9.25.18: a rebel alliance of quality content
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this column is your free gift!
a cliché heyday in advertising
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

I received a solicitation the other day: “You too can write persuasive advertising copy!”

Me too? And, um, who else, exactly?

This direct mail piece described all the glorious riches that could be made writing, well, direct mail advertising. How there were just thousands of dollars waiting to be given to me, too, if only I'd buy this introductory course for $425, plus shipping and handling. But once I took the course, I'd be on my way to financial independence.

I wanted to pluck my eyelashes out, one by one.

I've tippy-toed on this particular soapbox many times before: sex-based advertising, lowest common denominator advertising, just plain bad advertising. It's astounding that these particular gaffs can still be so prevalent. And this isn't about ads featuring a screaming Joe Bob from Joe Bob's Auto Emporium, dressed as a clown and spraying a Daisy Duke look-alike with a fire hose 'cause his deals are SOOOO HOT!

No, there are major corporations utilizing overworked clichés and cheap ad gimmicks to get your attention in the everyday commercial world. Unfortunately, the average person has the attention span of a gnat, and these corporations are giant Venus flytraps, just hoping to lure us in. Join me as I put on my cape and spandex (anything else you care to imagine is up to you) to lead the crusade against these evildoers.

Let's start with the easy and innocuous.

“Here's Your Free Gift!”

Um, yeah, the last time I checked, all “gifts” are FREE, Sparky. Look it up.

“You Owe It to Yourself.”

I owe it to myself to what, exactly? Go to Fireplaces Unlimited? Check out the new Dodge Extravaganza? Try Mabelline's new Ultra Lash Mascara?

How 'bout a spork? Can I have a spork, too?

I don't know, maybe it's a misplaced sense of self, maybe it's inflated ego, but I'm thinkin' I owe myself more than your product.

“(Insert Season/Event here)Is Just Around the Corner!”

Yoikes! I wondered where that shadow came from. This particular phrase, designed to generate a “sense of urgency” somehow just doesn't seem to get me up off the couch, out the door, into my car and around the corner. In fact, it would greatly concern me if someone suddenly slapped a palm to his or her forehead and exclaimed, “Christ on a bicycle! Summer's just around the corner! I need a new (insert product here)!”

We now advance from the elementary cliché to the more advanced psychological subterfuge, the crafty “play on words” approach.

“Your Valuable Cardmember Thank You is Expiring.”

Which translates, at first glance (remember, the attention span of a gnat) to “Your card membership is expiring.” How convenient. Tap tap - is this thing on? Do I have your attention? And it looks like a check! For $137! Wow!

Oh, blow to the head. It's really just a slew of possible magazine subscriptions you can acquire for the value of $137. That squeaky sound you hear is happy party balloons slowly deflating.

“Claim Rewards You've Already Earned!”

Earned how? Where? Why wasn't I informed of this? Here's an insider tip: if you were really part of an incentive program, you would have known about it. Trust me on this. Anything else is sticky hooey, and you shouldn't put it near your mouth or eyes.

“Here's Your Free Gift! Just (insert Low Low Price here) Covers it All, Including Shipping and Handling.”

This is a double insult. First they tell you it's free, then you're told that (insert low low price) covers “it all.” What is “it all?” I thought it was a Free Gift! Is part of that (insert low low price) the monthly wage for the tiny Indonesian child that spent 14 hours a day to build my Deluxe Nose Hair Trimmer under bad lighting, all while standing in a foot of sewage backup? Well then! Where can I affix my hot pink YES! sticker?

“Never Write Another Check to (insert Company/Government Agency here.)”

Omigod, really? Are you serious?

Oh hey, no, wait, look, it's a take on paying (insert something needing to be paid here) by credit card. When they meant “never write another check,” they didn't mean never send money again! What a clever ad monkey! I feel better already!

Finally, you have the Joe Bob category. The “owner/operator/personal approach” category. The offenders in this category are mostly small business owners, and they mean well, for their ad budget was probably spent at the Margarita Shack in the Lake of the Ozarks "Party Cove" entertaining “clients” with big...beads, so their only recourse is to crassly entertain you, the customer.

However, the “owner/operator/personal approach” is by no means limited to Joe Bob's Auto Emporium. Consultants (and by consultant, we mean weasel) have advised large companies to “show human faces,” for that soft focus, upclose, hand-in-your-pocket feeling. Psychological espionage is the level we're in now, which makes them the siren and you, the customer, a listing ship. A few examples include:

“The White-Haired Guy You Can Trust with Your Big Money.”

Ah, the conveyance of trust. Because when I think of who can best manage my big money, I think of a white-haired guy. Here's what they're not showing you: the 2nd tier broker slamming Red Bulls, schtupping the mail clerk in the supply closet and wiping his pits with last night's dress shirt. Straight out of Boiler Room, baby.

“The 40s Style Hat Guy Who Designed Your Car.”

Is this guy a ghost? A throwback to unlimited panache and elegance? If I was born after 1960 or 1970, what does this mean to me? And, frankly, wasn't there a war going on in the 40s? And gas rationing? Is this what they want me to fondly remember?

“The Friendly Smile in Every Aisle.”

Have you been to (insert international conglomerate here) lately? Those people are pissed off. They've been working 4.5 hours without a 32-oz. Mt. Dew and ciggie break, and they have absolutely no interest whatsoever in helping you find a light switch, throw rug, or bag of Cheetos. Go to the self-serve checkout and self-serve yourself right on outta here.

