Writing trite

portrait of the blogger as a young adhole This post is #14 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

I was a fairly highly-paid copywriter for some some big brand names, but it wasn't until I started horsing around on the Internet that I actually got good at writing the evanescent stuff.

Blurbs. Bios. Short "about" squibs. And above all, comments and tweets and emails.

When people throw out that rhetorical question of how I manage to get so much done, they usually do it on the heels of some stupid little throwaway bit of nothing that quietly appeared somewhere. I get that, when I've been moved to make a remark like that, it's usually been in the context of something small built upon a whole lot of other somethings small. Many, many pieces of small that together have made up a mountain I can not only see but that I can trust. Seth Godin reputedly responds to every single email he receives. I was startled (not to mention delighted) by the first reply I got, but it was the steady-and-sureness of the replies that led me to know, like, and truly trust him.

Yes, big things are dazzling. But so are many, many small things: the thank-yous and comments and @-replies; the thoughtfully-written FAQs; descriptions, captions, and something beyond a snap of the "like" button. The mundane touches that no one else sees, that arrive sans fanfare, assure us that someone is there, that someone sees us, that we're not out there alone, whistling Dixie.

Bonus-extra? The more you do them, the better you get at doing all of it.

xxx c

Portrait of the blogger as a young adhole by her brilliant and very patient first art director, Kate O'Hair.

On not falling for Postcard Living

woman on beach in a gauzy windblown dress There's a moment in The Jerk that's definitely not the funniest from that excellent Steve Martin film, but that's stuck with me the longest.

Navin Johnson, the lovable, Candide-like fool played by Martin, sits across from his beloved Marie in what is for him the scenario of his dreams: through a combination of optimism, hard work and being in the right place at the right time enough times in a row, he has recreated down to the tiny bamboo umbrella a cheesy print ad showing a mustachioed man in robe and ascot, self-actualized and potent via the rum drink in his hand. It's an ad that has driven and haunted him since he first saw it, so much so that he carried it with him like a treasure map, projecting himself into that ad, using it to propel him forward toward his dreams of fulfillment.

Shortly thereafter, of course, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, and in the process Navin learns the meaning of true happiness: love, friendship, and hootenannies on the front porch with your family of awesome musicians. (For the record, not far off from my ideal.)

There are better moments and there are funnier moments, but that moment wormed its way under my skin over 30 years ago and stayed there. Because I walk around with a collection of folded-up, idealized images of life tucked into my back pocket at all times.

* * *

I dislike ads. Or I guess I should say, I distrust them.

I distrust them because I have watched stylists fuss over too much Jell-O and too many English muffins. I distrust them because my father assured me that all shampoo was the same even as he sat there on the fold-out couch of his Divorced Dad Apartment, plotting the treasure maps that told America differently. I distrust them because I saw what the real mothers of the children whose Fake TV Mom I played looked like, and they all looked 10 years older than my child-free self, even when they were 10 years younger. I distrust them because at the height of my own adhole glory, I knew exactly how hard I could push up against a parity claim so the FTC wouldn't push back, and how to bedazzle it so the public filled in the gaps for me.

This is not to say that I was impervious to their charms. Quite the contrary, ads could make me laugh and cry and feel as much, maybe more than they could your average non-ad-dynasty, non-copywriting, non-acting schmuck who hadn't stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man behind the curtain at the craft service table.

This, more than anything, may be why I distrust them so.

* * *

Do you get depressed looking at Facebook sometimes? I do. And there's officially and scientifically a reason for this: we're looking at a curated stream of happy moments and pretty pictures, for the most part, which makes us feel worse about our own sad sack state of affairs.1 I get so depressed looking at Facebook sometimes that I have to stop looking at Facebook sometimes. There's a fairly direct correlation between my enjoyment of Facebook and my health, for instance: much like my sex drive, I know when I'm getting worse because the desire falls away, and I know when I'm getting better because it returns.

