On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: When I tell people I work at a media agency, their eyes glaze over. Do you think media agencies can rebrand themselves to make them appear more interesting?

A: The Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria was shut down following a fire on 10 October 1957 that destroyed the core and released an estimated 750 terabecquerels (20,000 curies) of radioactive material into the surrounding environment. Having detoxified the environment, they then set out to detoxify the site; and so it was rebranded. Fifty-four years later, it's still routinely referred to as "Sellafield, the nuclear plant formerly known as Windscale".

If you want to remind the world that media agencies were so ashamed of being media agencies that they started calling themselves Both Pretentious and Meaningless, you could do no better. Fifty-four years from now, you will be known as "Both Pretentious and Meaningless, formerly known as media agencies".

And all this at a time when media agencies have never been more inventive, more thoughtful, more creative; in other words, more interesting. If you can't get some of that across, then maybe you're not as clever as I thought you were.

Q: I'm mounting a campaign to stamp out the proliferation of jargon in adland, but I suspect it will be an impossible task. Why do we need to resort to stock phrases such as "low-hanging fruit" and "blue-sky thinking" all the time?

A: Oh dear. Questions like this bring out the worst in me. Even I find my instinctive response to them deeply tedious. Sorry about that. But I have to say it: you're confusing jargon and cliche. Jargon is often ugly but it serves a necessary purpose. If you're a neurosurgeon instructing a junior, you badly need a common language. It's no good saying: "There, that's it! No, left a bit. And a bit more. Yep - that's it. Now just give it a bit of a nick with this little knife." If you both know what the cerebral cortex is called and where it's located, that's good news for everyone, including the patient. All specialist trades, including advertising and marketing, need jargon: if only to avoid confusion.

The trouble begins when jargon gets used unnecessarily; either because of ignorance or through a deliberate intention to mystify and obscure. Management consultants are very good at it - and for both reasons. There has long been a useful site, www.dack.com/web/bullshit.html, that generates random marketing jargon at the click of a mouse. The last two I generated were "benchmarking mission-critical applications" and "aggregating cross-media deliverables" - but most marketing people are more than capable of spawning jargon themselves without outside help. Anything you can do to mock the perpetrators and get them to remember what they're trying to say will be greatly appreciated by one and all.

The cliche is an altogether different animal. "Low-hanging fruit" and "blue-sky thinking" are two good examples. They begin life, rather touchingly, as aids to understanding. Like analogies, metaphors and similes, they're designed to prompt the imagination; to make us "see" a truth more vividly than any explicit explanation could have done. It's only over time, and through overuse, that they begin to fulfil the precisely opposite function: they dull the imagination, rather than excite it. But in fairness to the cliche, some become indispensable. "Tip of the iceberg", we say unapologetically; and everybody knows what we mean. It's an extremely economical way of suggesting that, far from being the whole truth, the single incident that is the subject of our discussion is likely to represent no more than a fraction of it, the rest remaining invisible. It would be very boring indeed if we had to say all that every time somebody mentioned phone-hacking.

Q: The person sitting opposite me at my new place of work is diligent but sniffs up the mucus in his nose about once every couple of minutes, making an unpleasant noise, which is really putting me off. The second day I was there, I commiserated with him about his cold in a friendly way, but he merely replied that he'd always had sinus problems and snorted for emphasis. Can you suggest another tack?

A: The only reason I'm even printing this repulsive letter is to deter others from troubling me with such trivia. In researching my answer on jargon, above, I came across a fine example of management speak that I'm delighted to apply to your question: "I've taken your idea on board, given it a stiff drink and then acquainted it with the lifeboat drill."

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.

Topics