Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Poetry of Marketing

Per my invitation in the previous entry, Jen asked for an entry on poetry. So... here we go.

We (Jen and I) had a conversation a few weeks ago in which I admitted that I like what I do, and she asked me why.

Because I do like what I do. I really enjoy marketing, specifically being involved in marketing management, the creation of marketing campaigns, materials, branding strategy, tactics, etc. Whether it's sitting in meetings yakking about "the big picture," designing brochures, writing Web copy, working on the details of advertising schedules... whatever. Frankly, I have a ton of fun with it. It is often mentally stimulating, it involves both sides of my brain, I get to work with creative and analytical people and subjects, I paint pretty pictures... all kinds of good stuff. And they pay me to do it. Go figure.

I know it is supremely uncool and non-Protestant-work-ethic-hip to like what you do. I've sensed, my whole life, that there's some kind of Unwritten Law that says, "The more you suffer at work, the better a person you are." There's a wonderful Monty Python sketch where a bunch of rich buggers sit around talking about how rough they had it as kids. Full text here. It starts with one saying, "We were glad for the price of a cup of tea," and then the others "one-downing" each other ("without milk," "or sugar," "or tea!") until you end at this:

"I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of dry poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down at the mill, and when we got home, our dad would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah!"

We all complain about how hard we work, how hard the work is, how many hours we work, how much work we bring home, how awful our bosses are, how lousy the... yadda yadda yadda. Conan O'Brien once interviewed some super-model du jour and she said that modeling was really hard work. He begged to differ, saying, "Lady, there are people in this country whose job it is to turn a big crank for 12-hours a day. That's hard work." I remember Conan's wise words whenever I start to complain about my job.

All that as background for the radical statement that I enjoy what I do. Not every minute of every day. I get headaches, and there are projects that drop into my lap that aren't much fun. And there are particular aspects of modern corporate business administration that aren't fun for anyone. But, as my Dad once said, "If you had fun all the time, they'd call it 'Camp' and make you pay to go."

And one of the main reasons I have a good time with marketing, I have come to realize, is that it shares much in common with something I do for pure enjoyment -- poetry. I will make no claims to being any good as a poet, but I will simply say that I enjoy writing, reading, analyzing and discussing poetry to the point where I would pay to go to "Poetry Camp" [Which, actually, is what you might have called my four-year stint at Cornell, BTW].

Let me be a bit more clear -- I mean that the entirety of the experiences of working in marketing are, to me, similar in many ways to the experiences of poetry. I'm not talking about specific actions involved in both, although those synchonicities are neat, too. Marketing (at least the part with which I'm involved) requires writing skills, as does poetry. It involves reading, talking, gesturing with pens and coffee cups, the use of hyperbole and synthesizing different view-points. These are, of course, skills and activities that are also related to enjoying and pursuing poetry as an avocation.

But I'm not talking about the particulars of marketing and poetry. I'm talking about the gestalt of each discipline.

At this point, my poetry friends and my marketing friends are snickering. At me. Mostly over my use of the term "gestalt," which is bothersome to both camps, I'm sure.

Marketing is about making money, communicating corporate ideas, selling stuff. Right? And poetry is about communicating feelings, thoughts, abstract weird-o principles and vague, creepy ideas that you can't quite make sense out of using "real" language. Right?

OK. Sure. And so the only thing in common is "communicating." And if marketing and poetry share a "gestalt," then so do sign-making and journalism and movie-making and every other anything that involves communication and so I should give up this analogy and go home.


Poetry is about finding balance. Balance between word choices, rhythm, rhyme, metaphor and direct language. When to be obvious, when to be intentionally vague. When to repeat, when to hold back. How to use the sound of words in conjunction with their meaning. Why the voice of the poem may be different than the voice of the poet. How to lead your readers to the conclusion you want, either directly, or via a set of nested, carefully clustered images.

The decisions a writer makes when creating a poem draw on various sets of ideas. There are layers and layers and layers that can be built up, over time and over many drafts. Ezra Pound wrote the following:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;     
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Which seems like a really short, insignificant little piece. It began as a 30-line poem. You can read more from Pound and other critics of the poem here. But, suffice it to say, that writers and readers for the last 90ish years have been amazed and humbled by the grace and power of this tiny little poem and the layers of meaning it contains.

Marketing has the same potential. Note to my poetry friends -- back off. I didn't say marketing is "better" or "as good" or "as worthy of devoting a lifetime of study and pain and angst to." I said, "the same potential." A great marketing campaign can tap into as many layers -- different than those used in poetry, of course -- and affect the world as deeply as any art. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Sometimes just to sell crap.

The picture, above, is from the 1925 ad for Listerine, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." Yep... that phrase was invented by Listerine. "Edna," the gal in the ad, was approaching her "tragic" 30th birthday, and although she was as pretty as her friends, she had somehow failed to secure a husband ("Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry."). Why? Hallitosis. A "disease" invented by Listerine. Nobody really cared about bad breath before Listerine. But after this ad campaign, and ones like it, sales went from around $100,000 in 1922 to more than $4 million in 1927.

Now... when I teach the history of advertising, I file this example very squarely in the category of "evil" or at least "troubling" marketing. It perpetuates bad stereotypes, plays off of unhealthy body-image issues, uses psychological tropes in heavy-handed, manipulative ways and promotes a product that, while not harmful (and maybe better than doing nothing at all), isn't really as big a deal as declared. People had been, after all, getting married and procreating without the aid of mouthwash for a couple million years.

But still... for an ad campaign to grow sales by a factor of 40 in about five years? That's insanely brilliant. It is, in fact...

pure poetry.

Often, when examing the data and requirements for an upcoming marketing program, I get the same frisson I do when sitting down to write a poem. The sense of...


The allure of the blank page. The teasing, flirting, come-hither glance from a dance partner who won't quite come close enough to touch you... yet. The moment when the ball is put into motion, but before either team has control.

The poet wants to make ideas known, to create beauty, to have an effect on readers. To pull something out of him/herself. That's what marketers want, too. It's just that there's a dollar-sign at the end of the rainbow instead of an "ah-ha" or moment of fleeting melancholy or joy.

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