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Three Rules of English that good copy frequently breaks (and why it’s necessary to do so)

You’ve heard the saying, You have to know the rules before you can break them.

It’s absolutely true when it comes to advertising copy.

Writing a good ad (or any marketing message) requires you to understand sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc.

You, know…all the stuff crotchety Mrs. Schneider drilled into your head in high school English class. Or tried to.

But readable copy often breaks Mrs. Schneider’s beloved rules.

In fact, for copy to be “conversational” in tone, breaking them is practically a requirement.

Why? Because people break the rules all the time when they speak.

So you’ll need to break some rules too…if you want your message to be perceived as one human speaking to another.

This doesn’t, however, give us license to butcher the king’s English. The rules we can break are limited to a mere three.

Here they are, along with justification for breaking them:

1. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction (such as “and,” “but” or “or.”).

Copywriters break this rule all the time. And with good reason. Conjunctions provide a connection between two thoughts. But in speech people don’t always connect those two thoughts in a single sentence. They often split them up. And since copywriters strive to write in a way that mirrors the way people talk, it’s natural to do the same in copy.

But that’s not the only reason for putting an “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence. Doing so also lets us chop long sentences into two shorter ones that are easier to read.

Take this one, for example:

Going to the movies is a favorite pastime of many Americans, but the price of seeing a movie, combined with their poor quality of late, has many people opting to stay home.

It’s not exactly a run-on. Still it can be made a little less daunting for the reader if it’s divided in two.

Going to the movies is a favorite pastime of many Americans. But the price of seeing a movie, combined with their poor quality of late, has many people opting to stay home.

It’s a minor change, yes, but it makes the copy just a little easier for the reader. And every little bit helps.

2. Write in complete sentences, not fragments.

Complete sentences are great for annual reports and college term papers, but adhering to this rule in copywriting can lead to stiff, unnatural-sounding copy and dull, run-on sentences, such as this example:

Established in 1911 by brothers Bob and Frank Widget, Widget Investments is a respected global player with holdings around the world, a stake in numerous established business enterprises, and assets totaling $100 billion, all driven by a philosophy that always keeps us striving to reach higher, acquire more and do better.

Who’d want to wade through all that? Shorter sentences and liberal use of fragments make the message more palatable:

Widget Investments was established in 1911 by brothers Bob and Frank Widget. Today it’s a respected global player. One with holdings around the world. A stake in numerous established business enterprises. And assets totaling $100 billion. All driven by a philosophy that keeps us striving. To reach higher. Acquire more. Do better.

Ah, that’s better. The spaces between sentences give the copy – and the reader – a chance to breathe. So unless your readers positively adore lengthy Dickensian prose, opt for shorter sentences and fragments as necessary.

3. Don’t use slang.

Use discretion when breaking this one. It’s true that copy directed toward a particular audience has to speak their language. And sometimes that means adopting their lingo. But be warned: Don’t attempt this unless you’re sure you can pull it off. Nothing kills credibility faster than getting caught trying to fake authenticity.

So let’s say you want to announce to an audience of tech-savvy 20-somethings that your company has just developed a new application for the iPhone. You’ll have to judge whether it’s wiser to 1) describe the features and benefits of this outstanding iPhone application or to 2) give ’em the 411 on this killer iPhone app.

Likewise, you can decide whether it’s better to tell a hip youth audience that you’re going to 1) offer them some free merchandise or that you’ll 2) hook them up with some freebie swag.

You feel me?

As in all cases of rule-breaking, good judgment should be used. The goal isn’t to see how many rules you can break, it’s to make the communication as effortless as possible. So take some creative license, just don’t abuse it.

The Hidden Costs of Paper Towel Misuse

The following is presented as a public service message.

The photo below shows a typical stack of “multi-fold” paper towels.













As you can see in the next photo, each sheet in a stack is folded and arranged to interlock with the next sheet so that pulling on one begins to unfold and extend the next.













This allows the towels to be conveniently pulled from a dispenser, one sheet at a time, for maximum efficiency and hygiene benefits.













Nevertheless, despite these proven advantages, a full grasp of the function and proper use of multi-fold towels remains elusive in some quarters of corporate America…


It is not uncommon to see a stack of multi-fold towels positioned incorrectly (i.e., upside-down) within the dispenser. This is unfortunate, as it requires the user to employ the clumsy dig-and-pinch method, as shown here…











…followed by a side-pull extraction, the results of which can range from tearing the towel to inadvertently dispensing multiple sheets, creating unnecessary waste (and hastening the destruction of the planet).











Plus, it leaves an unsightly mess like the one here.

Unsightly mess resulting from side-pull extraction

Unsightly mess resulting from side-pull extraction











Nor is mess the only problem. Left unaddressed, a dispenser in the condition described above will become empty more quickly, requiring a premature refill.


