Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Notes From the Grassy Knoll

Take a look some time at the craigslist ads under "Marketing." If there are any jobs at all, the ones for creative positions now combine disciplines that once were mutually exclusive. They call for a copywriter who can design, or a designer who can write copy -- which, as anyone who has really worked in a creative environment knows, are opposing skill sets. While I've known one or two designers who can write copy I've encountered even fewer copywriters who can design -- they're simply different capabilities within the same realm, like a cake decorator and a butcher who work in the same kitchen. Sometimes the ads bundle in additional demands -- I've seen ads with copywriting requirements stipulating that applicants must be able to hoist 45 pounds. Perhaps that's so they can shoulder their bruised egos and broken dreams.

And because of the state of the economy -- advertising is the first to be hit when things go south, and the last to recover -- today's ads for copywriters tend to skew toward lower levels of qualification. Sure, there are lots of places where a junior copywriter is all that's needed, and giving up-and-coming creatives a chance to prove themselves is how the field has always replenished its ranks. But there's a lot to be said about applying the right level of talent to a task. I'll even give you an example.

For months I heard a radio commercial that seemed to get constant airplay, and yet I could never get past the first obstacle in the script to pay attention to the product pitch. I think it was about banking services, and as the narrator warbled something about better ways you could spend your time than worrying about your money, he mentioned "tumbling down grassy knolls." This is a great example of the importance of cultural and historical perspective. For anyone over the age of 45, the words "grassy" and "knoll" when joined reference only one thing: the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963. The Warren Commission's report included endless mentions of spectators on the grassy knoll at Dealy Plaza in Dallas, the passing of the presidential convoy by the grassy knoll, the possibility of a second shooter behind the grassy knoll. There was even a Seinfeld episode that parodied this examination of trajectories and suspects. "Grassy knoll" is a culturally embedded phrase that's imprinted itself on the public consciousness, like "the second plane" and "the two towers." My guess is that some copywriter had a vague sense that those two words went together somehow, and the creative director, the account people, and the client all lacked that same ability to identify a cultural signifier of epic proportions. Talk about a tragically undeveloped sense of shared history.

It may sound like a small mistake, but it's emblematic of a field thrown out of whack by economic circumstances and the overwhelming influence of the online marketing channel, without the perspective to assess its creative output and no longer able to even match the right skills with the right job. It's definitely become incapable of projecting how its contribution fits into the culture on a grander scale, one that goes beyond the marketing objective. My feeling is that when everyone is so focused on whether a headline fits within the tiny frame of the computer screen, the message is likely to be obscured or impeded because nascent talents are no longer nurtured or mentored. That ripple effect erodes not only the creative product, but the effectiveness and accountability and impact of all the advertising channels for years to come -- along with the quality and satisfaction of working in a once-great industry.

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