Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

As I'm on holiday this week, James Walter Thompson has kindly agreed to stand in for me as guest columnist. His answers were written 100 years ago, in 1906.

Dear James Walter Thompson: As a marketing director, I know that my product is at a functional disadvantage to one of my competitors, but my board won't fund an improved formulation. However, an ad agency I visited yesterday assured me they could create such a compelling promise for my product that any slight inadequacy in performance would go unnoticed. Is this possible?

It is true that amazing things are sometimes done for a while with a poor thing by advertising it energetically. Sales grow and grow and the fame of the advertised article spreads and spreads until it really seems to the trade as if it had wrested the market from its better but less vociferous rivals. But suddenly there comes a change. The boom reaches a climax. The goods have been found out. And not even the strongest advertising virus can save from collapse the poor thing that has been found out. The basis of permanent profits is first-class and honest goods. But there must also be first-class and honest advertising. The advertiser must be reasonable, not extravagant, in his claims of merit. When he has the goods that make good and the advertising that makes good, his business will make good to his pocket.

Dear James Walter Thompson: I have just been promoted to creative director. The CDs I most admire seem to have adopted a particular style of advertising and made it their own. What style should I adopt?

What may be first-class for advertising one thing may be worthless for another. The kind of advertising that will sell 10-cent novelties by the hundred gross is not likely to run an automobile factory over-time. We cannot talk to womankind about an article of dress in the blunt, positive way we might use when describing something that mere man needs. One cannot duplicate advertising success by copying advertising style. In the preparation of copy the fundamental question is, after all, the character of demand we expect. "Hifalutin" language is out of place in an appeal to city and country to buy your soap. So is careless or trivial talk about your high-grade horseless carriage.

Dear James Walter Thompson: I am an FMCG client, with a great belief in the commercial value of advertising. My agency, however, believes that the test of good advertising is its ability to win awards. How do you recommend that advertising be judged?

Advertising copy is good when it achieves the effect intended, when it brings in trade. There is no other standard of value outside the ranks of the theorists. We may gather up a beautiful collection of words, arrange them in charming style with a handsome picture to top off, and print this final product in the best medium in the world. If the advertisement does not help to make more sales, we had better throw it away. It has been an interesting experiment - and nothing more. And conversely, your copy may violate the cherished teachings of the schools in respect to elegance and balance. But if by reason of its rugged strength and downright common sense it brings returns, there is nothing more to be said. You have good copy. All the Miss Nancys of the advertising world are speechless before actual paying results.

Dear James Walter Thompson: I have just been appointed advertising co-ordinator, US/EMEA. My board, in Michigan, has tasked me with translating the current US press campaign so that it's equally relevant in Eastern Europe and most of Africa. Any tips?

American advertising abounds in play upon words, alliterative phrases, colloquialisms, turns of expression peculiar to the English vernacular, etc. All these values must be lost in ordinary translation into a foreign tongue. An attempt to reproduce the sense of the advertisement in a plain translation will leave it "flat, stale and unprofitable"; like the Champagne with all its sparkle and effervescence gone. It is obvious, therefore, that a translator must be more than a man who equitably changes the word-currency of one language into the word-currency of another. He must be able to reproduce the pith and the point of the original advertisement, to accommodate its argument to the character of the people addressed; to take to pieces the word structure of the American and re-erect it in a form suited to the people of different tastes and different temperaments.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haynet.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.