Most of the words we use every day are little ones. A syllable or two, sometimes three. But for some reason, many folks confuse big words with erudition, aka, smarts. But that’s just not the case. Winston Churchill, who knew a bit about the power of words, once said, “short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.” By old words he meant the simple ones of old English origin. Mom and Dad. Love and hate. Good and bad. Bread and milk. Fight and flee. Come and go. Rise and shine. You get the idea.
There’s simply nothing better than tough old English words, the ones free of French, Latin, or Spanish influences. I’m not against foreign tongues influencing ours. As our tongue grew, it was happy to grab words from other tribes. So we think nothing of saying avant-garde, carte blanche, cliché, déjà vu, diva, emoji, fiasco, macho, motto, pasta, patio, pizza, solo, typhoon, and tsunami, to name but a few. It’s a long list. Generally, we don’t care where words come from. We care about getting our points across. Or we should. And when we do grab words from other tongues, they’re often small ones.
Big words have their place of course. And when no other word but a big one will do, go for it. But for any other reason is foolish. It’s easy to fall into the trap of big words. It’s an easy way to show off. And it’s often used to bully or shame readers for being no nothings. But know somethings — Churchill and Hemingway, for example — know better. Stop obfuscating. Start simple. Limit the big words. Small words kick ass.
©2021 John Hofmeister.
Want a simple way to make your writing more vigorous, readable, and actionable?
Get rid of all those nouns with verbs buried inside them. Just googling “smothered verbs” will give you lots of examples of how and why this writing habit gets in the way of sturdy English prose. You can easily break this habit by turning nouns like discussion, information, reduction, and conclusion into action verbs — discuss, inform, reduce, and conclude. Your prose will get sharper. Become more readable. Less likely to induce boredom, eye rolls, and yeah whatever.
And take notice of that suffix in all these nouns — -ion. If you skim your copy and find them, you’re probably smothering verbs. Bureaucracies — whether public or private — are fond of smothered verbs because active verbs force writers to clarify who’s doing what to whom. Saying something like “there will be a reduction in our salesforce” sounds less threatening than “we will be reducing our salesforce.” People get fired. Nobody seems to be doing the firing.
Smothered verbs invariably invite passive verb constructions, where stuff happens seemingly by magic, the magic being that it absolves doers of doing anything. It’s the sort of opacity week-kneed lawyers, administrators, politicians, and bureaucrats strive for. Stop giving them quarter. Free a verb today!
©2021 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved.
Trusting his gut and driven by advice given to him long ago by spiritual mentor Roy Cohn to turn attacks into assets, Donald Trump accepted the world’s first-ever Ignoble Prize.
In accepting the award, Trump said that “ignoble is what I do and do very strongly. It’s a big word even if it doesn’t have that many letters but it greatly describes big thinkers like me. Ignobility, I’m pretty sure that’s a word, too, is in my genes. I come from a long line of ignobility. And even if this prize was around when Obama was president, he never could have won it. He didn’t have the brain that I do to break all precious rules politicians, especially Democrats, follow. I’m pretty sure they had to invent this prize because nobody in the history of the world ever did ignoble better than me. Obama could only win a noble prize. Big deal. They’ve been giving out those forever.”
Mystified by this jarring but unsurprising boast, journalists were left blinking with their mouths open, momentarily unable to internalize Trump’s latest defiance of everyday norms and accepted definitions accessible to anyone with a dictionary. Seeing their dumbstruck expressions, Trump chuckled aloud as his team hurried to escort him from the press briefing room, “What, no gotcha, nasty questions for me? What a bunch of losers.”
In what was supposed to be a post-briefing follow-up, the president’s newest — and according to Trump, the best-looking presidential spokesperson in history — Kayleigh McEnany said Mr.Trump was “being sarcastic and wanted to have a little fun with the press corps.” She went on to say that the President didn’t have time for follow-up questions because he had to get back to the hard work of slashing spending aimed at poor people who don’t vote, “which is most of them,” she noted. “President Trump believes it’s time to put the nation’s tax dollars to work for people who work.” Realizing that the room had cleared as journalists rushed to release the latest assault on imagination that continues to make satire impossible, McEnany said, “I told you I will never lie to you. That’s not my job.”
