"What have I done?"
--Nicholson at the Kwai Bridge
Indeed, what have I done?
This screed is a mess.
It all began with a question: What profound gem of copywriting or marketing can I toss your way as a parting thought for 2020 that will change your life in 2021?
And the answer: Probably nothing.
You are witnessing the not-knowing of writing a regular weekly assignment in an effort to be useful, purposeful and intentional.
Sometimes, this exercise is just hopeless.
Go ahead. Leave now. Save yourself.
Something I’ve found myself doing lately is thinking back.
Not with nostalgia, but curiosity.
What writers have made me sit up and take note? What writers have influenced my work in one way or another?
They are a diverse and intelligent lot, all smarter than I. Some of them you probably know.
Ogilvy. Bernbach. Williams. Godin. Gossage.
Well, maybe you don’t know that last one. Howard Gossage is a kind of a cult figure among copywriters. He died too young, but still had a profound impact on ad guys as diverse as Goodby Silverstein’s Jeff Goodby and late, great, Guerrilla Marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson.
But there are other, less likely writers.
For instance, there’s the late New York Times columnist, Russel Baker.
I was in junior high school when he wrote his column about how to carve a Thanksgiving turkey. His prose made it clear how hysterically funny a newspaper columnist can be--especially when he’s not writing about politics.
I also remember the opening paragraph to Baker’s satirical piece about televised sports, titled “Kaleidosport.”
“For days, we sat at the box mesmerized by sport. We saw the Mets beat the Nets and the Jets, saw Pancho Segura score a hole in one, and watched thunderstruck as Evonne Goolagong came off the bench in the final seconds of play to whip the mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers with a line drive to center field.”
That’s just the beginning. It becomes a lesson in crazy.
I remember discovering PJ O’ Rourke, known today as a conservative pundit, via an article he wrote for Car & Driver magazine about competing in an off-road rally in the new Jeep Cherokee.
In the article, he touted the joys of packing a suitcase while drunk (when you get to your destination, opening the suitcase is like Christmas).
He asserted that while Michael Nesmith has zero skills to offer as a rally competitor, he is an excellent conversationalist, and that was sufficient to put him in the car.
And O’Rourke’s saying that a hotel-catering shrimp cocktail looked like “a Sea World exhibit gone horribly wrong” was an object lesson in how a simple line of excess can break up a roomful of people.
Sometimes, a writer is sticky for just than a single line.
For instance, Carl Sandburg’s “The fog comes on little cat feet.”
It’s a seven-word gem that is firmly ensconced in my gray matter. In another life, it might have been good ad copy. It's succinct, crystalline and memorable.
David Ogilvy is so very quotable. But from his writing, there are two lines that stick with me as quintessential.
One is his classic headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
The other line is an admonition to advertising professionals: “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife. Don’t insult her intelligence.”
Pow! Right in the kisser! (Oh, look. That's a quote from Jackie Gleason.)
I can also pretend I read the classics.
With that, I will say that Shakespeare has done it for me with one line, but not any of those lines so oft repeated they're now seen as clichés.
Instead, it’s Marc Antony’s soliloquy over Julius Caesar’s body: “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, with Ate at his side come hot from hell, shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
No, it's not a cheery sentiment. But not all writing is cheery. Sometimes, it needs to be potent and powerful.
(Forgive me for not writing this in the proper format for iambic pentameter.)
An equally sticky, deadly line for me couldn’t be from a more different source.
It is said by Charles Bronson in the movie, The Mechanic. [SPOILER ALERT.]
Mob hit man Bronson has been training aspiring mob hit man Steve.
Steve returns the favor by betraying Bronson and killing him.
Steve moves into Bronson’s house. He's now living large on the memory of his mentor. He goes to the kitchen and opens the freezer door.
In the freezer, Steve sees a note. Bronson’s voiceover reads: “Steve, if you're reading this, it means I didn't make it back. It also means you've broken a filament controlling a 13-second delay trigger. End of game. Bang! You're dead.” And the refrigerator explodes.
Cheery and violent! (Monty Python.)
What is the point of all this?
Let’s call it a New Year’s Call To Action.
And know that you’ll find inspiration in the unlikely places.
Read what’s evocative.
Find words that make your head explode.
When words take you by surprise, ask, “Why?”
Obviously, you can't copy it. That's called plagiarism. But you can hold it in your hand like a shiny jewel and raise it up to the light and understand what makes it shine.
Even bad craft has value.
Sit with a group of friends opening their fortune cookies and you see it in action. as they read their fortunes aloud, each person in the group writes something new based on that little slip of bad copy.
There is value in raw material all around you.
Be informed by it, and it can inform your writing.
And your writing is one thing you do that can clearly set you apart. It will let you raise the bar in your service to others.
Being surprising enhances the sell.
And in your professional life--maybe even your personal life--the loudest noise will be the electric clock.
Bang. You’re living large.
Happy New Year.
Got a favorite inspiring line? Reply to this email and share it. If we get enough, I’ll compile them for another Hot Shots.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
LIGHTNING BRANDING ON AMAZON
The Kindle edition of our new book is now available at Amazon for the bargain price of $19.95.
For details about our new Lightning Branding courses, both do-it-yourself and we-do-it-with-you editions, click here. (There's even a video of us!)
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.