Meaningless Phrases

Advertising is full of words phrases that have pretty much no real meaning. Here are a few:

State of the art: this morning I was cold called by a company offering me a ‘state of the art’ home security system. The meaning of that phrase is: ‘the most recent stage in the development of a product, incorporating the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features’. Sure, this is probably true, but what does it really mean in terms of solid benefits you can point to? Nothing. You can call anything ‘state of the art’ and no one can say you’re wrong.

Best-ever: I think the idea of a company making something really good then deciding to sell a worse version of it is a bit strange. Having said that, there are plenty of rumours of products that really are a slightly worse version of what a company has managed to develop. That way the incremental improvements can be spread out and sold over a longer period of time for more profit. But that’s not what this phrase is given to mean. It suggests a better version of your Twix/Hoover/Audi has just been created and is now available. Like I said, nobody is going to explicitly sell you a crap iteration if there’s a better one around.

Delicious/Tasty/flavourful/rich: subjective/subjective/subjective/subjective

A fraction of the cost: which fraction? 1/1000? 999999/1000000ths? Fractions cover pretty much every possible division, so ‘a fraction’ means nothing.

Natural: everything’s natural if you think about it; after all, we all sprung from ‘nature’. But perhaps this refers to those things that are not exclusively man-made. Well, you can bet that with the current uses of pesticides and cultivation techniques, something described as ‘natural’ may not quite align with the image in your head. Sure, it might have been plucked from rolling fields of verdant pasture, but it’s slightly more likely that it was grown on an intensive farm, protected by some quite troubling pesticides then frozen for several months in South Africa before reaching your mouth. Natural? Kind of. Then again, that’s like the people who complain that homosexuality is unnatural then go and watch TV.

Organic: I think we all know that the definition of this word is pretty shaky. Yes, it means that it must meet certain standards, but there’s much debate regarding whether or not those standards actually make any difference to the product (other than the extra 20% on the price). Crops grown in organic soil are often planted next to non-organic fields whose pesticides can leach through under the ground. Yes, there is a bit of meaning to this, but it’s a long way from what it implies.

Ultra/Mega/Incredible/Amazing: bollocks/bollocks/bollocks/bollocks.

Limited Edition: it pays to look for the number to which an edition has been limited. 3 is good; 500 is not bad, but ‘several million’ does kind of take the shine off the implied scarcity value:


Environmentally friendly: this doesn’t have to adhere to anything at all. There’s no governing body, no set of standards and no consistency, which is why so many companies use it.

For a limited period only: literally every single thing exists for a limited period only.

Artisanal: this means ‘made in a traditional or non-mechanized way’. Does that make it better? Who knows? And who can testify as to what a ‘traditional’ method of manufacture really is? Nobody. Like ‘organic’, ‘artisanal’ is a word that means nothing more than a 20% price hike.

Homemade (or in the US, ‘house made’): this one really intrigues me. Does a restaurant have to make something in a real home then bring it to the restaurant in order for it to be homemade? Well, one dictionary defines it as ‘made in the home, on the premises, or by one’s own efforts’. So… everything, then? I guess that might exclude ready meals and packets of biscuits, but I don’t suppose it has to. I can’t believe anyone really cares enough to pull people up on this, so restaurants presumably add it to any old dish description and slap on another 10%.

Value: value is something that only exists relative to a person’s opinion. Value has no value. So a ‘value’ bag of crisps might represent more crisps for less money, but if I don’t want it it has no value.

Quality: this is often used on its own, without a qualifying adjective (eg: Quality Butcher), leaving us with the question, ‘What kind of quality are we talking about?’. Do they mean a low quality butcher? (Presumably not). But even then, what do low or high quality represent in this instance? It’s never explained, so people can say ‘quality food at low prices’ and it means absolutely nothing, but they can also say ‘high quality food at low prices’ and it means exactly the same thing.

Oven baked/pan fried/oven roasted: have you ever tried to roast or bake something outside an oven, or fry something outside a pan? Pretty darn tricky.

Do you have any to add to the list?


Quiet! Shhh, hush your mouth. Silence when I spit it out, {spit sound} in the weekend.