In other words, I'm no better than anyone else; I, too, tend to share the good and crawl away into the radio silence of my cave for the bad. Which is odd in one way, because I certainly have no problem talking about flailing here, and I've never had an issue with showing how ridiculous I look. Even then, though, I'm conscious of the curation, of the action of choosing the most hilariously unflattering shot, or phrasing the pain in a particular way. And I know that people who don't blog have a hard time believing this but trust me: no one who is blogging is sharing everything. Even the oversharers. It's impossible, for a variety of reasons, starting with time and ending with the observation of a thought changing the thought. (Although some people really do push the envelope, bless 'em.)

We see what we see, and that's all we see. We don't see the Photoshopping, unless it's obvious. We don't see the restrictive foundation garments, the crying quietly into pillows or glasses of Chardonnay, the cranky, low-blood-sugar moments with loved ones, the sad lapses when too much traffic intersects with too little sleep, the worry and self-doubt in the wee, non-posting hours of the morning. Most of life is mundane and most of life is work, and most of Facebook is not. Which, you know, is probably a good thing both for Facebook and us. But the imbalance is a little, a LOT more in Facebook's favor than it is ours, is all I'm sayin'.

* * *

My last art director used to have a phrase for those pretty, impractical things that ended up crowding out the utilitarian inhabitants of her closets: running-on-the-beach dresses. This was back in the early '90s, the apex of the J.Petermann/J.Crew/Victoria's Secret era, and a big, big time for gauzy, billowy, running-on-the-beach dresses. Because the early '90s were, of course, the true 1980s, one of the most bullshit-laden decades I've lived through. I mean, any era that serves up Pretty Woman, a hooker twist on the Pygmalion story, as a feel-good romp with shopping montages is one sick fucking era.

This is what we see, though, on Facebook and Twitter and the rest of it: rack after rack of carefully selected, highly styled, running-on-the-beach dresses. And we think, "Damn! How are these ladies prancing about on these beaches all day long in these dresses? When does the work happen? How do the dishes get done? Is there sleep on Planet Awesome, or do they power through with pixie dust? Loser! Loser! Loser!

I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as postcard living: that outside of the beautiful framed shot, there is every manner of squalid something-or-other. That what is within that postcard frame is only a version of the truth, from a moment in time.

It takes me four to six hours to write a blog post like this, this! a little nothing of a blog post! I am thin largely because I have a debilitating chronic illness that interferes with digestion and absorption. If I am full of energy and warmth when we meet at an event or a conference, it is because I am genuinely happy to see you, but it is also because I have spent days resting up before (and will likely follow it up with days more on the other end).

* * *

More than any other type of email, I get email that says "I had no idea anyone else felt that way."

For now, for always, for that day I finally hang up my spurs and buy my own billowy dress to hang in my own seaside shack, everyone feels that way. Everyone feels good/bad/ugly/hopeless/mighty/sad/small/indifferent.

And it always takes longer than you think it will (except when it doesn't).

And there is always a backstory (even if its a boring one).

And an ad is rarely the truth.

And the truth is always the only way out of wherever you are...

xxx c

1I do have several friends who provide a valuable service as Debbie Downers, posting about their ill moods, misfortunes, and Armaggedon. I pause here to thank you. Bring on those horsemen!

Image by jesse.millan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Good-looking vs. attractive...TV SPOTS!!!

liberty mutual ad I know Brandon will be all over my shit for not posting the actual GOOD-LOOKING VS. ATTRACTIVE blog first, but frankly, I am so pissed at Dreamhost now, I can barely write straight*.

Besides, it's too hot here in Ye Olde Time Los-Angeles-with-a-hard-"g" to think deeply. And I'm a former media maven. So I'm using my little corner of Le Web to crow about Liberty Mutual's latest commercial, yes, COMMERCIAL, which makes me weep and soar and want to do everything including go back into copywriting (well, almost). Seriously.

