What are you going to be doing over those fast-approaching summer holidays (if you’ve not already boarded the ‘plane?)
Ask a copywriter, and you’ll probably get some fairly off-the-wall responses, because the fact of the matter is we’re always looking at how businesses, products and marketers use words – even when we’re off-duty!
So, this summer holiday, apart from quaffing chilled rosé and cold Kronenbourg and exploring the limitless universe that is French cuisine, I shall mostly be doing the following…
Studying old advertising copy
As a copywriter with a keen interest in the past, I’m a sucker for the work of the great advertising historian Robert Opie and his Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising.
So, I’ll probably be taking a couple of his books along with me and marvelling at the pithy but often shocking advertising copy and slogans of the day (“For your throat’s sake, smoke Craven A!” – how did that one get past the lawyers?)
And as I’ll be in France, I’ll be spending a fair amount of time rooting around in the pre-owned paradise of antiquaires, brocantes and vide-greniers, where you often come across iconic vintage advertising signs in nicely distressed condition, bearing all manner of verbal exhortations (“Save! Resole your own shoes!”)
Comparing UK and French brand language
Advertising slogans are a massive pitfall for international marketers. Inevitably, what works well in one language, both as words and as overall sentiment, often doesn’t really work in another. The efforts to find a compromise tend to generate results that could best be described as ‘meh’.
McDonalds’ ‘I’m loving it’ became, in French, ‘C’est tout ce que j’aime’ – ‘It’s everything I love.’ Meh.
Coca-Cola’s ‘Coca-Cola is it!’ became ‘Coca-Cola, c’est ça!’ – ‘Coca-Cola, that’s it!’ Meh, meh.
Loréal’s ‘Because I’m worth it’, already much-mocked in English, became ‘Parce que je le vaux bien’ – ‘Because I’m well worth it.” Meh-thinks Madame doth protest too much.
Still, having the advertising slogan wholly in French is at least better than the current trend for clumsily fusing French and English together. The anglicised word order of Citroën’s current ‘Créative Technologie’ slogan, for example, no doubt intended to be chic and Anglo, just sounds like how many French people really speak our language!
Spotting advertising English that the French don’t realise is, erm, English
This is one of my favourite copywriterly holiday pastimes – identifying brands with English names that the French have been using for years but don’t realise are English words.
‘Wool’ is a classic. It existed as a brand in France for many years, selling wool and yarn, and bore the stylised logo that Brits of my age would recognise as the international Woolmark. But ask a French person what ‘wool’ actually means, and in what language, and they typically have no idea.
Dove soap is another example. Called the same name in France as it is here in the UK, it even has a cute little silhouette of three flying doves on the packaging. Yet few French people make the connection between the brand name and the creature it designates.
(Still, we shouldn’t gloat – it’s exactly the same over here. How many Brits could tell you that the nappy brand Peaudouce translates literally in French as ‘soft skin’? Or, indeed, that Spar means ‘save’ in German?)
Of course, sometimes marketers would – retrospectively – kill for their brand names to be unintelligible to foreigners. I pity the American who named the Chevrolet Nova (“no va” in Spanish means “doesn’t go”), the Brit who came up with the idea of the Rolls Royce Silver Mist (“Mist” means “dung” in German) and the Japanese who christened the sporty Toyota the MR2 (pronounced in French as “merdeux” – or “shitty”!)
Brushing up on my video scripting skills
Brevity is the essence of an effective video script, and France is the place to experience it at its best.
Why? Because French television has a tradition of quick, funny sketches that run in between the programming and advertising throughout the day, usually telling an unfolding story. Each sketch is typically only a few seconds long, so the interplay between snappy script and on-screen action has to be word- (and picture-) perfect, to get the all-important laugh before the credits drop.
Long-running sketch series like Un gars une fille (‘Lad and girl’) and Parents mode d’emploi (‘Parents: instructions for use’) have distilled this into a fine art, giving me plenty of techniques to draw on next time a client asks me for something punchy and compelling that only lasts a minute!
In short, on holiday this year, this copywriter will be drinking in the wine, the sun – and the words.
(Truly, I have it tough.)