Play on words, play with fire

by Tom Albrighton 20 April 2010 Copywriting, Copywriting reviews

As UK readers may have seen, Gordon Ramsay and Pixie Lott are appearing in a major outdoor advertising campaign to promote milk. Each appears on posters and side-of-bus advertisements with their own catchline, with the campaign-wide slogan being ‘make mine milk’. The £7.5m campaign is being handled by agency Kindred. (If you want to know more about it, have a look at this Telegraph article or visit the official site here.)

In my view, some of the copy on this campaign doesn’t have a lotta bottle. (Ask your parents or click here.) And although there’s no use crying over it, I’d still like to float my opinions. (Float? Anyone?)

Pixie drinks lotts

The Pixie Lott poster features the impish blonde songstrel wearing a ‘milk moustache’ alongside the slogan ‘Pixie Drinks Lotts’. In my view, this is a really strong slogan. If you know who Pixie is, it delivers a straightforward persuasive message based on authority, made memorable by the simple pun on her surname. Crucially, however, you’ll still understand at least part of the message even if, like me, you stopped listening to new music around 1990.

Cordon blanc

Contrast that with the Gordon Ramsay variant. In this design, the narky Caledonian jus-drizzler is pictured with his trademark baleful frown and the tagline ‘cordon blanc’. Now, understanding this slogan involves quite a few logical leaps and bits of knowledge:

  • You have to know who Gordon Ramsay is.
  • You have to make the link between ‘Gordon’ and ‘cordon’.
  • You have to know that ‘cordon bleu’ is a marque that denotes gastronomic excellence.
  • You have to speak enough French to know that ‘blanc’ means white, and that it’s been substituted for the ‘bleu’ in ‘cordon bleu’.
  • You have to make the link between whiteness and milk.

However, even after you’ve picked the bones out of that lot, I’m not really sure what meaning you’re actually left with. It’s kind of a joke, kind of an allusion, while not really succeeding as either. For me, there are just too many links in the chain – a chain that doesn’t really lead anywhere. And it’s asking a lot for the reader to work out what on earth is being said. How many 16-25 year olds (the main target demographic) know about Ramsay and Cordon Blanc – and speak functional French?

For me, the slogan highlights the danger of using plays on words in slogans or headlines (and perhaps in any other type of copywriting). Personally, I would lump all riddles, questions, gags, puns, quotations, allusions and foreign-language elements together under the heading of ‘things that make the reader think’. And that’s rarely a good idea.

Your reader may be busy, tired or fed up. They’re not particularly keen on hearing your message. They may be seeing it in a fleeting way, such as on the side of a bus. They may not get your jokes, or appreciate your allusions. In some situations, they may not even speak English as a first language. Do you really want to take chances with their attention?

However, there’s clearly a place for arresting, thought-provoking creative copy. The key question is whether the cleverness in the text helps or hinders the message. The right kind of quirky, snappy slogan gets the message across in a way that a literal or descriptive equivalent never could, breaking through the reader’s natural inclination to ignore marketing messages. But for every headline like that, there are a dozen where unwarranted ‘creativity’ or ‘humour’ has come between the reader and the meaning.

Of course, it’s easy to snipe from the sidelines. I get to spend all day writing PDF factsheets about B2B services – no-one asks me to come up with a memorable play on words that connects Gordon Ramsay and milk for their multi-million pound campaign. If I was put on the spot, I’d probably try and steer away from that incredibly tough brief and suggest something simpler and more direct – ‘Gordon laps it up’ or something like that. But what do I know?

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