I still haven't figured out how to post goddam videos to my blog, but I'm posting the link to the YouTube upload here (and on the pic itself, natch).

Lovely, lovely, lovely. Almost makes up for that McDonald's crime against humanity where Young Mom and her Lispy Daughter bond over their mutual fabulousness and a faux-healthy UnHappy Meal. Gack gack gack. Could we just dispense with everyone in advertising except the Liberty Mutual people and whoever does the VFX for the GAP and the geniuses behind the new GEICO campaign? Really. I'll give up commercial acting; it's a fair trade.

xxx c

P.S. For the record, I could not disagree more vehemently with the board nerds who be hatin' on the superfantabulous Charo/Bacharach/Little Richard ads. First time I've smiled at a GEICO spot since they stopped airing mine.

*And relax, Brando, it's saved and ready for when I am. Before I leave for Parts North, I promise...

Blow up your TV

When you calibrate your afternoon not by the subtle changes in the play of light through your office window but by the shifting of the shrill Judge Judy into the 'shucks, ma'am' sucker punch or Dr. Phil...

When you feel your ire rise as basket-base-football cuts into The Simpsons and back-to-back repeats of King of the Hill...

When your evenings are filled with the wall-to-wall hum of America's Next Top Apprentice to the Surviving Bachelor

When you have seen every episode of every Law & Order in all three franchises at least twice

When you can spot the new edits to accommodate additional commercials in Columbo and the Quinn-Martin ouevre and anything that used to be on HBO

When you let your sister and your clients and your best friend since high school (in town for three days only) go straight to voicemail because Ryan is announcing the Bottom Three

When you cannot remember the last time you spent a day without television

Maybe it's time to spend a day without television.

Maybe it's time to spend seven of them.

A whole week doing something else One day at a time. (With Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli.)

Besides, there's always TiVO...

xxx c

Behold! the fugliosity that was me in advertising!

Today I auditioned for a spot I'd really like to book. The part is funny, the casting director is smart (meaning, the spots he casts are low in cheese factor) and, imagine, I could use the money. Casting directors often give a group explanation prior to a string of individual auditions to save time and so we don't stink up their tapes with super-creative, actor-y input. Today, after reiterating his usual acting directive, "Very small, very real, very 'film'", a directive which I now hear in some form from nearly every casting director on nearly every call, leaving me to wonder why there is still so much bad, over-the-top acting in commercials, this casting director drove the point home by letting drop that the director of this particular spot also directed Junebug. The implication being, if you know Junebug, you know what we're looking for and if you don't, you're going to give a bad, over-the-top performance which we will waste no time in erasing from our tape.

Now, I have not, in fact, seen Junebug, but I am familiar with the vernacular the CD was tossing out. You see, I like to keep up with my worlds colliding, so I happen to know that Junebug was directed by one Phil Morrison, with whom I worked on a series of Wheaties commercials which I wrote in my previous incarnation as an advertising copywriter.

Normally, this ain't no big thang. That life was long, long ago, and most people's memories don't extend that far, especially when it comes to remembering the copywriter, who is slightly less important than an apple box on a commercial set. In fact, we're seen as so inconsequential, we're frequently not invited to the shoot at all: I wrote a Gatorade commercial shot by the notorious Joe Pytka, but was subsequently hired as an actor on a couple of his commercials. Of course, I was not in attendance at the former and saw no reason to bring up the connection at either of the latter, so it really didn't take much to fly under the radar.

The Wheaties commercials, however, were a slightly bigger deal. There were lots of verbal shenanigans in my tricky little scripts, so I was actually consulted on this or that more than once. Plus the spots starred Michael Jordan! Michael Effin'* Jordan!!! This was a huge break for the then-very-young Phil, whom we found via some groovy interstitials he'd done for MTV. Plus...Michael Effin' Jordan! Surely Phil would remember every minute detail of that week we spent together on a Chicago soundstage, I thought.