Researchers recently discovered, to their surprise, that not every person encountering an empty multi-fold towel dispenser will avail him- or herself of the opportunity to refill it.

Among their findings:

1. A small percentage of bathroom patrons may retrieve a handful of replacement multi-fold towels from nearby. Upon returning, however, most members of this group will put the towels on the sink rather than attempt to install them in the dispenser. (The resulting problems from this are described further down.)

2. The majority (73.7%) will simply wipe their hands on their pants and walk out.

Questioning of participants revealed that the decision not to refill is influenced by any of several factors:

  • lack of familiarity with location of refill bundles
  • fear of incorrectly loading the dispenser
  • difficulty locating the dispenser latch key lying in plain sight
  • time pressures
  • cultural issues, or
  • disparities in knowledge regarding corporate restroom users’ rights and responsibilities.*

* See related post on leaving empty toilet paper rolls on the spool.

Regardless of the reason, the practice of placing multi-fold towels on the sink rather than in the dispenser is one that should be actively discouraged by managers, as it negates the towels’ efficiency in two distinct ways:

First, it exposes the towels to splashing, which can quickly render an entire stack useless for the next patron.


These towels’ close proximity to a source of splashing may cause them to become wet, negating their effectiveness.











It also creates the potential for finger-drip water damage. While not as destructive as splashing, finger-drip water still accounts for nearly 20% of towel waste.

This stack of paper towels is exhibiting clear signs of finger-drip damage.

This stack of paper towels is exhibiting clear signs of finger-drip damage.














This level of avoidable waste can have a seriously detrimental impact on any company striving to shrink its carbon footprint and heighten sustainability.

In conclusion, it behooves each manager to integrate into their best practices a training course (or at the very least a module) on the engineering, purpose and optimal usage of multi-fold towels. We urge you to work with your Sustainability Officer or Team to develop a long-term plan for addressing this crucial issue.


Thank you.



Palette, Palate and Pallet

Hi. Dave here.Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 1.22.07 PM

As the agency’s proofreader, I’ve caught and corrected all kinds of mistakes.

Lately, I’ve seen one particular boo-boo zinging even super smart people (both here and elsewhere). So let’s kick it to the curb once and
for all.

Palette = an artist’s tool or an array of colors

Palate = the back of the roof of your mouth

Pallet = a wooden thing you put heavy stuff on

Okay, so how can we keep them straight?

“Palette” is kinda French-looking, so there’s an “artsy” sense to it.

“Palate” is only one letter different from “plate,” which ties into food and eating.

“Pallet” is pretty close to “mallet,” which you could find lying near a pallet in a warehouse.

Pretty easy, huh? Hope this helps.

(For a thorough list of avoidable word crimes like this one, check out this very entertaining video by “Weird Al” Yankovic.)

Cartoons have gotten a lot smarter.

Adventure Time

Adventure Time characters

The other day I asked my 14-year-old daughter what “Adventure Time” was. (She has a couple of T-shirts that say “Adventure Time” and have wacky little characters on them.)

“It’s a show,” she replied (in that way teenage girls have of wanting to keep something secret yet implying you’re incredibly out of touch for not having heard of it).

“Is it for little kids?” I asked. (The primitive randomness of the characters on her T-shirt seemed tailored to an audience of 3-year-olds. I figured she was wearing it just to be ironic, the way all the kids have lately glommed onto “My Little Pony.”)

“No, it’s funny,” she objected. “We all watch it.” (“We” being herself and the Greek chorus of giggly, shrieky girls with whom she has surrounded herself.)

“So and so’s parents watch it too,” she added, as if to further emphasize my squareness.

The gauntlet had been thrown down. (For those of you under 30, that’s a medieval challenge analogy.) It was time I found out what “Adventure Time” was all about.

So I watched an episode. It was only ten minutes long. But that’s good, because if it had been longer I might have passed out from laughing.

It was really funny. And clever. And, like the characters, randomly wacky.

There were unicorns. There’s a talking dog that’s all stretchy and stuff. And there’s a little vampire girl who feeds on the color red instead of blood and plays a mean bass guitar.

The show, as it turns out, is also big hit and has been on for, like, four years. (Okay, Dad’s a little slow.)

But now I get it. I’m 100% on board with “Adventure Time.” In fact, I’m also on board with “Phineas and Ferb” and a bunch of other cartoons that I’ve discovered are a lot more sophisticated – and much funnier – than the ham-fisted, slapstick stuff cartoon stuff I grew up with. (Seriously, how many times can you laugh at a bowling ball dropped on a foot or an anvil falling on a coyote’s head?)

I’m not sure what to attribute the improvements to. It’s likely that making the humor interesting enough for adults as well as kids to enjoy improves viewership. Maybe the competition of numerous cartoon channels requires a show to be a cut above to be successful. Maybe kids have developed a taste for more sophisticated humor (Zack & Cody notwithstanding). Whatever the case, it’s a positive development.

