Wackywriting and the cult of Innocent

by Tom Albrighton 10 October 2011 Popular, Tone of voice

Recently, Nick Asbury wrote this excellent post on a possible backlash against the Innocent Drinks-style tone of voice. His piece was motivated by a visit to Wackaging, the tumblr that collects examples of cutesy packaging copy that people have found particularly cloying and irksome. The brands involved range from niche challengers right through to giants like M&S.

What is wackywriting?

‘Wackaging’ is a brilliant word, and great fun to say out loud, but what I’m talking about is bigger than just packaging. So I’m using ‘wackywriting’ to cover wacky, funky or childlike copywriting in all its forms – packaging, advertising, online, social. (Don’t worry, I’m not expecting it to catch on, or form the title of my forthcoming book.)

Here are a few examples (some from Nick’s post, and posts referenced there, and some I’ve found):

We’re not saying that there’s anything wrong with going for a gym workout, it’s just, you know, all a bit of an effort really, isn’t it? If I were you, I’d just have an Innocent smoothie instead.
Innocent (product packaging)

Lots of mummys got together to create a range that was carefully selected to be the best for their little ones…
Little Me Organics (product packaging)

My dad made a promise to me and my brother that he would only use stuff in our products that is natural, is pure and helps make us healthy.
Ella’s Kitchen (product packaging)

In 1997 all we could find were tasteless, junk-filled crisps. We knew we could do better. After a lot of searching we found an old fryer (a machine not a person) and put it in a tiny factory down here in deepest Devon…
Burt’s Chips (product packaging)

Thanks for picking me!
I’m your new running partner. The people here at Brooks designed me using advanced technologies for cushioning, stability, comfort, and speed…So, come on. Let’s get going. 5k, 10k, around the block?
Run happy!
Brooks (packaging for running shoes)

Guess it’s a bill.
Much more than that! It’s full of easy ways to save water and money.
Sounds great. Anything else?
Anglian Water (outside of water-bill envelope)

Just like a parking ticket, you can’t transfer this contract to anyone else without our permission… Although the language is simple, the intentions are serious and this contract is a legal document under exclusive jurisdiction of   courts. Oh and don’t forget those men with big dogs.
Campaign Monitor (email newsletter contract)

As you can see, wackywriting is used by some brands that are very similar to Innocent, and some that are very different from it. Indeed, the extension of this hypercasual tone to more utilitarian, technical and traditional contexts testifies to the level of acceptance it’s attained.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticising the writers who do wackywriting, or the brands who use it. I don’t think wackywriting is inherently bad, or that there’s necessarily too much of it. (I’ve even done some myself.) I’m just interested in where it comes from, and where it’s going.

Parental guidance

Wackywriting is easy to parody – here’s a fine example from ‘Gordon Comstock’. But where does it come from? What are the real-world antecedents for the wackywriting tone?

In his piece, Nick Asbury compares wackywriting to ‘speaking to your mum’. It definitely has a familial feel, but I think Eva Wiseman is right on the money when she says that ‘adults are staying childish for too long’ and that ‘it’s no wonder we have trouble acting our age – we’re all being babysat by the stuff we buy’.

In my view, wackywriting has its roots in the sort of language used by some middle-class parents to their young children: jolly, zany and childlike, but with a colder undercurrent of authority, judgement and passive aggression. This dynamic comes through very clearly in the Little Me and Ella’s Kitchen examples above: an adult using a child’s voice to make adult points.

Speaking to control

I guess we all have days when we’d like to return to our childhoods, which accounts for the disarming appeal of wackywriting. But growing up isn’t all sunnyshine and wowwipops. It’s also a time of total dependence, fear and confusion – and, overridingly, a time of being told what to do. One way or another, a child spends most of their time being controlled.

As Nick points out, copywriting is not a one-on-one conversation between equals. A brand – a business – is ‘speaking’ to a mass audience of actual and potential customers. Rather than a conversation, copywriting is more like ‘a monologue conducted above a million solitudes’, as Albert Camus defined dictatorship. That’s why we can’t really ‘talk’ to a brand, any more than we can talk to a film or a book.

