If You Don’t Read This Blog Post, We’ll Kill This Dog

Not really, but we'd still like you to read this post.

William Randolph Hearst allegedly said, “Give me a magazine cover with a beautiful girl, a dog, or a baby on it, and I'll give you a magazine that sells.” I say “allegedly” because I came across this quote only once, on a cover of the late, lamented National Lampoon.

Dog: It’s the new white meat?

Several marketers seem to have adopted that axiom for email subject lines this holiday season, referring to dogs even though their products had nothing to do with canines.

Take this November 6 email from apparel retailer Club Monaco. The subject line: “The best gifts + the cutest puppy.” Opening the email did indeed reveal a gif of a damn cute puppy snuggling in a soft blanket.


Sadly, once I clicked through to the website, no other puppies were immediately apparent. If only Club Monaco had carried the theme through—why not show puppies alongside the models flaunting the clothes? Though to be fair, the company’s Christmas Day email did feature the pup again, along with a sibling:

Double awww!

Timbuk2, which sells bags and travel accessories, followed suit with its December 18 email. You have to admire the blatant cheekiness with which it didn’t even pretend that dogs had anything to do with its marketing message; the subject line read “Puppies! Up to 50% Off Tech Tested [sic] Favorites.” The email itself continued the tenuous theme:

Again, though, no puppies showed their adorable floppy ears or cute yearning eyes anywhere on the Timbuk2 website—except on the product page for the Muttmover Backpack, a backpack designed to carry, well, you can figure it out. This sort of irreverence seemed to work well for Timbuk2, however; after all, this is a website with a tab titled “Super Exciting Fine Print.”

The canine reference was relevant to womenswear brand MM.LaFleur’s November 28 promotion. “Treat yourself. Save a puppy” implored the subject line. The email itself explain why, “instead of slashing prices for Black Friday,” the company would donate 10% of each sale that day to the animal shelter from which it had adopted “the fluffiest and most beloved member of the MM team.”

Apparently Dot, the fluffy staffer, even got a promotion out of the deal.

If I’d been in the market for MM.LaFleur’s tailored apparel, I would have made a purchase from the company on the basis of its email. I wonder if the promotion did indeed goose sales. Although Black Friday has evolved (devolved?) to focus on sales and bargains, the holiday season is also the time to appeal to people’s better, more charitable selves.

Both as a canine-lover and as someone whose day job requires her to write 12 subject lines a week, I appreciate how these seemingly irrelevant emails break the monotony of the usual “here’s what we’ve got; please open and click through.” I imagine that, used sparingly, such tactics provide a lift in response. The trick is to make sure that recipients aren’t disappointed when they do click through... and of course, to come up with other concepts for the occasional disruptor message.

Also to avoid comparisons with another classic National Lampoon cover.

“Two Excited Men Trudged Up”

Most “prizes” for bad writing, such as the Bad Sex in Fiction Award and the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, “reward” labyrinthine, clause- and adjective-festered prose. I propose that we come up with an award for worst simple sentence. After all, anyone can write poorly by heaping modifiers atop modifiers. But just as it’s generally tougher to write short than to write long, conjuring up in a handful of words a sentence that makes the reader lift his head up from a book and moan “What the …?” requires a special talent.

(Yes, I’m aware that with this post I’m leaving myself wide open to Muphry’s Law. Go on, buy a copy of my book Beyond Billicombe and have at me. )

One of my nominees for what I'm calling the WTF Awards cropped up in a book I read in April, yet I still remember the sentence eight months later. The protagonist is running from a murderous psycho (of course) in some sort of underground tunnel lined with stone busts and other sculptures: “The next instant, the great stone head plopped down on Lucas with a sickening crunch.”

Would a heavy stone sculpture, one weighty enough to make a “sickening crunch” upon landing, “plop”? A pebble might plop into a pond; I definitely plop onto a chair at the end of a crazed workday. I don’t think that, say, the head of Michelangelo’s David would plop onto a passing Florentine were an earthquake to strike the city.

My other nominee is even shorter: “Two excited men trudged up.” Remove “excited” from that sentence. You’re picturing two tired, maybe dusty, probably stoop-shouldered men, silent save for their heavy panting, barely making their way up. Now focus on just the first three words of the sentence, “Two excited men.” These men are chattering or yelling, their words tumbling one atop the other; gesturing; hopping from one foot to the next. If you’re excited, you aren’t trudging. If you’re trudging, you aren’t excited.

How does this happen? In the first instance, the author might have been trying her darnedest to avoid a pedestrian verb such as fell. In the second, um, maybe the author doesn’t know the meaning of trudge?

Regardless, those ill-chosen words yank the reader from the scene and shatter the illusion that the fictional world is a real one. They also make me doubt that the authors themselves fully imagined the scenes they were describing. 