That is, I thought until I uncovered this commemorative photo of me**, MJ, and an assortment of client-side and agency dorks:


Now not only am I certain Phil Morrison will not know me from Adam, I am also sorely tempted to submit myself to that Oprah show where they're looking for people who look better today than they did 10 years ago.

Because (a) I am pretty sure I'm fugly enough in my high-waisted, reverse-fit jeans to win a free trip back to Chicago and (b) if they give me two round-trip tickets, maybe I can convince The BF not to break up with me for revealing my shame...

xxx c

*And if his middle name isn't "effin'", I'd like suggest right now that he change it; my god, could he have a more appropriate middle name?

**If you can't find me in the group, I would be the one on second from the left, doing my impersonation of a really unattractive lesbian. Good at it, aren't I?

UPDATE: Link to larger sizes of my fugliosity at Flickr, here.

On hummers, moral rectitude and paying the rent

hummerbird.jpg A couple of days ago, I read a brief article/interview with Tim Robbins in this month's issue of Los Angeles magazine. Mostly it just reinforced my impression of Robbins as a smart, talented guy whose impressions of himself are exactly the same, only more so, but there was one item which caught my eye.

Despite the popularity of his 1992 political mockumentary, Bob Roberts, Robbins elected not to release a CD of the original songs created for the film for fear that they might one day be used out of context by the very people he was satirizing. I think of this very real possibility for artists every time I listen to (gulp) the Dr. Laura show on my local yak-radio station, KFI*. Because while some of the musicians whose songs her engineer plays as bumpers might be alright with the implicit endorsement of a rather inflexible if well-meant credo, others would likely be aghast.

I suppose there's no way around it in radio land. I'm not familiar with fair use rules on commercial radio, but I'm guessing that if you or your station pays publishing clearinghouses ASCAP and BMI**, you're allowed to bumper away.

In advertising land, of course, it's a different story. When I started out as a copywriter in the early 1980s, the first uses of boomer pop as boomer bait were just turning up. Naive young pup that I was, I remember being surprised when some people actually took umbrage at the co-opting of "art" for commerce. Me? I figured if someone wanted to sell their shit, that was their own damned business.

I'm [of] divided opinion now. Obviously, for many years I've made my own livelihood has depended upon either shilling directly for The Man or, briefly, filing papers and designing PowerPointâ„¢ presentations for him. I've written and acted in commercials for plenty of superfluous consumer crap products, and in my last day job, I designed the company's greatest presentation ever for one of the most insidious marketing tacks it's been my distaste to come across. On the other hand, I had my limits: I've always refused to work on tobacco products and feminine deoderant products, finding them equally morally reprehensible.

The new limit, it seems, is the Hummer.

While it's unlikely that I'll ever be asked shill for Hummer, plenty of musicians have been approached about it. Poor, struggling, indie musicians, whose tuneage has the gloss of rebel cool Hummer would like to co-opt for its ads. And apparently, they're saying "no" in droves, even the starving ones. "We figured it was almost like giving music to the Army, or Exxon," said one member of a D.C. group, Trans Am.

I'd chalk it up, some of it anyway, to political correctness, only the amounts that were being thrown around were too huge to dismiss, especially for starving artists. They start at about $50K; one went up to $180K. That's a lot of scratch for anyone, but especially for people whose mode of transportation often doubles as their home.

My tolerance level for SUVs falls far short of the Hummer. After years of driving in steel canyons created by the piggy hugemobiles of the drivers surrounding me, I am over the high clearance vehicle, period. If you drive one, basically, you can go fuck yourself. (I make an exception for minivan drivers, who are actually choosing a responsible transportation option for hauling rugrats and for light truck drivers who actually use their truck beds to haul truck-appropriate items.) Tax 'em, make 'em park in the "c" lot ghetto, bar them from carpool lanes unless every seat in the motherfuckers are occupied.