Out of appreciation, I might even get my own “Adventure Time” T-shirt. (Plus, it’ll be fun to watch my daughter roll her eyes and sigh with embarrassment if I ever wear it in public.)

Naming, Part I: It’s hard and all the easy ones are taken.

Occasionally our agency is asked to craft a name for a new brand or product.

It can be a fun project.

It’s also hard as heck.

That’s because most of the simple one-word names are already taken. If it’s a single, cool-sounding word, someone is probably using it.

Here’s a little brainstorming exercise that proves the point: Imagine an automaker in Detroit has asked you to come up with a name for a new car.

(Although in reality cars are marketed towards specific demographic groups, for the purposes of this discussion just imagine a “generic” vehicle and consumer.)

Where do you start?

You could run through a list of animals. You’d come up with Jaguar, Cougar, Eagle, Falcon, Skylark, Viper, Ram, Barracuda, Impala, Bronco and Mustang to name a few. (All kept shiny with Turtle Wax, no doubt.) Those names have all been used. Tiger? Lion? Panda?

Those just won’t work, will they?

So you try, let’s see…how about Zodiac signs? Taurus, Aries…crap, those are taken and the rest are kind of…out there.

Speaking of stars, does the universe offer a solution? Ford has a Galaxy, Mitsubishi an Eclipse. Mercury and Saturn are in use. Milky Way is fine for a candy bar, but not a car. Andromeda is too feminine. (And please don’t suggest Uranus.)

How about mythical names? Well, you’d think there’d be a lot there too, but other than Saturn, Mercury, Aurora and Thunderbird the pickings are pretty slim. You can’t exactly call a car Zeus or Thor.

And Puck is right out.

That leads us to Greek terms. Let’s see, there’s Delta (taken) and…um, not much else.

You move on to names of places: Several sound really great and conjure up cool imagery – Aspen, Daytona, Malibu, Sierra, Milan, Capri – but of course they’re taken. You try picking other cities – Pittsburgh, Flint, Kalamazoo – and quickly realize you should just keep moving on.

What about music? Hyundai has the Sonata. What else could we try? Melody and Harmony would be great if the car were a girl. Octave? Nocturne? A bit technical. Most of the other terms are incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t speak Italian.

Becoming slightly desperate, you throw caution and political correctness to the wind and begin exploring the hunting grounds of Native American tribal names. Unfortunately, Jeep has beaten you to the punch and grabbed up Cherokee, Apache and Comanche. Dodge took Dakota, and GM has owned Pontiac since General Custer’s time (not to mentioned the misspelled Aztek). Mazda even took the Navajo. You’re left with Cree, Sioux and Hopi, and there’s not much you can do with those.

A-ha! Why not something with just letters and numbers, like Mazda RX-7, Audi A4, Pontiac GTO or Ford F-150? Trouble is, letters and numbers don’t mean much on their own (although some, such as A, V, X, Z and the number 1 have more personality than others). It usually takes a massive marketing campaign to imbue an alpha-numeric name with meaning.

It’s at this point that you realize that coming up with a name, while perhaps still fun, will not be easy.

Barring the use of an existing single word that’s exactly right for your product and audience (Pontiac nailed it with Vibe, Kia with Soul, Nissan with Cube), what we’re left with is essentially three options:

  1. Putting two words together: Grand Prix, Grand Am, Town & Country, Town Car, Fifth Avenue, Ramcharger, Sunfire, Range Rover, Crown Victoria, PT Cruiser (PT isn’t a word, but…)
  2. Putting a prefix in front of a word: Ford Econoline, Pontiac Trans Sport. (This is actually a better option for car parts than for an actual car. Think of Duralast batteries, ThermoQuiet brakes, AutoLite spark plugs.)
  3. Coining a new word.

Option 3 has become particularly popular these days. We’ll talk about the challenges of coining a new name in an upcoming post.

NEXT: Naming, Part II: To create a name that’s on target, get ready and aim before you fire. 






It was supposed to be a simple job. It quickly became silly.

Does your job ever put you in ridiculous situations?

The following is a true story of unbelievably bad luck…

5:15 p.m. –– Creative Director Scott Camarati and I pull into the parking lot of a nearby home improvement store. It’s practically empty because of a snowstorm.

A client has given us a last-minute emergency assignment: Design a better layout for arranging their products on this retailer’s shelves.

They need it for a meeting.

The next day.

No pressure there.

So we plow our way to the store to document where each product already is.   (A painstaking but necessary first step.)

The problem: Store managers get nervous with people making notes and taking photos in their store, even if you explain your good intentions.

So tonight we’re going straight to Plan B:

  1. Walk in real casual like.
  2. Get the info.
  3. Get the heck outta there.

A store full of customers is best for this. They keep the employees busy and make it easier for us to “blend in.”

