over.
Do we take someone we cherish to a restaurant? To a movie? Or out to sing karaoke?  What we want most is to share our pleasure with someone important to us.
Our family members are the most important of all, and when one of them says, “Your company’s commercial is really good,” it feels like a special bonus.
Inside we feel our chests swelling with pride, “Dad’s company knows what’s good.” That desire to work hard welling up inside us is something we never get from the company president’s lectures. It comes from deep inside.
So when people like commercials, they not only add value to the products or companies they advertise. They also boost employee morale.
If we ask who pays the most attention to commercials, the sponsor’s employees and business partners are at the top of the list. Next come the people employed by its rivals. Third are those who work for its advertising agency. Consumers? Maybe fourth or fifth.

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Seduced into Buying, It Sounds Familiar

Published By: John on 02/19/13

In the previous essay, Nakahata describes advertising as an uninvited guest. How does the salesman get his foot in the door?

A senryu (comic haiku) says, “We buy because of the salesman’s hometown dialect.”
Like door-to-door salesmen, ads are uninvited guests. It’s no secret what they are trying to do. But perhaps we can learn something from this poem.
When a product has an overwhelming edge, we can simply list the sales points. Hardly ever, however, do we see such a product. Unless the price is amazingly low, this kind of sales talk doesn’t work.
What is missing?
The local flavor.
But what is that?
Why does that sturdy straightforward approach make us feel secure?
What is it about it that opens the door?
In it we sense the persistence when confronting adversity that we always admire in someone else.
That gets to us, we feel compassion.
If the dialect reminds us of home, that’s an extra plus.
There are, however, two points to note here.
First, tone and manner. The dialect adds no material value whatever. It is clearly just atmosphere. But most products these days aren’t that different from other products. Our likes and dislikes are rooted in aspiration or familiarity. These are what drive sales.
Second, careful attention to detail. From the salesman who happens to ring the doorbell of someone from his hometown, we have nothing to learn. Our model is the one who may have been born in an upscale neighborhood in Tokyo but has taken the trouble to learn where his customer is from and worked hard to be able to casually use words with the right hometown feel.  This is an acquired skill.  Not easy but the ability to touch a consumer’s heart requires this level of skill and service.
Does the ad you are working on display this kind of skill? This kind of service?

From Nakahata Takashi 2008 Want everybody to love you, everybody will hate you. pp. 16-18

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Exposed! The Ulterior Motive

Published By: John on 02/17/13

The doorbell rings.
You ask, “Who are you?”
The visitor sounds sincere as he says, “I’d appreciate a few minutes of your time.” But you know that voice. It’s a salesman. However friendly and warm that voice seems, you will not open your heart. Your heart remains closed, and so does the door.

Advertising is just like that uninvited guest.?@It is obvious that the smile in its voice is a way to sell you something.
There is no form of expression in which the ulterior motive is more completely obvious than mass-media advertising. Isn’t this come to think of it, a shameful way to behave?
Advertising, if nothing else, is a form of communication that starts from this negative position. The ulterior motive is obvious.
Note, too, that the more cleverly the visitor speaks, the more that voice sets off warning bells. A salesman who speaks too smoothly reveals the technique with which he hopes to close the sale.
We all know the type who stares intently at you and tells you, “You have to buy this,” singing the praises of his product. Does anyone really expect to move a customer’s heart that way? They must. If we examine the TV commercials and newspaper ads with which we are constantly being bombarded, too many use this feeble approach.
Food product ads say, “This is delicious.” Car ads say, “This is comfort.” Ads for TV sets say, “Great image quality.” But if statements like these were effective, there would be no demand for experts in advertising expression. The client’s advertising managers could write this stuff themselves, and save themselves the creative fees they pay for advertising skill. It is unbelievable,  in a world where competition is so severe, that companies still choose this naive strategy and expect people to buy their shares or what they sell.

From Nakahata Takashi 2008 Want everybody to love you, everybody will hate you. pp. 13-15

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Want everyone to love you, everyone will hate you (Everything you need to know about successful advertising, vol. 1)

Published By: John on 02/16/13


Nakahata Takashi is one of Japan’s most distinguished advertising creatives. Born in Kyoto in 1947, he won his Tokyo Copywriters Club Newcomer Prize in 1970, followed by the Club Prize in 1979. By the early 1980s, he was already a star. Over the years, hundreds of the ads on which he has worked have appeared in the Tokyo Copywriters Club Advertising Copy Annual. The Wikipedia page about him includes two statements that embody his advertising philosophy.

“What I do is arrange ordinary, everyday words in a way that appeals to everyone when they appear in the media.”

“Copy isn’t something that you write or you make, it is something you choose.”

Two days ago I had the privilege of interviewing Nakahata Takashi. I mentioned the possibility of translating two of my favorites among the books that he has written and posting the translations on our website.  He approved the project. I have promised to make it happen,  and I can’t think of a better way to begin than to let him speak for himself. Here is what he writes in the preface to Want everyone to love you, everyone will hate you (Everything you need to know about successful advertising).

There are things that I have noticed during the long time that I have been involved with advertising. Some are tricks of the trade.  Some were discoveries (at least to me). Some were disappointments. Others drove me crazy.  Some were delightful.
Not just ads. I am talking about things I observed about clients, agencies, staff, and the many people I met and with whom I worked. Sometimes when there was trouble, I was a real pain in the ass. Now, looking back, I see how easy solving those problems could have been. Now that I have reached this age and acquired certain skills,  these tricks of the trade, all these ideas, I was, it seems to me, working as if in a dream. So I write these words as a present for a younger me, still wet behind the ears.  But that younger me is no more. I am this balding man writing this preface. I hope that those who now find themselves saying, “Damn, damn, damn!” will read them.