The 25 most rewatchable films.

Insanely good makeup transformations (thanks, T):

All the movies Bill Clinton watched in the White House.

Interesting questions from someone trying to buy DiCaprio’s Malibu beach house (thanks, T).

Jimmy Page on the theremin (thanks, T):

The Monty Python argument sketch performed by two vintage speech synthesisers (thanks, V):

Voodoo Chile live:

Steve Golin

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Producer Steve Golin attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

We were lucky enough to have Steve Golin stop by the agency last week.

In case you’re not aware of his work, he produced Wild At Heart, The Game, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Babel, Spotlight and The Revenant, for which he won the Oscar for Best Picture (to go with his Palme D’Or/Emmys/Baftas etc.). On TV he brought us True Detective, Mr Robot, Twin Peaks and Beverly Hills 90210. He’s also the founder and CEO of Anonymous Content, so you might have made an ad through his company (full list of his stuff here).

So he’s pretty fucking good at what he does.

Here are some of the interesting things he told us…

John Malkovich agreed to Being John Malkovich reluctantly. Then he watched the final film and said he wished he could afford to buy it back and have it destroyed. Steve still made him go to Venice and promote the film, which then got a great reception.

They shopped Mr. Robot everywhere before the nicey-nicey USA network came in for it. He was going to turn them down (they said they’d change and make Mr Robot as gritty as it needed to be but he wasn’t sure) but the creator needed cash to pay his rent so they went with USA after all. The rest is Golden Globe-winning, Emmy-nominated history.

Many people currently lament the disappearing middle of the film business; films are currently either overblown CGI superhero crap or small indies. Steve says the intelligent mid-budget fare has simply moved to TV.

He was in the right place/right time for the birth of MTV. His was one of the few outfits set up to make music videos, so that’s where he cut his teeth. He then had an overall plan to take his directors from videos to commercials to movies. It worked.

It took 5 years to get the script for Eternal Sunshine finished. The Revenant took 12 years to make: “Woody Allen said ‘80% of success is just showing up’. If you show up every day, and work pretty hard, things will happen. When you’ve been doing it for a long time, if you’re smart, you have a lot of projects. It’s always interesting to see how things get momentum. You are never quite sure when it’s going to happen.”

The Revenant was all set to go but then someone came in with the cash to make Wolf of Wall Street and DiCaprio went for that instead. They’d been shopping WoWS around for years with no takers. Steve thinks The Revenant would never have been a big hit without Leo. He’s right.

The creative process goes: story/script then package (actors together with directors etc.).

He has loads of projects on the go all the time. On a typical day he comes in, looks at the list and works out what he can do to move any of them forward.

Alejandro G. Inarritu was supposed to direct True Detective but he dropped out to do Birdman, so Cary Fukanaga got his chance.

No one wanted to make ads for 6 months after 9-11. Nearly bankrupted him. Same as the 2008 crash.

David Fincher legitimised big directors doing TV when he agreed to do House of Cards. Matthew McConaughey did the same for big actors with True Detective.

Overall he seemed like a really nice guy. He said that he got pretty vengeful and bitter when his company was bought out in the late 90s. Coincidentally (or not) that was also when he got cancer.

Things we can learn from the above: you can start small and make it very big; never give up; always do what you can to move something forward; you can bounce back from the biggest disasters; have patience; fate can give you unexpected legs up but it helps if you’re in the right place at the right time; trust your instinct but be prepared to be wrong; don’t be mean or you’ll get cancer.

I’m not sure what I see Cupid don’t fuck wit me! Are you telling me this is the weekend?

Bowie’s 100 favourite books (thanks, T).

The roots of every story in 4:33:

Army figures doing yoga instead of killing people (thanks, G).

Evolution of stop-motion (thanks, D):

Remember Those Great VW Ads documentary (thanks, S. And don’t forget the excellent book of the same name):

What animals would look like if they had eyes at the front (thanks, D).