In a related note and according to the latest available information, the Ignoble Prize was established by an esteemed triumvirate of Doctors No, Evil, and Doom. According to its founders, the prize will be awarded annually to recognize the apex of ignobility as demonstrated by the recipient’s fearless disregard for truth, justice, and or any measure of decency known to humankind. Unbeknownst to Trump, it has no cash value.
I’m sure there are many NRA members who aren’t idiots. Unfortunately for the organization, those members don’t make news. And regardless of one’s opinion of the NRA, the appearance of gun-toting goofballs at the protests against decrees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus makes me wonder: Why are they bringing assault weapons to these protests? The decrees aren’t restricting the rights to bear arms, although some decrees have shuttered shooting ranges where the bored or insecure gather to enjoy themselves or feel powerful unloading on paper tigers or whatever their inert and harmless targets happen to be. Are they planning to assault the legislators? Their governors? Counter-protesters? They not only like walking about carrying a big stick, but wish to yell loudly with childish displays of their dearest possessions. “I took my AR-57 into the rotunda, baby. Boy, I showed them. No one’s gonna tell me what to do. And this mask isn’t keeping me from this overhyped virus shit — it’s keeping me from being identified by the deep state.” That would be the deep state that keeps sending their grandmas checks every month, makes hamburger edible, lakes fishable, air breathable, water drinkable, modern live livable, and yet doesn’t seem to mind if citizens stroll about in public with oversized badges of dimwittery. Like anxious grammarians who believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket with every split infinitive, they believe it’s going to hell because they can’t figure out who made them so stupid in the first place. Even that is beyond the ken of the state, however deep.
What kind of man questions another man’s military service while he never served himself?
What kind of man consorts with porn stars while his wife attends to their newborn son?
What kind of man mistakes contracting an STD with risking one’s life in combat?
What kind of man questions the faith of others when he displays none himself?
What kind of man would ask other men if they thought his daughter was hot?
What kind of man fears naming his son “junior” because he could be a loser?
What kind of man glorifies his accomplishments at the expense of others?
What kind of man believes he is always the smartest person in the room?
What kind of man makes up belittling names for anyone he doesn’t like?
What kind of man trades on his name to con others out of their money?
What kind of man judges others through a prism of wealth and power?
What kind of man seeks retribution for insults both real and imagined?
What kind of man gloats that he can shoot someone with impunity?
What kind of man lies about things of no consequence or purpose?
What kind of man judges the dead by how they treated him in life?
What kind of man brags about grabbing women by their genitals?
What kind of man bullies those weaker or less fortunate than he?
What kind of man encourages violence to suppress free speech?
What kind of man feels the need to defend the size of his penis?
What kind of man is better at hating than he is at anything else?
What kind of man judges women solely by their appearance?
What kind of man changes his views simply to win affection?
What kind of man demands loyalty without giving it return?
What kind of man consistently mistakes love for fear?
What kind of man finds joy in other people’s failures?
What kind of man is incapable of laughing at himself?
What kind of man cheats on his succession of wives?
What kind of man has a bottomless need for praise?
What kind of man denigrates the success of others?
What kind of man fires people for telling the truth?
What kind of man tells subordinates to lie for him?
What kinds of man dismisses known facts as fake?
What kind of man values appearance over skill?
What kind of man admires bullies like himself?
What kind of man cheats at golf?
What kind of man?
A very, very
©2020 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved.