On the other hand, I briefly dated someone who drove an SUV. I've never established a no-fly rule on SUVs with my agent. There are, fortunately, good men out there who still drive sedans (cf The BF) but as money gets harder and harder to make, will it get harder and harder for me to exercise my moral principles? It is one thing to be Tim Robbins and turn down the money; it's another to be an indie rocker or someone with three kids to support or me, in transition, and do it.

I have an audition today for Philip Morris. That's Philip Morris, not its parent company, Altria Group, which also manufactures various food brands. The client declined to give out specific information, a common practice with a new product. So when I got the call, I confirmed with the proviso that if it turned out to be a tobacco product, I was out. Unfortunately, I won't find out what this mysterious new Philip Morris product is until I drive out to Santa Monica and sign the NDA to audition for it. Which means that I might drive 25 miles out of my way today for nothing.

Oh, well. At least I'll be doing it in a Corolla.

xxx c

*More on my love/hate of the strident, inflexible Laura Schlessinger later...

**Bonus little-known fact: I am actually a member of BMI, owing to a filthy little ditty I wrote with Ana Gasteyer about our twats.

UPDATE: The audition was not for a tobacco product, but an anti-tobacco message. I took it, still conflicted, but secure in the knowledge that (a) my getting it is a million-to-one shot; and (b) I'm heading to SXSW the day of the callback, turning that million-to-one shot into a billion-to-one shot.

Photo, "Opinion," by Evan G. via Flickr.

Sunshine. Daisies. White wine. Communicatrix.

Artists bruise easily. And, like any sensible namby-pamby playing in a brutal schoolyard, they will do one of three things when bullies lob rocks at their heads or pants them during recess: run crying to the authorities, summon the cloak of invisibility or fight back. I've never been much of a crybaby (although I like nothing better than a fine cry with a good friend, glass of Merlot and a wedge of Brie) and since I am a bit on the chatty side the skulking away thing doesn't work so well for me, so I've usually elected to fight back. Not with fisticuffs (must we be so...yawn...literal?) but with artsy-fartsy things like wit, humor and a Teutonic level of organization. And usually, owing to a competitive streak the size of the Ganges that will not be satisfied until I have reduced my opponent to rubble, I like to employ all three.

So when some nimrod hocks a lugie at me in my own backyard, I'm not going to be satisfied with a good dressing-down or a simple banning, oh, no, my nameless, faceless friends. I'm going to win win WIN! I'm going to make communicatrix bigger, stronger, faster, and now, with fewer carbs and more natural flavor for a snacking sensation the whole family can enjoy! I'm going to leverage my equity, reposition the brand and seize a whole new slice of the consumer pie. And I won't stop short of anything but total bloggal domination!

Step one: focus the c-trix USP. No more of this soft-pedaling "oh, I'm just writing for me" crap. That's for mom-bloggers and LiveJournalists and other Internet pikers. I mean, really: "spouting off in & about" blah blah blah; what the hell kind of whiny loser bleat is that? Where's the teeth? Where's the snap? Where's the sh-sizzle, baby?

And damned right, people want style over substance. Don't kid yourself, baby, we're all about the cool-hunt in this country, every last one of us. What does Evelyn Rodriguez know about it anyway? Blah blah blah tsunami blah blah blah life-changing blah blah blah more important things in life. Jesus, I've been looking to her for inspiration? SHE'S ALMOST AS OLD AS I AM!!!

No more of this erudite navel-gazing in the guise of self-exploration and the quest for truth. I'm going to STAND for something! And if I can't immediately tell people what it is, why, I'll do what American advertisers have always done: manufacture something out of thin air!

The communicatrix, no, the Communicatrix, stands for...well, she stands for...