Amazing raw footage from Mad Max Fury Road:



All sentient beings sponge, that is they soak up elements of their environment and then use them in some way. For people in the creative industries this process is thought to be essential to producing their work: a few manga cartoons + Culture Club’s greatest hits – a La Recherche Du Temps Perdu = brilliant novel/ad/scene/album.

But I have a few questions regarding the extent to which this is/isn’t helpful:

Does the quality of the input affect the quality of the output? Is watching nothing but Adam Sandler movies worse than reading nothing but Dickens novels? The obvious answer would be that it is; after all, the plotting, elegance of writing, depth of human truths and originality of character are clearly far ‘better’ in Dickens novels (because in Sandler movies they are utter toilet). But you could make a case for the opposite being true. You never know what influences are going to come out at what point or in which creative endeavour, so it may be that the Sandler ‘jokes’ lead to more connections with other things that then go on to create more original thoughts. If it’s impossible to be sure, why not shove it all in?

The other possible benefit of soaking up ‘lower quality’ material is that it can point you in the direction of what to avoid. Clichés can repel you, acting as markers for what not to include in your own work, so perhaps it’s a good idea to see what’s not good in order to realise that it’s not good. I see this often when my kids watch certain ‘kiddy’ movies: they tend to enjoy them more because it’s not the umpteenth time they’ve seen a certain gag/character/twist. But by the time they’ve seen these things many times they should understand that they ought to steer clear of them in their own work.

Still on the subject of kids I wonder about the cartoons they watch vs the cartoons I watched. Theirs are far more inventive, irreverent, original, creative, clever, crazy and inspiring than anything I saw. Compare Button Moon to Adventure Time, or The Flumps to The Amazing World of Gumball. The distance between them is light years, and that makes me wonder if what my kids are soaking up is turning them into far more creative people. My wife used to work with Vince Squibb and he once told her that he used to watch TV all the time, something to which he attributes his amazing level of creativity. Yes, he watched all the same shite I did and still became one of the greatest creatives of all time, but would he have been even better if he’d been a kid now?

Does the quantity of the input affect the quality or quantity of the output? In the case of Mr. Squibb it clearly did (or at least that’s what he thinks). Then again I’m sure there have been many, many kids who watched an awful lot of crappy TV but didn’t use those influences to create great work of their own. That may be because they didn’t have an outlet that would allow them to express those original thoughts, but you’d have thought it would have come out somewhere. Have they all painted their houses unusual colours or made crazy birthday cards? Did they want to but found that such ideas were frowned upon enough times to put them off suggesting them?

My kids have watched a huge amount of very creative stuff and they’re now very creative kids, but is that down to what my wife and I have encouraged them to do, or is it because their boundaries have been stretched by the massive amount of innovative work they’ve experienced?

I suppose that if you only had a single book to read then your creative expression would be somewhat limited (perhaps not entirely confined to what was found in the book, but probably missing the beneficial influence of the solo of Voodoo Chile). If we take that logic to its nth degree then surely the more you take in the better the chances of something interesting coming out. The random connections your mind can make must be greater in number, leading to odder and more original combinations and fresher thinking.

Does the diversity of the input make a difference? Similarly to the above two questions, it’d be interesting to know the extent to which hopping from Bollywood movie posters to Ansel Adams photographs to Whigfield albums creates more innovative work. It seems to make sense that putting together ingredients that don’t usually mix would create a final result that is less likely to have been seen before. Then again, if you’re trying to write an opera, is it better to watch a double bill of Beverly Hills Cop and Un Chien Andalou or sit through some John Cage, Brian Eno and Wagner? If you have a certain aim in mind, should you stick closer to the things in that neighbourhood, or stick to the diversity plan and take a helicopter all over the world? I’m sure I’ve heard of instances of the packaging on a jar of gherkins inspiring a classic album or a page of Dr. Suess providing the fuel for a documentary on gang violence, but I suppose hoping for that kind of serendipity takes a bit more confidence.

I used to enjoy flicking through old D&AD annuals, but not so much for the ads. Instead I’d look in the pop promo or environmental design sections to see what was going on away from my own industry. And it wasn’t even to look at the concepts; it was more to see hundreds of different random subjects in a short space of time: T-shirts, school books, frogs, Marshall stacks, Kate Bush, Korea, trees, a certain shade of orange etc. Award books are so far out of date that their innovation is non-existent, but the little odds and sods they contain are pure gold.