A brand speaks unilaterally, and it does so to achieve a clearly defined outcome. The tone of voice or the visual style may do a very good job of obscuring it, but that’s the underlying mechanic. Like the parent, the brand speaks in order to control.

Freedom from fear

Back in the day, both parents and brands were much more at ease with command and control. Adverts would come right out and tell people to ‘buy’, ‘use’ or ‘try’ a product in their copy, while parents would enforce their will by any means necessary, including physical violence. At least you knew where you stood.

But the 60s happened, and times changed. The customer, like the child, has moved centre-stage. They have rights. Feelings. Desires. And they must be met.

And yet the need to control has not gone away, because consumers, just like children, still don’t know what’s good for them – and it’s for parents and marketers to tell them. Just watch what happens at Apple now that Steve Jobs, the kind-but-stern father of personal electronics, is no longer around to create the ‘things we didn’t know we needed’.

After all, it’s OK to be forced to do something good. If someone in authority is telling you to do something fun, then you can be both happy and virtuous. You have what Don Draper calls ‘freedom from fear’; the sense that ‘you are OK’.

But what if you’re a parent who wants to be liberal, or a brand that wants to be human? How can you control people without getting all heavy on them?

Wackywriting is the answer. When direct instruction is culturally inderdicted or deprecated, you can still get the same result by smothering your command in playfulness, cosiness and niceness.

Nice to be nice

Niceness is the key value of wackywriting. The product is nice: it’s made from nice things, and it’s nice to use. You are nice for choosing it. The world, perhaps, is a nicer place as a result of your choice. And the people who made the product are also nice: their company was founded in nice circumstances and is run in a nice way.

Nothing wrong with being nice. But for everything that is written, there is something else that is implied rather than stated: the shadow of the text. With wackywriting, it’s the unspoken threat of exclusion from the world of nice.

If you don’t tidy your room, or eat this couscous, things will not be nice. You may no longer be considered nice, and I may stop being nice to you. If you buy Wotsits, you will not be as nice a person as if you’d bought Burt’s Chips. (Some brands, like Peperami, go the other way and emphasise their ‘nastiness’.)

Material world

All this is shown, not told. But it’s what gives wackywriting its persuasive edge. The price of niceness is a purchase. Only by buying those crushed-strawberry cords can I become like the achingly handsome guys who laugh on beaches in the Boden catalogue.

This is the crack in the mirror. Like all marketing copy, wackywriting is materialistic and transactional at heart. It paints a picture of a world where nasty things don’t happen – but joining that world costs. I can’t buy some tatty old green cords from the charity shop and expect to be as sexy as Boden man, no matter how enlightened my values. In every sense, I must buy in.

Wackywriting embodies the dilemma of the liberal middle classes: material privilege, and unease over that privilege, glossed over with affected bohemianism and faux-naïveté. Hopelessly compromised by power and possessions, we long to return to the garden, but can’t pass through the eye of the needle. We’re guilty, but we wish we were, yes, innocent.

Respect the experience

With many wackywriting brands, what we’re looking at is straightforward class appeal. Boden, Burt’s, Ella’s Kitchen – these brands are made by the middle classes, for the middle classes. Far from being a pitch for universal appeal, wackywriting actually homes in like a laser on a very precise subset of society.

If that subset doesn’t coincide with the target audience for a product, wackywriting risks being at best irrelevant to their experience, at worst damaging to it. Imagine a single mum on benefits receiving the Anglian Water bill described by Oliver Wingate here – as many hundreds undoubtedly did. Will the wacky humour lighten her load as she agonises over whether to pay the bill or buy her kids some school uniform?

The copy for Brooks running shoes quoted above is another case in point. As a middle-aged straight guy buying specialist kit, I want to feel that my chosen product is technically robust, professionally made and packed with practical features. For me, running is enjoyable but virtuous leisure rather than frivolous fun. Making the product talk to me like a Furby runs directly counter to my desired experience.

In my view, Campaign Monitor’s use of wackywriting in a legal context – where both writer and reader need crystal clarity – is self-indulgent, disrespectful and downright reckless. If you doubt it, click through and imagine a non-native speaker trying to get the gist of it.

