Saturday, August 22, 2015

Everyday slap the copywriter

In an embarrassing piece of news, MAS gets the name of first president Mr Yusof Ishak wrong on the folder and booklet of a $50 commemorative banknote. It even attracted the attention of BBC News.
Photo: Channel News Asia
Some people have wondered how the copywriter could have missed this. I have a couple of theories:

1) MAS didn't engage a copywriter. They might have engaged a design agency or printing agency to design and produce the folders and booklets, and included copywriting in the contract. The agency then got someone in-house, who's likely not a professional copywriter, to write the text. This is a common practice done to save costs. But how the error could also have been missed by MAS, who presumably would have to proof-read the text and give the final go-ahead, boggles the mind.

2) The more horrifying possibility is that both the copywriter and the person in charge of this project DIDN'T KNOW the name of our first president. One website did some sleuthing and actually found a list of instances where "Yusok Ishak" was erroneously published in mainstream media and government publications, including *horror of horrors* MOE and MINDEF! So did the MAS incident happen because someone conveniently cut-and-paste the info from another source and didn't know it was wrong? I really hope not because that would be too sad for words.

Anyway, in my line of work, I come across loads of writing errors all the time. While some of them are simply grammatical or typographical errors, my writers and I constantly lament that there's a lot more blatant usage of words without thought these days. Remember earlier this year when SingTel came under fire for using the tagline "Let's make everyday better"? The error: "everyday" as one word refers to the routine things we do each day but if that's the meaning SingTel had intended, the tagline should have read "Let's make the everyday better".

But fine - I can accept that not everyone is able to distinguish between "every day" and "everyday" (although an ad agency most certainly should). However, when I visited a SingTel shop a couple of weeks ago, I saw this emblazoned on the wall:

What a massive line of gobbledegook. Apart from the very strange sentence structure, what are they promoting? The fertility rate? Toothpaste? It's like someone ran a random slogan through Google Translate. Incidentally, the sentence below is wrong as well. It should be "family's" (singular) not "families'" (plural). Otherwise, I should be able to bundle my family's mobile plan with 10 other families and maybe get 100% discount.

One of my writers retorted, "Everyday better slap the copywriter." When I shared the photo on Facebook, a friend posted this pic:

Oh look - the same copywriter! Groan.

Actually, I don't know if it's just the copywriter who's inept (it baffles me how many people think just because they can string a grammatical sentence together, they are qualified to offer copywriting services) or the client who insisted on going with something unintelligible. But there are just too many ads that dress up gibberish with mood photography or fancy videography. I still remember a Capitaland tv commercial a few years ago that made me cringe. One of its lines was: "A good building is like a good person - you can't have one without the other." Whaaaaaat? Newsflash: Just because you use a manly, authoritative voice-over doesn't mean what he says makes any sense.

In the past, few organisations outsourced writing - most of the writing was done in-house by their own PR departments. However, from what clients and friends tell me, the art of writing has today become an elusive skill that eludes even communications staff. Hence, most writing is now outsourced. Yet we are still surrounded by bad English (I previously wrote about bad English being used in official channels in this post). Haiz.

In the quest to be original and capture attention, organisations and copywriters sometimes embark on English gymnastics. The trouble is if you're not an expert at it, you might end up in a tangled heap. Often, simplicity is best. No need to try so hard to be clever. Just be correct.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's the client's fault. I had once a client who insisted on using a Chinese character even when we told him it was wrong. When we brought the Chinese dictionary down to his office to show him that he was wrong, he retorted "Your dictionary is wrong. I am correct!" Sigh...

Ad man

monlim said...

Ad man: Agree, that's why I said it could be the client who insisted on the bad English. For us copywriters, few things fill us with dread more than seeing our perfectly grammatical writing changed to something ungrammatical by the client.

misharebel said...

I once edited brochures and ads for a leading Japanese camera brand. Their Singaporean Marketing Director insisted her English is very good and kept correcting my edits (I am an English teacher and also a Marketing Professional for 20 years). It is very frustrating when she insisted on having phrases that were literal translation from the Japanese text. I would love to meet the CEO and inform him to be aware that his staff is putting the brand at risk.

Unknown said...

This looks like a problem at the client level. They have to give the final approval. You can outsource copywriting, but they need to ensure quality. Not saying the blame should not be given to the agency involved, but there is a reason why MAS has a marketing department--they own the brand and should be the last defense. And, we are talking about MAS and a nation-wide initiative. That means, it would have also gone past the exec team and the legal department eyes. Let's say the same team will not be involved in any re-designing of the dollar ;)

monlim said...

Winston: For the MAS case, definitely it's MAS' fault. Even if the copywriter had gotten it wrong, they should have checked. This was not a case of bad English but wrong facts.

For the SingTel and Navy cases, it's less clear who made the call for the awkward phrasing.

Unknown said...

Agree with you monlim. Awkward grammar can work. But it needs to be a conscious decision ("Impossible is nothing). But in the Navy's case, I will say it is wrong grammar. "Everyday" is wrong; it simply means "commonplace". It should be "every day". Then it reads better.

monlim said...

Winston: "Our every day is defending yours"? Still salah lah. "Impossible is nothing" is clearly a play on the cliche "Nothing is impossible", that's why it works.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I did not say that it works. Only pointed out that their use of "everyday" was wrong in the first place, and it should be "every day". I can see what they are trying to achieve, but execution missed the mark. "Impossible is nothing" took a while before it became mainstream, so there is also a learning curve for target audience segments when coming up with awkward phrases.

monlim said...

I think they meant "everyday" as in their everyday routine, not that they do it every day. In that sense, "everyday" was wrongly as a noun whereas it's actually an adjective so there needed to be a noun like "everyday job" or "everyday responsibility".

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