Does the timing of the input make a difference? I always wanted to be one of those creative people who kept a little notebook of all the funny little cartoons and photos that might prove useful at some point in the future. Then I read an interview with John Hegarty where he said it was a bad idea because then you weren’t giving your mind the opportunity to rearrange them in unexpected ways. If they sat in a big jumble at the back of your brain they might attach themselves to each other less predictably, possibly connecting things you’d seen decades apart from each other. Then again, I know plenty of people who have had successful careers keeping such a notebook, so i suppose you should just do whatever works for you.

Sometimes you get a brief that immediately screams at you to put two things on your office wall together in a Gold Lion-winning combination, but more usually you end up subconsciously marrying a line from an episode of Grange Hill circa 1984 with a passage from a Shakespeare sonnet you heard at a wedding last month. What puts them together? Who knows, but something is creating the alchemy and the timing of those connections could be crucial.

So sponge away. There seems to be little method to it other than the more the merrier…

Me and my girl ain’t speak in weeks and I can’t remember the reason why, why, why. On top of that it’s a recession, I feel like Jay-Z; this can’t be the weekend.

The banter in a photo of Etonians who met Putin.

Amazing animation of the slave trade.

The gluten free museum.

One of the all-time great movie endings.

Trump Facts well animated (thanks, D).

Kerouac’s 30 “beliefs and techniques” for writing and life.

Excellent replies to Chinese photoshop requests (thanks, G).

Very cool version of Sound of Silence (thanks, G):

Mike Figgis in conversation with Tony Kaye (thanks, J):

Christopher Walken reads the Three Little Pigs (thanks, A):

Emotions beat facts

I was just reading this interesting article about the ways in which emotions trump facts

“…people are not automatons. People are flesh and blood, heart and soul, and we aren’t moved by numbers alone. We live on stories. We thrive on emotion. We want to laugh, to cry, to rage. So if the political establishment wants to prevent a slide to ever increasing extremes it needs to learn the lesson that Brexit has taught us so starkly: learn to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads. Otherwise, we may find ourselves headed for some very dark political times indeed.”

So far so understandable, but the tricky thing is that emotions are ever-shifting, subjective, personal and hard to nail down. We can always try to tug at the heartstrings to exactly the right extent, but how many times has ‘touching’ come off as mawkish or sentimental? How often has ‘thrilling’ fallen short and instead become dull? And I’ve lost count of the myriad times ‘funny’ has ironically been more like its opposite.

Emotional persuasion is taking more of a risk: presenting facts is a fairly simple and straightforward process, but emotions carry baggage. Many of us don’t like to feel as if we’re being manipulated into some kind of reaction, particularly if the intention behind it is to sell soap powder or cars. Huge companies spending large sums of money to employ ‘experts’ in an attempt to make us cry/sympathise/worry in order that they might make large profits are not the most likeable entities.

Then again, when it’s done well you don’t really notice the blueprint beneath. Or at least the effect works well enough for you to forgive any manipulation. Then you’re left with an experience that allows the irrational to supersede the rational and a communication that hits harder and becomes far more memorable.

What are the tacts behind this? These Levi’s jeans are a bit roomier? I have a feeling very few people left with that new piece of information, and if they did I don’t think it’s what made them seek out the trousers. But I’ll bet thousands asked their friends if they’d seen that Levi’s ad where they run through the walls:

The facts: John Lewis sells stuff that people might like. Is that really going to get you to visit one of their shops? Of course not. But a little story about what that stuff might mean to someone, a story that has you blinking back tears? Perfect.

Kmart ships stuff. So do loads of other shops. Big deal. Then again, if you make that point in a very funny way you can jump to the front of the shops-that-ship queue.

Clearly emotion trumps logic, but in my experience we rarely get explicit about that during the brief or creative review. It’s kind of left unsaid or assumed that the work we produce will elicit an emotional reaction. Perhaps a more deliberate approach would leave us with more hits than misses.