For all the grief that Edward Bulwer-Lytton gets, it was clear that he saw and heard the scenes he described. Take the much-maligned opening of his novel Paul Clifford, the first phrase of which has been immortalized by Snoopy: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I’ll take that over excited trudging any day.

Do you have any sentences you’d like to nominate for the WTF Awards? If so, post them in the comments section below. (Hopefully I’m not responsible for any of them…)    

The (Marketing) Week That Was

If The Voice were a contest for copywriters instead of singers, the team at Firebox would win hands down. Firebox is the sort of etailer that sells heated narwhal slippers alongside toothbrush sanitizers designed to look like ninjas alongside single-serving French presses alongside Abashiri Blue Beer.

The blue beer caught my eye in my Facebook feed the other morning. Not merely because it’s, well, beer that’s a startling blue hue. But because of the brief blurb with which Firebox accompanied the photo: “I’m blue, have a beer or I’ll die, and da ba dee da ba di.”

If you’re lucky, you’re unaware of the frighteningly catchy but utterly inane song titled “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” that Firebox was referencing. I’m not one of the lucky, however, so though the tune immediately lodged itself in my brain, I nonetheless clicked the link to the product.

The copy on the Abashiri product page was just as clever as the Facebook’s blurb, but informative too: “…This striking beer achieves its unique aquamarine hue by using a blend of blue seaweed and locally grown flowers, it even contains water from melted icebergs. To sip this beautiful blue brew is to immerse yourself in the wild and colourful flavours of the frozen Abashiri coastline. Seriously, you're basically drinking the island, soon there'll be nothing left….”

Firebox’s copy voice is consistently cheeky yet fact-based. While the writers clearly aim to entertain, they never forget that job one is to provide shoppers with enough product information to close the sale.

The consistency in terms of voice extends to its Twitter feed too. After reading about the blue beer, I tweeted, “@firebox may have the best copywriters ever.” Within minutes Firebox responded, “We’re also well known for our questionable music tastes, Sherry.” I can’t think of how the brand could have improved upon its reply.

For those reasons, Firebox is our winner of the week. (Cue the kazoos.)

To continue with our Voice metaphor for a moment, two other brands would definitely have been worthy challengers to Firebox. One is the publishing house Penguin. Its newsletters never fail to delight, whether it’s the cute illos of penguins and puffins or the dry humor of its copy, as in this invite to join its reader panel: “Guess what? You love books! You probably knew that already, but thanks to some analytical wizardry and other computerised shenanigans we’ve deduced that you’re one of our most dedicated Penguin Books newsletter openers. Don’t tell the other subscribers but that makes you our favourite...”

Voice is, in fact, what distinguishes Heat from Britain’s myriad other weekly gossip rags. The magazine is snarky, but deep down you know it doesn’t really want to hurt the objects of its ribbing—well, at least not most of them. It’s just a laugh and a lark, and too bad if they can’t take a joke.

Here’s a taste of Heat’s voice, from this week’s email announcing its website redesign: “After a hundred thousand meetings, a million billion printed out redesigns, and an infinite number of articles transferred from the old website to the new one... heatworld.com has a brand new look! And seriously, look at it: so shiny! So colourful! So many celebrity stories to marvel at!” Us magazine (in the States) or Now (one of Heat’s UK rivals) wouldn’t use phrases such as “million billion” and “so shiny!”—either on its pages or in its emails. Heat shows that in a commoditized market (and yes, celebrity gossip has become commoditized), a startlingly different voice is a worthy USP.

[An aside: When I lived in Devon, my Tuesday morning ritual included stopping at Tesco to buy the new Heat (and a chicken-and-bacon sandwich—oh, and some strawberry laces: breakfast of champions and that). Shortly after I returned to the States, the newsstands in Grand Central Station stopped carrying Heat, and I don’t know where I can buy it here in Manhattan. If you can hook me up, please do!]

If there are winners, there have to be losers too. Voice isn’t what let down this web advert from department store Macy’s; simple lack of brain cells did:

“The Great Baby Sale”? With the headline above a photo of a racially diverse selection of four babies, as if to show the variety of colorways you can choose from? And “Save 50% when you buy 2 or more”? Yeah, beneath that it says “select styles from Carter’s, First Impressions, blah blah blah,” but still…

Making matters worse for Macy’s is that it had paid to run on the Daily Mail’s website just below the newspaper’s nav bars and above the headline of its lead story—which happened to be “ ‘She begged me for a baby so she wouldn’t be an old mom and paid $30,000 to our surrogate’…” She probably could have saved a bundle by skipping the surrogate and shopping at Macy’s instead.

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged here, but I’m going to try to get back into the groove. If you have anything cool or heinous you’d like to share, feel free to send it along!