Monday, April 30, 2012

Words matter?

There's a commercial building on Shattuck Avenue between an Italian restaurant called Giovanni's and a Dollar Tree. The building has been under renovation for a while now. It used to be another, ostensibly local cheap-stuff-store -- called Berkeley Mart -- but I gather that business was killed off by the national chain cheap-stuff-store that hunkered down next to it.

I have no opinion whether one of these cheap-stuff-stores is better than another, but in any event there's a pressboard fence now in front of the property that used to be Berkeley Mart and it's pretty much always plastered with movie posters, political announcements, advertisements of one sort or other. The photo at the top of this post is what the fence looked like about a week ago.

Note the wheat-pasted double row of poster-size announcements for The Five-Year Engagement, a movie that opened this past weekend. It's a romantic comedy. Now of course anybody's free to like that sort of thing, but I'd respectfully recommend you watch the trailer before you buy a ticket. My vote? Straight-to-DVD, not that anybody asked me. I base my opinion solely yet confidently on the trailer. I confess that I only bothered to watch the trailer because one doesn't want to publicly judge a movie by its title.

But I digress.

Note, in the photo at the top of this post, the many many blue, photocopied, 11 x 17" sheets stapled over the movie posters. Maybe you can make out the larger line of text? If not, I've provided a close-up, at right. Words Matter, that's the sound-byte here. The ad, as you can see, is for the San Francisco School of Copywriting. Their claim? That one need only visit the web site and register for a class in order to start a new life. As a copywriter, one assumes. Because Words Matter.

On Facebook, the school's tag is this: "Learn the art of copywriting. Online and live copywriting classes. Words that Matter. Words that sell."

I don't want to cast aspersions on David Alger. I don't know the man from Adam, but I can tell you (because it says so on the web site) that he identifies himself as the founder of the San Francisco School for Copywriting. This post is not about David Alger. Hey, everybody gets a shot at making a living, this is America, right? This post is about the way he advertises his copywriting school.

As someone who aspires to get more out of words than a catchy advertising slogan, it kind of chokes me up -- and not in a good way -- to see the idea that "words matter" conflated with an ability to inspire ... a purchase. Or, taking the tack of Alger's About page, to inspire strangers to toss a few coins to blind guys. Not that there's anything wrong with tossing coins to blind guys, or anyone else who needs them, as my friend Kate advocated in her post of last week, Five Reasons to Give Money to Panhandlers.

But there I go, digressing again.

Wanting more than advertising copy out of words ... does that make me old school? Is it impossibly starry-eyed to imagine that "Words that Matter" is a slogan distinct from "Words that sell"? Is it conceivable that humankind might arrest a slide into groupthink that conflates "sell" only with "convince"? Have you looked up "sell" in a dictionary lately? (Merriam-Webster places the "to convince" sense of sell at #5 of 8, after senses of the word that boil down to 'betray'; 'exchange, especially foolishly or dishonorably'; and, my personal favorite -- here quoting directly -- "to dispose of or manage for profit instead of in accordance with conscience, justice, or duty.")

On the other side of the storefront that used to be Berkeley Mart there's more pressboard facade. Last weekend there were posters for Designer Shoe Warehouse wheat-pasted over the posters for The Five-Year Engagement, and 11 x 17s hawking the San Francisco School of Copywriting are stapled over those, and atop those were stapled yet another set of posters, calling for participation in tomorrow's General Strike, organized on the occasion of May Day by "Occupy Oakland and comrades across the bay."

The mind reels. Romantic comedy, discount shoes, cooperative classes for copywriters, general strike.

It's life on the Left Coast in the 21st century. Enough to make a person long to sink into the lotus position and meditate, clearing the mind of words altogether.

Do you think words matter?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Story Matters
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing
N-gram fetishism


  1. It's pretty cheeky for her to rewrite that guy's sign without telling him what it said, and not give him any money, herself. It would be funny (in a mean way) if at the end reveal the sign read "I have a gun, and if you don't give me change, I will kill you."

    I think you're right to at least roll your eyes at the idea that "matter" is the same as "sell" and the two are certainly being conflated. It's not much different from the unspoken line drawn between "good" writing and "the most commercial" writing at the SFWC.

    Though I certainly get the difference between convince and sell, I think convince is much more likely to be used in service of ego than in service of conscience, justice, or duty. I guess it's a show/tell thing for me - rather than convince, I'd rather present (admittedly, with intent).

    I find the whole Matter/Sell thing kind of sad, not because I think most people believe it, but because it seems plaintive, to me - as if the idea is to allow people to go into marketing and believe that what they're doing has meaning. It reminds me of when I worked for a bank, and there was a lot of talk about serving the customer, helping local people and local businesses to succeed, etcetera. Nobody believed that that was the primary mission of the bank. It was there, but it was driven by profit, not by altruism (an unspoken truth that I think a majority of people knew). That said, the corporate entity was/is composed of individuals who take/took pleasure in seizing on that need, driving it, enjoying it, and maximizing it. How much does it matter, the motive? If I do the "right" thing 75% because I think I'm supposed to or because it makes me feel good, is that bad? Is there such a thing as pure motive? Of course, this discussion leads to the idea of corporate entities as people, and to my mind one (of many) issues with this: the purity of purpose that a corporation can have through documented process and mission. A person may do the right thing or the wrong thing, but a company is like a robot: driven by it's programming - people will always need more than profit because people are social, people need love, and so forth, but a company as an entity is a much purer thing. Okay, now I'm rambling!

    The point is, to me, conflating it "matters" with "it sells" is at least partially about validating the choice. I wonder if, when you're at the school, they talk about it in terms of making people feel good, or laugh, or helping them make a "good" choice ("good" in the way "good" writing engages the reader in the first sentence with bare boobs and an axe to the head).

    1. @SteveL -- You wrote "I find the whole Matter/Sell thing kind of sad, not because I think most people believe it, but because it seems plaintive, to me - as if the idea is to allow people to go into marketing and believe that what they're doing has meaning." I think that's on the mark.