But not tonight.

The store is practically deserted. The sales staff is gonna swarm us like vultures on roadkill.

Entering the store we give a polite brush-off to the greeter without breaking stride. One down.

Halfway to our aisle a second salesperson asks. We keep walking, smile and say we know what we need, thanks.

Moments later a third employee approaches, but we outrun her and she eventually gives up the chase.

For the moment we’re in the clear. There’s no one – employee or customer – between us and Aisle 32. Encouraged, we pick up the pace, turn the corner…

… and come to a screeching halt.

There stands a lone customer, right where we need to work.

[Okay, I know this is a long post, but you’re enjoying it, right? Hello?]

He’s the only customer in the entire building as far as we can tell. A kindly-looking, silver-haired gentleman of at least 80.

I’m not a mathematician, but I’ll bet the odds of us encountering someone at that exact spot – at the exact moment ­– in the middle of a blizzard – are pretty slim. You probably stand a better chance of spotting Bigfoot in Parma.

Yet there he is.

And from what we’re seeing he’s not going anywhere, anytime soon.

Struggling to maintain our composure as precious minutes tick by, we watch as he slowly – thoroughly – scrutinizes a package in his hands…

…then puts it back

…then carefully examines another

…then compares the two.

In the time it’s taking him to decide between Products A and B, they could have unearthed Tut’s tomb.

I begin to feel a throbbing over my right eye, the kind that signals my BP is exceeding the healthy range.

By contrast, the old man has long ago dispensed with any sense or urgency, or any concept of time for that matter. He proceeds at a reptilian pace, as though caught in a molasses-like time dimension. (Shatner grappled with something similar in episode 66.)

The minutes drag painfully on. We have no choice but to stand there in a cold, desperate sweat…and wait.

(NOTE TO SELF: Pick a happier topic next time. This one’s forcing you to re-live the horror.)

Hold it…did he?…YES!! The guy moved! He moved!

Granted, it’s a mere two feet to the right – and he did it so slowly we almost didn’t notice – but it gives us access to at least a portion of what we need.

Finally, some progress!

The joy is short-lived. After quickly gathering all the info available in that limited space, we take a step back to catch our breath.

And find ourselves once again at a dead stop.

The old gentleman has either fallen asleep with his eyes open or is utterly transfixed by the array of products before him. Either way, he’s essentially inanimate. (I’ve seen mannequins with more mojo.) And he is single-handedly turning our project into an all-nighter.

For half a second I entertain the notion of commandeering a forklift and seeing if I can move him to the lumber section without anyone noticing.

Instead, we take a quick lap around the store, vainly hoping the old fellow will be gone when we get back.

He doesn’t budge an inch. I swear to heaven, not one inch.

We take another lap (rejecting renewed offers of assistance from employees). This time – cue the angel choir – a miracle of sorts greets us upon our return: The silver scrutinizer has finally sauntered away.

Thank you, Jesus.

[And thank you, kind reader, for wading through this insanely long post.]

But now a new threat is looming: a little old lady* lingering nearby with a shopping cart. (What are all these old folks doing out in a snowstorm?)

There’s no time to lose. Working row by row, Scott calls out package part numbers and I feverishly jot them down, trying to keep up without making a mistake.

Meanwhile, the little old lady meanders in and out of my peripheral vision. I try to ignore the distraction. If I write down these part numbers in the wrong order it’ll be a problem later.

Eventually we manage to gather all the data we need and even snap a few photos for reference. It’s going to be a long night, but at least Step One is accomplished.

We start to hustle out of the aisle so we can race back to the office and try to make up for lost time.

“Excuse me, could you help me?” the little old lady asks as we’re about to walk past her.

No way. This can’t be happening.

We stop. She begins to question us about a faucet display on a nearby wall. We realize she has mistaken us for employees because she saw us counting products.

We tell her we don’t work there. Undaunted, she continues pumping us for information about features and benefits.

I feel the blood pressure thing happening again.

Then suddenly…

…out of nowhere, salvation appears: an employee. One of the folks we’ve been trying to dodge for the last hour.

“This lady has some questions,” we say, handing her off to the befuddled young man and backing quickly away before breaking into a sprint.

Moments later, safely back out in the snowy parking lot we heave a sigh of relief. We have the information to complete our project, but we’ve paid for it in stomach acid.

It was as though the gods of retail marketing had conspired to throw wacky obstacles in our way. We’re pretty sure some deity, somewhere, had enjoyed a good laugh at our expense.

Fine. You wanna play that game? Bring it on. There are plenty of big box stores around. If we can’t get what we need in one we’ll just move on to the next.

The gods can’t plant doddering shoppers in all of them.

* Her presence, and that of the gentleman, provide irrefutable proof that Buicks are good in the snow.