Wrong foot

In the wrong place, wackywriting can be like freshly ground Maldon sea salt in a wound. But if it’s done well, it wrong-foots the competition, making them seem suddenly dour and proletarian. In the premium crisp market, the advent of brands like Burt’s and Kettle Chips made Walker’s, with their grinning upper-working-class spokesman Gary Lineker, look hopelessly gauche.

And this can be done independently from, or even in spite of, the physical nature of the product. If you habitually buy Burt’s, just try a bag of Walker’s. Tastes differ, but I’d suggest that neither is really better. They’re just different.

In fact, that’s what wackywriting is about: differentiation. At first, to use wackywriting was to be young, fresh, different – and that’s what follower brands are hoping for too. But the more brands go down this road, the less differentiation there is to be had. What was once eye-catching and refreshing becomes tiresome and wearing – not because wackywriting is used everywhere, but because it’s quite hard going when it is used.

Clichés have obvious drawbacks, but they can act as convenient shorthand for concepts that advertisers want to convey quickly and economically. Obliging the audience to decode too much original or unusual text risks wearing out their cognitive resources – particularly if they’re just looking for information, like how to use a product or what it contains.

Wacky races

In some markets, the rise of wackywriting might lead to a sort of wacky races scenario, where brands compete to out-wack each other – for a possible instance of this, have a look at Innocent upping the ante on imitators with this bizarre bungalow gag (which, I have to report, my daughter loves). Or, moving further afield, the recent TV spots for Chedds and Twirl Bites, which bring some serious wack and are clearly gunning for a WTF? reaction.

I think those ads are brilliant, but they illustrate how high the stakes are with wackywriting. It’s hard to stand out, and easy to fall flat. Even if follower brands get their wackywriting right on the money (which is hard), the best they can achieve is parity with other wacky brands. And if they fall short, they risk irritating or just baffling their audience.

On top of that, wackywriting is labour-intensive. Like Vic and Bob rehearsing Big Night Out, wacky brands must work hard to get their stuff looking loose, spontaneous and natural. Other brands can lapse into a standard-issue tone without striking the wrong note.

Return to innocence

As wackywriting becomes the norm, perhaps we’ll see forward-thinking marketers make a deliberate return to a more innocent age – by which I mean not pretending to be childlike, like in the 60s, but aspiring to be adult and authoritarian again, like in the 50s and before.

To rebrand. To irritate.

One possible move in this direction is British Airways’ recent campaign, which features a shiny silver crest and the slogan (motto?) ‘To fly. To serve.’

This creative got universally panned by the copywriters I follow when it was unveiled, with additional controversy generated by Nigel Bogle’s remark that it was ‘something that a copywriter wouldn’t have thought of, because it comes directly from the brand’s core values’. (Read more on that from Larner Caleb.)

I’m still not quite sure what Mr Bogle meant, or whether he was being complimentary. One interpretation of his words is that the line is a true representation of BA’s real personality, unmediated by what Nick Asbury calls ‘the basic philosophy we espouse as copywriters’, which holds that brands should talk more like people.

What comes next

I have no trouble believing that BA is, in reality, a pretty straight-edge company that’s proud of its heritage. But it’s still interesting that it’s chosen to emphasise those traits, rather than cover them up with funny talking animals or a choir of flight attendants singing a Beatles song. Interesting, and… admirable.

Actually, the execution of the BA campaign is a bit more flighty than the tagline might suggest. One press ad uses the headline ‘A new old promise’, alongside a picture of a boy wearing a captain’s cap (because ‘every pilot once dreamed of being a pilot’). It’s not wackywriting by any means, but it’s a let-down if you were hoping for square-jawed Soviet-style aerocaptains gazing resolutely to the horizon.

The self-referential ‘new old promise’ foregrounds the consciously retro nature of BA’s tagline – and its dangers. Doing a 1950s-style ad today risks coming across as ironic, arch and even a little bit camp. To be relevant today, the message has to be played absolutely straight.

Personally, I like the BA line. It’s brave in a way that wackywriting isn’t – being genuinely different, rather than different in the same way as everyone else. And although it might not be completely successful, I think it represents the first stirrings of what will eventually replace wackywriting: the New Formality.

Bring it on! Or rather, Forward Together…

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