Search for a slogan. Oxfam is asking the public to write four memorable lines to be displayed on digital billboards around London. But how hard can it be to bash out a catchy, punchy, effective slogan?
Ravi Somaiya: The Guardian, Monday September 29 2008
How difficult is it to write an advertising slogan? Oxfam will be hoping not that difficult, given that the charity is about to launch a campaign allowing the public to put their own words on huge 6 metre by 3 metre digital billboards around London. Miscalculations will be difficult to hide.
The idea is simple. Would-be slogan writers go to Oxfam’s site, type four lines of catchy copy to prompt people to give, and wait. The best 14 will be selected and displayed digitally – at eight high-profile sites including Tottenham Court Road and Waterloo Bridge – for a day each. The charity is confident that it will get some great, inspiring copy. “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t feel comfortable that we’d get some great stuff,” says brand manager Nick Futcher, who also mentions that the charity has filters in place to prevent rude words getting through.
But writing a catchy slogan requires careful thought, years of experience, and a sense of the audience, and anyway needs to be fine-tuned as part of a campaign. (Or at least, that’s what the copywriters would have us believe). It’s not possible for someone to bash out a perfect slogan over lunch. Is it?
Robin Wight co-founded the agency WCRS in 1979. Since then he’s helped create some marvellously catchy slogans – “the future’s bright” for Orange, “got your number” for 118, and BMW’s “the ultimate driving machine”. “Of course it’s hard,” he says of writing the perfect slogan, “otherwise everybody would do it.”
So what tips does Wight have for copy-writing wannabes? “You can take an existing phrase – ‘got your number’ was a phrase people maybe didn’t use so much, but we applied it to the brand – and rhymes tend to get hooked in the mind even though it’s quite a basic trick. It’s an art in terms of its creation, but a science in telling whether you’ve achieved it. It has to be something that works inside the memory.”
“There’s a better term for it – memes,” Wight says, referring to Richard Dawkins’s theory that ideas can be like genes, and breed and survive as such. “Memetics is essentially the science of creating things that lodge into the brain and then spread from brain to brain, and it’s definitely what you’re doing.”
Does Wight think the public will come up with a great slogans for the experiment? “You don’t want to use all four lines,” he says, considering the challenge, “you have to be able to read a poster quickly because you’re doing other stuff walking down the street. But if anyone does, then people like myself will be impressed.”
Oxfam’s usual advertising agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe (RKCR), isn’t worried that it will be usurped by contest winners, or that its other clients such as Virgin, M&S and the BBC will dispense with its services in favour of similar methods. “Doing OK advertising slogans is relatively easy,” says its CEO Richard Exon, “but doing great ones is hard. That’s what everyone learns when they get into the industry, and that’s what will strike people doing this. I think there will always be a need for agencies to supply the strategy and the creative direction, even when we’re talking about user-generated content.”
“People will always look at things and say, ‘I could have done that’,” says Mark Borkowski, founder of Borkowski PR. “But as Damien Hirst said, ‘they haven’t got millions in the bank’. A slogan has got to engage people and at the same time make sure they take a strategic idea on board. Everyone is cynical and thinks they could do better, but the ad is only the tip of the iceberg – you don’t get involved with the creative process behind it, and you don’t have to persuade a client they’ve got to get behind what you’ve written.”
Indeed, RKCR is still working with Oxfam on the wider campaign, and is still responsible for the main slogan that will appear at the bottom of the posters – “humankind”. But Exon thinks getting the public involved in creating has as much value as the slogan itself – and that digital media brings new opportunities to engage audiences. Wight agrees. “A digital billboard used like this is just a poster and a slogan that’s alive, rather than a static poster which now looks a bit dead,” he says.
Indeed, while this campaign is the first time the giant displays have been linked to the internet and used for “crowdsourcing”, it is unlikely to be the last. Google filed a patent in 2006 for a version of its AdWords product that would run on a network of screens, perhaps allowing advertisers – or even users – to specify and change their slogans at the click of a mouse.
But despite all the talk of user generation, Borkowski believes that the Oxfam campaign may even come full circle back to advertising agencies. “It may be an opportunity for youthful, creative thinkers to come up with an idea that has life and get a career in advertising,” he says. “It’s a bit Britain’s Got Talent.”
But would-be advertising copywriters should beware if they’re trying to get a job – you’ll be competing with Robin Wight, who promises to submit an idea himself