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t care what celebrities wear. I have a hard enough time taking interest in my own couture. As to awards season, I suppose I could have written such a headline anytime between January and December and still not miss the mark since giving out awards for one thing or another is always in season. The Hollywood and actor variety is among the most prolific bestower of awards as there are so many of them: Oscars, SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Emmy Awards, etc. Hollywood and its kin love recognizing their own, almost as much as they like making movies about movies, actors, and celebrities in general. But they’re no different from any other industry from what I can tell. Take advertising. Most prominent in this category of self-love and promotion are the Clios, Cannes Lion, Addy, Andy, Communication Arts, One Club, Effie, D&Ds, Edwards, Epica, and Webby awards. There are oodles of others in the ad and marketing category; pharma advertising alone has its own subset of a dozen or so. Every market in America, and I suppose any region that gainfully employs commercial artists has its own, albeit smaller stakes, award shows.
The need to stand above the hoi polloi and one’s colleagues goes back a long way, a need whose origin can be traced to the ever-evolving classification habit inherent to our species and other species as well. Pecking orders serve both the modern and ancient desire to find the best mate, to win by outrunning the pack as the wolves approach, and to evade the HR manager looking to trim staff. In our species, it’s also designed to challenge, raise bars, and crush accepted notions of what’s possible. UCLA Bruins Coach Henry Russel famously said, and Vince Lombardi heartily agreed, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” However, in athletic contests, the goal is to be the undisputed best — and the best can be found. The Olympics Games offer a widely accepted way to determine the best at whatever game is being played. The World Series, World Cup, and Super Bowl do much the same. Some awards are tiered, Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc. Yet it’s the gold that matters.
Unlike athletic competition, however, advertising awards have a bustling set of award types and subcategories with their own winners, runner ups, and close but no cigar smokers. There is no agreed-upon best ad or spot or tweet or tagline or whatever else is winning awards these days. This is to be expected because there is no demonstrable way of measuring what the best is. Oh, some will say, it’s the advertising that sells the most stuff. Other’s will say it’s what sells the most stuff based on dollars spent. Unable with objective certainty to separate the best from the rest, ad people talk lots about creativity. This term is the most heralded adjective thrown about in advertising circles—an abstraction that can’t be measured in any objective way. Yet more interesting is who decides who’s best and what creative is? Why practitioners of advertising, of course—other creatives, typically folks who have won the award in the past. Who better to decide? This seems a bit fishy though, a bit incestuous, not unlike the members of the “Academy” deciding which actors and movies are the best. But like advertising, the movie business is at the mercy of what the hoi polloi think and do. And despite being neglected, a great movie — like a great ad — can do its work without acclaim beyond selling tickets or package goods or soda. James Joyce, arguably the greatest and most influential author of the 20th century, never won a Nobel Prize for Literature. Mean Streets, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Breathless, Bringing Up Baby, and The Big Lebowski are among several great films that didn’t receive even ONE Oscar nomination—in ANY category.
Since advertising is subjective, and honest practitioners will admit that no one knows what is going to work, it often lauds work that is outré or rule-breaking or risky or any other number of noisy dicta familiar to the ad tribe. But in the end, among the most inspired, cleverest, and most memorable ads are extraordinarily simple — Where’s the Beef, Wassup, and Think Small, to name three. The first two of these though don’t have the legs advertisers look for. Think Small, on the other hand, was the first in a series from DDB in the 60s that revolutionized the practice of advertising, and to this day has not been superseded. Time, it seems, provides the only formidable method of measuring real value in the ad business, or almost any human endeavor for that matter.
Have I won any awards? A few, though no One Show Pencils or Silver Lions decorate my shelves. Do I care? Not really. So how, you ask, do you know if you were really great at advertising? I don’t. More to the point for me though is that I can’t take awards for commercial art very seriously. What I did — and do — take seriously is helping a client sell something, a client who paid me (often generously) to do what I’m good at. Commercial art is art only insofar as it calls for some artistic sense and sensibility. Basically, I don’t take subjective awards of any kind seriously. In my mind, the only award that matters to me is the one I give by paying to see a movie or buying a concert ticket or ordering a computer that’s easy as hell to use and minimizes the grief I experience in having to have one in the first place. I don’t watch award shows. I do peruse ad annuals to see what’s passing for great work, and sometimes I see an ad and say, gee, that’s clever, I wish I had thought of that. But I know that come 10 or 25 or 50 years from now, there will be new cool kids on the block doing breakthrough work and will have followers and imitators galore. And today’s heralded ad nobility will be forgotten, their metal lions and pencils gathering dust in attics or on display at yard-sale tables labeled name your price. But Mr Joyce and maybe even the Dude will still find a ready audience and admirers as the decades roll on. Now that’s an award worth having.