Okay. It appears a little old-school copywriting brainstorming is in order:

  • Communicatrix. Come for the lists. Stay for the interminable homilies.
  • Communicatrix. Dancing through fields of metaphors, (punctuated by parenthetical remarks) trailing ellipses in her wake...
  • Communicatrix. Yak yak yak.
  • Communicatrix. Because it's never too late to hit the back but,
  • Communicatrix. Double-digit readership since last November.
  • Communicatrix. I know you are...but what am I?
  • Communicatrix. Like nails on a chalkboard for real writers everywhere.
  • Communicatrix. Just because it's beyond our grasp doesn't mean we don't have an opinion about it.
  • Communicatrix. Too earnest to be funny. Too funny to understand Moveable Type.
  • Communicatrix. On the cutting edge of the tail end of virtually every trend.

Whew. Some really great stuff in there. Thank god for those ten years in advertising.

Now all I need is a good, weak cup of tea, a little lollygagging and some brisk pacing and I'll be ready to jump into Part II of my genius strategy:

  • Communicatrix, The Jingle!

xxx c

"Drive, drive, drive; branding, branding, branding."

admanBack in the go-go '80s, my art director and I made silk purses out of some serious sow's-ear assignments and so were let into the inner sanctum: pitching spots for the second pool of a wildly successful TV campaign for the agency's big, fat American car account.

The campaign was the first (yes, really) to use Boomer music to sell to Boomers. It was such a radical notion back then that many of the artists passed on the opportunity to score cash, either for fear of compromising their art or of tarnishing their image among their fanbase (i.e., diluting their own brand). Hell, it was such a new thing, maybe no one knew what to ask for. End result was the client had to pay scads of money for really expensive soundalikes for many, many executions.


Kate (art director) & I were pretty passionate about creating good work back then, and, in my Virgo-perfectionist-good girl way, I was even then concerned with adhering to Campaign Strategy, Brand Personality and Unique Selling Proposition. Not really a problem; to the contrary, I enjoy working within the confines of an assignment way more than blue-sky creativity. Blank pages make me panicky.

And we could be mostly honest! The cars had been restyled to look hipper. They had even re-engineered some stuff to make better and stuff. So we wrote spots to tell (boomer) America how these cars were made just for them, with (boomer) music and (boomer-relevant) stories to match. But for the client, there was always one thing missing: enough "branding."

We puzzled and puzzled over this: the campaign had, we thought, successfully redefined the brand. People were talking about it (buzz), people were buying cars (sales), what exactly was the problem here?

Our older, wiser creative director, a real Car Guy from the three-martini-lunch days, explained: frames on the storyboard that featured close-ups of the car brand doohickey affixed to the vehicle. Lots of them. So we added them, alternating them with driving shots, until there was an acceptable ratio. Which Kate, as an Advertising & Branding Specialist, would point out when she took the clients through the visuals: "Drive, drive, drive; branding, branding, branding."

So the magical, mythical marketing tool of "branding" came down to this: two young women slapping more product shots on a storyboard so we could get this sucker in the hands of directors, producers and stylists who would do the real work of making this product seem meaningful to the consumer. And this was considered successful branding. By everyone. At least, everyone I came in contact with back then.

And in a way, it was. The process (of advertising, movies, film, etc) has become so transparent to consumers that even the hipper advertising of the 1970s, 1980s & 1990s seems quaint, if not outright camp. The emperor is buck naked; branding is dead. Hugh MacLeod speaks of it elegantly (and way more concisely) here. (He'll also lead you to lots more great links on the topic because he's good like that.)

I've no doubt that as the marketplace has shifted, the processes at agencies have gotten more sophisticated to try to adapt to the new reality. I doubt that our impertinent display of cynicism would be tolerated in a meeting, especially a client meeting, today.

But while I've been out of the development game for awhile, I'm still a consumer. And an employee: I act in these masterpieces of marketing that I then see on TV (as often as possible, I hope, if they're airing National Network). And I gotta say, I think there are still a lot of marketing peeps out there more interested in ramming a USP down someone's throat than they are in initiating a dialogue.