Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Great American Tagline Is Dead.

(One of my favorite taglines of all time)

Nike ditched Just Do It last year. Apparently, they thought it too harsh for today’s soft generation, replacing it, temporarily, with the gooier Find Your Greatness. If sitting on your couch with your hand down your Nike sweatpants cupping your balls which watching “Archer” is “your greatness,” well then, just fucking do it.

This is what Nike’s “vice president of digital sport,” Stefan Olander, said about tossing aside the three words that built his company and are still directly paying his bloated salary:

People now demand us not to say, ‘Just do it.’ They say, ‘Help me just do it.’”

Nike. We’ll Help You Just Do It.

Dan Wieden, founding creative partner of Nike’s ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, wrote Just Do It in 1988. Wieden wrote hundreds of taglines before he happened upon the famous last words of executed murderer Gary Gilmore: “Let’s do it.” It was, literally, a killer tagline.

Apple used to be the Think Different company. Now they’re the “tagline-less” company. And boy does it show, with their scattershot, rudderless marketing “plan” full of “cinematic” disconnected masturbatory spots.

Many young industry “experts” think the death of the tagline is a good thing, that it’s better for “flexible branding” (one of the latest meaningless marketing buzz phrases). That’s just poppycock. A great tagline can still instantly separate a brand from the competition, and grow the company stronger than any fake prankvertising video or #hashtag.

But coming up with a good campaign tied off perfectly by a great tagline takes a lot of hard work, talent, and time—three things today’s ad agencies have a shortage of. Plus, marketers are less concerned about brand image, and too concerned about brand “mentions,” to the detriment of their long-term growth.


In honor of the dying art of ad and tagline copywriting, let’s have a grand memorial service for some of the greatest straplines in advertising history.

Perdue: It Takes A Tough Man To Make A Tender Chicken.

Frank Perdue was a small town chicken farmer from Maryland. His widow, Mitzi, told the fascinating story of the hatching of the tagline to AdAge in 2011.

Perdue came to New York City and interviewed 66 agencies, creating a finalist list of six. Then, he started calling all the clients of these agencies, much to the agencies’ consternation. He told one irritated agency president why: “Because I can't tell by looking in your eyes whether you are a priest or a crook."

He ended up picking Scali McCabe Sloves. Advertising Hall of Fame copywriter Ed McCabe told Perdue, upon winning the business: "You know, Frank, I'm not even sure I want your account any more because you're such a pain in the ass."

The seed for the tagline was planted right that moment.

Nobody had ever advertised brand name chicken before 1971. In addition to writing the line, McCabe also convinced Perdue to appear in his own TV spots, one of the first CEOs to do so (Here’s 10 of the spots). I think it helped that Perdue kind of looked like a chicken. Did the tagline work? With an ad budget of $200,000, Perdue’s sales doubled within a year.

California Milk Processing Board: Got Milk?

Got Milk? reemphasized that grammar is mostly unimportant in ad copywriting. The short, sweet tagline, which debuted in 1993, was just replaced a couple of months ago with the stupid pun Milk Life. Got Milk? by itself wasn’t remarkably clever, but the ads that set it up were consistently brilliant, never more so than the very first campaign spot, “Aaron Burr” (above)—easily the best thing Michael Bay has ever directed.

Another hilarious, industry-famous spot, “Wheelbarrow,” so enraged then California Governor Gray Davis that he asked for it to be removed from the air. In it, kids refuse to drink their milk—until they see their old man neighbor’s arms fall off.

The campaign was created by San Francisco agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners. The tagline also spawned hundreds of “milk mustache” print ads. And just like Just Do It, it became part of American culture and was parodied endlessly.

Federal Express: When It Absolutely Positively Has To Be There Overnight.

The tagline lived from 1978-83, but it was the above 1981 spot, maybe the funniest commercial ever produced, that indelibly sold the slogan and made FedEx a major shipping player. New York City ad agency Ally Gargano came up with the idea to use John “Motormouth” Moschitta, Jr. The ad was directed by the great Joe Sedelmeier, who also shot the Wendy’s “Where’s The Beef?” commercial.

FedEx’s current tagline is the utterly forgettable The World On Time.

Avis: We’re #2, We Try Harder.

In 1962, Avis was in fact not actually number two in the car rental industry. They were number four or five. They were failing, terribly. Enter Doyle Dane & Bernbach and their legendary We Try Harder ads.

The ugly, type-heavy layouts that delivered uncomfortable truths tested miserably. No cars in the layouts—they must have been insane! Within a year, Avis had in fact climbed to number two, and was gaining fast on Hertz.  DDB took the company’s main weakness and turned it into the number one selling point, driven home again and again by that inspiring tagline: WE TRY HARDER.

Great advertising with a great tagline almost always has worked. And it still would work, despite what dodgy-metrics-chasing digital no-nothing dickheads would have you believe.

Sure, they are some fair taglines around today. Jet Blue’s You Above All is nice, and it’s reinforced by industry customer service surveys. But the airline doesn’t do enough with it, creatively, to make it great.

BMW still uses the classic The Ultimate Driving Machine, But only sporadically, and their ads have no Big Idea central concept. Kit Kat’s Have A Break is solid and successful.

But the era of the Great American Tagline is most certainly dead. Today’s clueless, flailing marketing executives have no patience to carefully build their brands. And the new digital ad shops have a Svengali-hold on the marketers with their fast-response, creatively substandard, here today gone later today, social media shit-content.

copyranter: The Best Fucking Ad Critic In The World™


Blogger Terrance Moran said...

20 years ago I picked up George Lois' book "what's the big idea" and loved his tag lines for Braniff and Helmsley Hotel and so I appreciate your article on the death of the tag line. I always loved. Great ad but now I see ads relying on jumping around teens (T-Mobile), or this geek Gordon and hamster for one forgettable cell carrier. It seems that all that's being advertised on the major networks are ads for drugs that solve some issues I didn't realize one can have (restless leg syndrome or dry eyes?) - yet come with worse side affects, boner meds for ugly wives (still have to soak your genitals in a tub afterwards) or cars (let me jam a stick in my eye)
Thanks for continuing to comment on the world of advertising. I bookmarked you many years ago and now and then swing by and read your latest diatribes.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Lena said...

Are you sure that Nike changed their tagline? I just googled it and couldn't find anything except for one article which said they changed it to "Here I am" for women's shoes.
Even on their facebook-profile it still says "Just do it".

9:45 AM  
Blogger copyranter said...

They've dropped it from American advertising. Read the post: note the quote from the Nike VP. They're now a mish-mosh of taglines worldwide.

9:27 AM  

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