The evolution of advertising hasn't advanced much past Dr. Seuss promoting Quick Henry the Flit! bug spray. In 1933, Advertising Age said of Seuss, "He believes it to be quite possible to create laughs that will reach a hetergoeneous audience composed of everyone from farm hands to yacht owners." At least Seuss admitted to going for the laughs and then, yes, hopefully, customer response. So I guess this put him in the Joe Bob category. His bizarre characters pointed snarky little fingers at the absurdity of the medium. But grabbing a laugh is quite different from using trixy wordplay to evoke momentary panic, guilt, greed or basal desire.

The product needs to be pushed, and there will always be shadowy figures in dark alleys waiting to do it. But if you want to be in like Flynn, take it from me. You owe it to yourself to ignore these ads. After all, summer's just around the corner and you don't want to miss the fun!


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


brawny with a cherry on top
sex-based advertising is not always money well spent
by tracey l. kelley
topic: advertising
published: 1.28.04

get your microwave off my brain
the perils of 'personal' advertising
by tracey l. kelley
topic: advertising
published: 7.26.02


lisa r
4.25.05 @ 7:08a

That kind of advertising is a guaranteed turn-off to me. I can't decide which is the ultimate turn-off, though: The Oxy Clean/Kaboom guy or ambulance-chasing/class-action suit-ready lawyers. Someone rear-ended me in Charlotte several years ago, and caused very minor damage to a 15year-old car. Within 2 days I had 3 letters from lawyers just salivating over the possibility I might have delayed-reaction whiplash or some other non-existent medical malady. I was sorely tempted to complain to the Bar Association, but I figured it was a waste of time and energy.

For all those lawyers, doctors, and other professional degree holders hell-bent on advertising to bring in clients (none of which are regular IM contributors, I'm sure), I have a word of advice: If you want me as a potential client, do not advertise. Nothing kills your credibility with me faster than lowering yourself to the level of the Oxy Clean man. It demeans your profession.

dave lentell
4.25.05 @ 9:22a

Tracey, Didn't you see The Incredibles? The spandex is fine, but capes are a bad idea!

You pretty much covered exactly what's on TV these days. Oh sure, there are occassionaly these brief, 15 minute long interruptions - I think they're called TV shows, but I can't be sure. But all I seem to see these days are the types of things you describe in your column.

You forgot one though... the most annoying one of all (IMHO). Matthew Lesko - Mr. Question Mark Jacket who's always telling people about the free money you can get from the Government. All you have to do is buy his book!

I can assure you that there is NO FREE MONEY from the Federal Government to start your own business. Trust me. I know. And the fact that Lesko says otherwise, assures me a small piece of hell at work nearly every single day. (Bitter, party of one. Your table is ready!)

The fact that Lesko and his ilk and everyone else Tracey hits on her column are on our TV screens, much less allowed to get away with what they do is a travesty, a sham and a mockery. It's a travshamockery. But, I suppose it's a tradeoff. It's their advertising dollars that pay for the quality television we enjoy. Oh that's right. There is no quality television. Except Battlestar Galactica.

stacy smith
4.25.05 @ 9:29a

As scary as it may be Tracey, I sometimes wonder if you live in my head.

I got a phone call two weeks ago from the advertising dept of Highlights magazine.

For those of you that don't know what Highlights magazine is, it's a magazine for children that has stories, puzzles, jokes, ect. It's been around forever. My son was getting it for awhile, then he stopped reading it, so I stopped the subscription.

Going back to the phone call. So this woman explains who she is, and how we can get a free gift if we come back, ect... and I tell her no thank you. She carries on with her sales pitch and again I tell her no thank you.

Apparently that wasn't enough as she opted to hit an all time low with "Well, why don't you let your child decide if he wants to subscribe or not?"

I was speechless (yes it does happen occasionally) that an adult would actually say something that stupid, I didn't know how to respond.

She continues with her pitch (taking advantage of my silence) and repeatedly tells me that I can cancel at any time. By now I have my voice back and remind her that their claim of "Cancel anytime" is udder bullshit as when I tried to cancel last time, I had to fight with them for 4 months to get it straightened out (which I did)and hung up.

Hubby got home and I was still pissed with the "Let your child decide" thing. He laughed at me and said that the next they call, tell them that he doesn't read that anywmore. My parents said to remind them that my child doesn't pay the bills, so they should call back after he has a job.

Those words "Let your child decide" shall stick out in brain forever . It goes without saying that I won't be renewing our subscription to Highlights magazine anytime soon, if ever.

jael mchenry
4.25.05 @ 2:59p

Yeah, I just get annoyed at anyone selling anything by phone, but that "let your child decide" is a new low. I have to wonder how often the pressure techniques work -- we recently got "but what if you need international long distance IN AN EMERGENCY?" That sort of thing just ticks me off.

tracey kelley
4.25.05 @ 5:36p


My Gawd, that phone monkey would have SO felt my wrath!

And you know what? Highlights is a quality publication. I find it hard to believe they would have approved the telemarketing script with that as one of the "refusal conversion" options. That's so crass.

See, Jael? Trixy wordplay. Like you and Jonathan will be stranded in the wilds of Peru and this phone service will SAVE YOUR LIVES!

"No capes!" wave of Edna hand

I wish I could get Lesko's book at the library, though - I'm very curious about it.

Lisa, I have to say, the Oxy Clean guy cracks me up, simply because he's the Emeril of the commerical world.

lisa r
4.25.05 @ 11:09p

Emeril, I like. The Oxy Clean guy just gets on my nerves.

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