(To be continued)

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Enari Tsuneo, The Dark Side of Showaimage

Published By: John on 05/19/11

On July 23, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography will present an exhibition of the work of Enari Tsuneo, a photographer who has spent nearly four decades documenting the consequences of Japan’s Showa-era wars, in Manchuria, on the “Islands of Wailing Ghosts” where the fiercest battles of the war in the Pacific were fought, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibition ends on September 25. The Word Works is proud to have provided Japanese-to-English translation for the catalogue and signage.


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Website Design

Published By: John on 02/10/11

This is a demonstration of how to create a page with Expression Engine.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog

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A WHOLE NEW MIND: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, by Daniel H. Pink

Published By: John on 10/27/06
Categories: Management Marketing

Wired writes, “Why right-brainers will rule the future.” Wired is wrong. What Daniel Pink actually argues is that success in the 21st century while require a “whole” mind, in which both left and right brain are engaged. image

Starting a book with a first chapter entitled “Right Brain Rising” almost made me put it down. But Pink is an effective writer, who quickly makes it clear that he is no New Age enthusiast for right-brain thinking. Instead, he spends Part One of A Whole New Mind laying out an argument for why knowledge workers who depend exclusively on left-brain expertise in sequential logical thinking face a future of shrinking opportunities. Why? Pink sums it up in three key words, “Abundance,” “Asia,” and “Automation.” Abundance means that consumers are no longer satisfied with merely functional products that perform as advertised. From equally functional alternatives they are able to choose those whose design adds aesthetic or other significance to their lives. Asia and Automation mean that repetitive work of any kind, including the kind that gets done with spreadsheets, can be done more cheaply, either by cheaper Asian labor or tireless computers and robots. Success in the brave new world defined by these three A’s will require additional, right-brain skills. And what might those be? In Part Two, Pink suggests six: Design, Storytelling, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Workers with these skills will create or recognize the edge that good design adds, tell great stories to motivate people to want what they sell, work in harmony with people of diverse talents and tempraments, have a gut feeling for where others are coming from, turn work into play and play into something that adds meaning to the whole of life.

Individually the ideas are not new. I first saw the argument from Abundance in research by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that taught me to ask if a product or add will snap into focus for its target. I learned about the implications of Asia and Automation by reading Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations and got my first exposure to right-brain theory from Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain. What Pink has done, however, is to pull these ideas together and forge a persuasive argument that avoids the trap of sour critique and points in positive, perhaps even actionable, directions. Highly recommended.

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Seth Godin (2005) All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World

Published By: John on 05/28/06

What are the most important skills a marketer needs? According to Seth Godin, it’s being able to tell a good story and then make it happen.

It used to be that if I knew someone, a student or friend, who needed a quick introduction to the basic concepts and language of marketing, I’d point them to Dallas Murphy (1997) The Fast Forward MBA in Marketing. Probably still would if what they need is to be able to sound like they’ve been to business school. But if I wanted them to get beyond the jargon to the real guts of marketing in today’s world, my recommendation would now be Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars. Godin’s book is an almost too-easy read, so I’d have to warn them to slow down, read it carefully and think about what he’s saying. Here is just a taste,

It’s impossible to transmit every single fact, instantly, to every person you want to reach. So marketers tell stories. Sometimes we tell stories with packaging or with advertising or with words. Sometimes we tell a story with a smile, or with a sign in front of a building. Often those stories are well intentioned and even an attempt at communicating all the facts. But when a human being eventually confronts the idea, he will interpret it in his own way—he will lie to himself, creating a judgment without access to all the facts. The best marketing techniques, then, are the simple stories that are the most likely to break through, the most likely to be understood and the most likely to spread. And because the rules keep changing, the tactics must change as well.

That puts the basic situation pretty well. What Godin adds in the rest of the book is a lot of useful advice on how to make a story believable, ideally by behaving as if it is true. Today’s consumers want to believe but are very wary of anything that smacks of hard sell or hypocrisy. If your walk doesn’t match your talk, you’re cooked.

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First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently.

Published By: John on 04/17/06
Categories: Of Interest Management

As anthropologist, adman and activist, John is often involved in discussions of leadership. That is why, when he was scanning his library a few days ago, a book that said, “Read me” was Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman (1999) First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.

Now if this were just another couple of managment gurus pontificating, he would probably give it a pass. But what Buckingham and Coffman discuss is a research project conducted by the Gallup Organization, in which 105,000 employees of 2,500 companies, covering a wide span of industries, answered questions designed to find out what it is about managers who are able to achieve the leadership goals described above, building strong teams of happy, talented people who not only work well together but turn out to be far more productive as well.

The study began with lots of questions. What the Gallup researchers wanted to discover was which of these questions were most closely correlated with effective, productive leadership. As they analyzed their mountains of data, they focused in on twelve questions. After further research, they pared the list to six.

1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

Turn those questions around and they become a recipe for how to be a good leader.

1. Set clear goals.
2. Make sure that people have what they need to achieve them.
3. Create opportunities for people to use their talents, ideally every day.
4. Don’t be stingy with strokes. As the old proverb has it, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
5. Take the time to show people you care about them.
6. Keep asking yourself, not just “What can they do for us now?” but “What could they do with a little more training and encouragement?”

Think about it. If you had to score your leadership on each of these six measures, on a five number scale where 1 means “Lousy” and 5 means “Great” how well would you score?

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