When times go bad, when times go rough, won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do the weekend?

Famous album covers with Star Wars characters.

Literal video of Total Eclipse of the Heart (thanks, W):

RIP Gene Wilder:

All of Christopher Walken’s dancing:

15 music videos filmed in one take (thanks, Y).

Ghetto hikes (thanks, A).

The 25 best unscripted scenes in movies:

Girlfriends describe their boyfriends’ penises to a police sketch artist:

That new Spike Jonze perfume ad

Anonymous writes:

Hi Ben,

I was just wondering what you thought of this ad directed by Spike Jonze 

Sorry it’s completely unrelated to your post, I was just wondering what your thoughts were on perfume advertising, it seems a different world to the work most agencies do. They either seen completely random or metaphors. I don’t quite understand how an agency presents a perfume ad back to their client.

Thanks, Anonymous.

I think it’s delightful, but I get your point. When I showed it to my kids yesterday they asked what it was for and when I told them they thought it was bullshit. Then again, most perfume ads are ‘bullshit’: you can’t convey the scent so you just have to convey some sort of vibe that will make it seem cool or at least worth trying next time you’re in Selfridges or an airport. Clearly this spot, which is currently clogging up all my social media feeds, is doing a great job of that. Who knew or cared about Kenzo two days ago? Nobody. And now? All of us. Will I buy some? Nah, but this might be the opening move in a situation where I grow to like the brand enough to buy into it. Or maybe not. Either way, it’s a big step in the right direction.

Also, most ads these days are metaphors, so no problem there.

What you want and what you need

When I’m at home with my ten-year-old son we sometimes watch a movie. He’s now old enough to watch most 15-rated films, particularly those from the 80s, when 15s were apparently more innocent. So I look through the choices on Hulu, Netflix, HBO and iTunes and try to find him something that he’ll like but isn’t just a load of old kiddie crap.

And it’s hard work. This is because he likes what he already knows: cartoons, space, pirates, dinosaurs, CGI etc. So when I try to broaden his horizons I come up against cynical resistance. But there are of course many, many films he doesn’t like the look of but will enjoy immensely if he gave them a chance. (Only last week it took half an hour of diplomatic-level persuasion to get him to try The Matrix, which he loved.)

As frustrating as this can be, it’s also frustratingly familiar: whether we’re ten or eighty, we all tend to consume that which falls within our comfort zone. As adults we have tried many kinds of food, books, music, holidays, clothes etc. and we now know what we like, so we attempt to experience more of those things, ignoring the rest.

This also seems to be the basis of the algorithms that quietly shape our online worlds. Whether from Google, Pandora, Facebook or whoever serves up your news, the overriding principle seems to be ‘here’s more of what you already like’, and that makes sense makes sense; after all, if you were a Brexiteer you’d hardly want to be fed a steady diet of Remain articles. And if you happened to enjoy Neil Young it’s unlikely you’d want a musical stream solely devoted to Whigfield. A regular at Heston Blumenthal? You’re unlikely to be interested in McDonald’s discounts.


Where do you draw the line? Just like my son, people benefit from being exposed to influences beyond their usual menu. Sticking only to the familiar leads to a small and dreary life. And how did you find that comfort zone in the first place? By trying things you didn’t know you were going to like.

Social media appears to be creating an ever-shrinking feedback loop where you think your news is the news and the opinions of your friends the opinions of everyone. Where are those who disagree with you? Where is the music that doesn’t quite fit with your playlist? Where are the restaurants that might not hit the bullseye first time but could grow on you? Hiding in someone else’s algorithm, I’m afraid.

Yes, I understand that you have developed a ‘taste’ over the years, a set of experiences you’re more likely to enjoy, but you also need the other stuff. You need to see what else is out there, just in case it’s waiting to become your new favourite.

Do the current algorithms take that into account? Not in my experience. It’s becoming harder and harder to look through the other windows because they’re becoming increasingly invisible. And where will that end? Smaller and smaller bubbles and more and more separation from each other.

Ironically that’s neither what I want nor what I need.