©2020 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved. Forward at will but please identify the author, ie, me. Thanks for reading the mouse type.
The Madmen series probably drove a lot of interest in careers in advertising. Its hero, if you could call him that, is Don Draper, who dons a variety of drapes to conceal his intentions and proclivities from his wives, colleagues, and himself. But he’s a cool, sharp cookie, drinking hard liquor before noon and sucking Lucky Strikes, ostensibly because they’re toasted, doing chicks on the side, and picking up a French bride because his first one was either too beautiful or called him out for being a cad and lying in general or for other reasons I can’t recall. No matter.
As an advertising creative hopeful, you might be enrolled in an ad program somewhere or hoping to break your way into the business as a copywriter or art director. You peruse the awesome creative to be found in One Show Annuals or CA Ad annuals, and think, wow, I want to do that. You see ads on TV, most of which are awful, and you think, I could do better than that. And I’m sure you could with some training and a decent creative brief and a creative director and an account team who care about creative. And while many agencies do care about creative, many don’t. While they may be in the ad business but they are in the end businesses. And many of them today are part of holding companies run by people who don’t give a fig for creativity unless it brings in money. Sometimes it does, but it’s a lot easier to acquiesce to a client’s moronic ideas and bill the crap out them and call it a day. And heaven forbid you recommend that they don’t need a TV spot or paid post or whatever because those would just be a waste of their money. The account team would gag at the thought of not doing something that would earn the agency money, regardless of ridiculousness the ask. But I digress.
Advertising can be rewarding, fun, and very remunerative. But it can be a crashing bore, relentlessly tedious, and drain you of a personal life, especially when you’re starting out, paying your dues as they say and putting in 60 to 80 hours a week. But if you survive time in the trenches and advance or simply continue being exceedingly good at what you do, sooner or later, there will be a younger version of yourself, eager to do what you do, for half of what you worked your way to earning with practice, diligence, and the usual politicking that comes with any job. Case in point: an agency with which I am somewhat familiar just lost a big account, and through no fault of the creatives, it needed to shed some FTEs, the polite acronym for full-time equivalent, you know actual employees with salaries and benefits. You’d think the shedding would start with the newer hires, those just learning the ropes. But you’d be wrong. Since advertising and creative output are terribly subjective endeavors, no one knows what really works. It’s a big fucking guess whether that clever ad or guerilla tactic will drive sales or build brand equity, whatever the fuck that is. So, the bean counters are like, what the hell. Let those folks who’ve been around and have gotten a steady increase in salary over the years (however modest) go and keep their juniors at half the cost or more. The agency can still claim to provide what clients want, insist they are crazily creative, etc. Of course, doing this is fundamentally stupid, as the seasoned veterans can generate more ideas, more quickly, and arrive at feasible solutions to marketing problems without pursuing ideas that their experience tells them would be a waste of time. Life at the agency goes on, however miserably. Clients continue to get ideas, however mediocre. And a dozen or so people find themselves looking for work. Now you might imagine that when business picked up, those skilled practitioners who were “let go” (like they were kites or something) would be asked to return to the agency they worked hard for, some for many years. But you’d be wrong again. That never happens. Never.
So, my advice is to approach this career choice carefully. The creative part of the business is being overtaken by data whoremongers, so getting products to be sold in front of people who ALREADY have an interest in buying those products. So, the need to stand out, to present attention-getting ideas recedes and just presenting the gizmo and offering a coupon will suffice. A small handful of boutique agencies will continue to do wonderful work. Then they grow, get bought, the principals retire at 50, and the whole business starts again. If you enter the business, plan your second career as you go, you know, the one to fall back on when your agency loses that big account and has to let you go, leaving you to drift in the wind.
