The first tangible fallout from Honda’s decision to wrest its business from forever agency Rubin Postaer to Mullen is a new theme line:
Start something special.
I mean, really? Anyone who has ever worked on a project of this nature recognizes this line for what it is: the stuff you write first, then throw out in disgust. It’s low-level copywriter cleverness that says nothing and means nothing. Also, it uses 2 of the worst words in English: “something” and “special.”
Coming as it does on the heels of Toyota’s lame “Let’s go places,” it got me thinking about the role of tag lines (or “strap lines,” as the Brits sexily refer to them) in modern advertising. When I first started as a copywriter during the late Jurassic period, The Line was everything: a magic incantation that unlocked a client’s budget and launched a thousand ads.
Tide’s in. Dirt’s out.
Avis. We try harder.
Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.
You’re in good hands with Allstate.
Lines were what made brands—and creatives– famous. Lines were what people played back when asked what they remembered about ads they’d seen.
As recently as the late 90s, lines still seemed to matter:
Just do it.
But now, in 2013, big theme lines seem oddly quaint if not downright irrelevant. Quick, when you think about the E-Trade campaign, do you remember the line? No—you remember the smartass baby. What’s Amazon’s line? Or Starbucks? Or Twitter’s? Or Chipotle’s?
Traditionalists—and by that I mean the people writing the Op-Ed pieces in Ad Age—would argue that the decline in the importance in endlines is really a function of the decline in quality of endlines. That a line as good as “We try harder.” would be just as powerful now as it was then, but today’s marketers aren’t demanding them and today’s copywriters aren’t coming up with the goods.
While I do believe many younger copywriters are functionally illiteratepostliterate, I’m not so sure that’s the root of the problem. I think other forces are in play. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is the rise of the image, both moving and still. Easier and cheaper to produce than they used to be, easy to copy and share, better suited than words for smaller screens, capable of bypassing rational filters and burrowing into our primitive lizard brains, images are the primary currency of modern advertising.
And because pictures matter more than words, ad schools train creatives to focus on picture-driven work. Flip through any issue of Archive and you’ll see page after page of striking images, with a logo and 3 words tucked into the lower right corner.
The more culturally attuned brands understand this and in fact, owners of two of the more famous modern-era theme lines, Apple and Nike, have dispensed with them.
But in other companies, the desire for lines live on, even as they shuffle through one forgettable motto after another. For certain types of organizations, the need is as much logistical as it is conceptual. The same line stamped on everything from golf shirts to TV anthems gives an illusion of cohesion and purpose. It provides a sense of order, and buys a CMO a little breathing room. I’ve worked on a lot of those, and since the ultimate goal is not meaning but consistency, it’s not a huge amount of fun.
Another type of company that still care about end lines is the one that is in the process of becoming. Like a teenager growing into adulthood, it tries and discards different identities until it figures out who its true self is, and then wants the world to see. I’m working for one of those companies right now—and it’s incredibly fun.