My Bologna Has a First Name: The Poetics of Advertising

For the past decade, my brother has worked as an ad copywriter (among other ad-related work). He writes ad text, television and radio commercials (fun fact: I was voice talent in one of his radio ads; he regularly appears in his TV commercials), even the text that goes on packaging. By all accounts he and I are both steeped in careers that require us to be on good terms with both the written and spoken word.

We were talking about writing one day, and he described an interaction he had with a client. To paraphrase, he said the client wanted to change a few of the words he had written in the ad without giving the changes much consideration—they wanted to toss in some "buzz words." My brother explained, "When this is read it's supposed to sound like a train running down its tracks—a-click a-clack, a-click a-clack—and when you change these words you totally derail that train." Although it didn't literally sound like a train, I knew absolutely what my brother meant: and although he is not a poet and I'm not a copywriter, it occurred to me that we are both familiar with the way people encounter language.

I've resisted the urge to work in advertising. All the men in my family somehow make their living from advertising and I wanted something different. Unfortunately, I grew up in a household where advertising wasn't just consumed or avoided, it was sort of cherished. I remember as a kid on a family vacation, we all sat at the dining room table playing a game called "Adverteasing," which required players to name products from taglines or to complete ad jingles. How crazy is that? A game that essentially rewards consumerism. Now it makes me shudder, but it was something that everyone around that table really enjoyed, respected.

I've heard advertising called a lot of harsh things; in fact, I've said a lot of them myself. That's it's empty language, soulless language. That advertising has brought about the death of communication. And it might be true.

I've heard people say that ad language is the opposite of poetic language. But I disagree. I think advertising as a tradition whole-heartedly owes a debt to poetic language and structure. Jingles and taglines are designed to be mnemonic devices, surviving in the memory over extended periods of time. Those little phrases are supposed to conjure up images of product names, product packages, and sensations—the way a Ballpark hotdog pumps when you cook it but also carries with it that sense of summer, of relaxation, of Americana. Or the way a cylindrical can of Quaker oats remind us that the oats are rolled.

Ads get into us with an indelible hook. If you looked in your refridgerator, you could probably recite five separate jingles for products you've purchased. (And that makes sense—why would you buy a product that wasn't already sitting in your head?) We can consider for a moment how all children un/intentionally now advertise for Mazda when playing with small cars: zoom zoom.

Ads are tiny, designed to be quickly and repetitively consumed. Little aphorisms. What makes a phrase memorable is either constant encounter or constant recall. Advertising is lucky because it involves both: our culture suffers from a pollution of ads and a pollution of products, each of which become symbols for the other. Poetry, on the other hand, is only a symbol of itself in a lot of ways, and much less readily available and consumable in our culture.

This is where I mention that Dana Gioia made a career out of hawking Jell-O, and now he runs the NEA.

That's all I'm saying. Ads and poetry. You do the math.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. "By...Mennan" -from the Ellen special "In the beginning"- That's all I'm going to say!

  3. Perfection. You are absolutly correct.

    I am curious about this now, I am wondering about this history of advertising now. What sort of people started making those print ads? Who were they, and how did they get to that place. Then radio came along, and obviously than tv. All of these people need to have some sort of story. Let investigate. Better yet, lets let a freshman investigate for us.

  4. shhhh this is a secret. http://www.livejournal.com/users/pro_liar/2005/07/26/

  5. Ironically, perhaps---or at least paradoxically, or maybe it's enigmatically....

    Anyway, when I was in urban planning school we talked about the need for good marketing, even good advertising, for good urban form. We need advertising as strong (or perhaps just as consistent) as the Chevy Suburban "Like a Rock" ads, which push a lifestyle that is antithetical to suburban life and consumerism.

    And we (or at least I) used to also talk about the poetry of planning, how the processes and outcomes can be similar.

    Maybe it's an oxymoron I'm thinking of?

  6. Like poetry, there is a huge difference between good advertising and bad advertising. I find myself rolling my eyes at ads more often than applauding them.

    That said, I guess the mere fact that I acknowledge them means they can be classified as some sort of art.

  7. LOL--that hot dog car is hilarious.

    There's a few ads that i love. The first one is the Lea & Perrins commercial "Oh your burgers are so juicy!" I just think it's really funny. I'm also a big fan of Geiko commercials.

  8. Geico commercials are great because they totally play on our familiarity with ads. :)

  9. Great post, Charles.

  10. Hi, LOVE your commentary...I'll be around for more.

    Please visit me, sometime....Blue