This long lament might be true for any number of careers, where older, better paid, yet seasoned professionals find themselves looking for work at age 45 or 50 or later. Somewhere along the way, the relationships between employers and employees became nothing but transactional. A company’s devotion to its people and community and citizenry at large has become a quaint and decidedly nostalgic bit of whimsy laid to rest at the altar of increasing shareholder value, delivering wealth to shareholders who don’t give a flying fart for anything but their returns. McDonald’s is always hiring.
©2020 John Hofmeister. Feel free to forward with appropriate recognition of the guy who wrote this: me.
For other articles in this vein, see https://www.jhofmeister.com/musings/considering-a-career-in-advertising-a-few-warnings
Back in the day, there were stories about Soviet Union emigres who found going to a grocery store in America a terrible ordeal of choice. Used to buying bread or toothpaste or cereal typically identified simply as bread, toothpaste, or cereal, respectively, former Soviet shoppers found an unimaginable array of choices for one staple. My experience of late isn’t that much different. The toothpaste selection is the simplest example.
Crest — of P&G branding fame — offers an array of toothpastes and for the life of me, I can’t figure out which one I should get. The same holds for Colgate, Arm & Hammer, Pepsodent, Closeup, Sensodyne, Aquafresh, and as Yule Bruner in “The King and I” proclaimed with swagger, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera”. Crest, for example, lists these brands on its site:
I get that some people need something for sensitivity (it’s why Sensodyne exists). But do we need all the choices around whitening, enamel protection, deep cleaning, outlast whitening, scope whitening, whitening therapy, sensitivity plus whitening plus scope, pro-health whitening (is this for professional athletes or professionals in general), strawberry-flavored toothpaste for kids, and my favorite, 3D white brilliance blast whitening? And what could 3D possibly mean in this category? Do I have to wear those funny glasses to appreciate it? And why are some designated as toothpaste and others aren’t? Clearly, I don’t need the strawberry flavored one, but must wonder, gee, will it be better than the outlast whitening one? And those that are tagged with a plus sign, make me wonder plus what? Why don’t they all have + signs?
Brands with sub-branding only serve to confuse consumers. At the very least, the offerings could be simplified. This holds true for virtually every personal hygiene product — soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorant — not to mention the plethora of lipsticks, make-ups, perfumes, and the countless array of haircare products. It’s a store stocker’s nightmare.
Heaven forbid that each of these sub-bands has a product manager who’s convinced of the absolute qualities of his or her brand’s ability to do what exactly? Clean teeth better than the other brands — from the SAME manufacturer — let alone a competitive brand from Colgate or whatever? Invariably we end up choosing what we started with as kids or get the one our dentist recommends (is he or she on the take, I wonder?). How many of Crest’s brands will last? Do they exist mostly to imply that nobody knows oral health like Crest, making your grocery store aisle a showcase of power and depth? The brand I use only has only four options where I shop, so it must be subpar. Yet, my teeth haven’t noticed. My dentist hasn’t either. But he does give me sample toothpaste and floss every time I visit. I save them for when I’m traveling. The free stuff works pretty well from what I can tell.
At home, I use an Arm & Hammer whitening something or other because it comes in two packs at a discount. Maybe it’s called eternal whitening or blast-off clean or deep-cleaning gum power or some other string of adjectives to make my choice more even more fraught with worry, wonder, and what the fuck.
©2019 John Hofmeister. All rights reserved. You’ve been warned in little type.
YouTube is both a gift and a curse. As someone who loves music, I have found in YouTube an incredible and joyful home to concerts I missed, studio sets I could never be part of, and music I never heard but have come to love.
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me. Quite of bit of satire, a genre that has become increasingly difficult to work in since reality has become such a farce.