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Atlas Shrugged DVD, Blu-Ray packaging recalled because of a single word

13 Nov

Atlas Shrugged Part 1This is such a gorgeous example of why copywriting is important — the original mistake, and then how the situation was salvaged by quick action and effective communication.

Atlas Productions LLC recently released Atlas Shrugged Part 1 on DVD and Blu-Ray. The movie is a scrappy adaptation of Ayn Rand’s massive novel, which argues passionately against altruism and for self-interest. (I confess that I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged. I’m told it is similar to the The Fountainhead, which I did read, only Atlas is a shit-ton longer.)

When the DVD was released, incredulous emails started pouring in from fans. Somewhere along the line this sentence found its way into the description on the product’s box:

“AYN RAND’s timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice comes to life…”

Well, sure, it’s a novel of self-sacrifice. Specifically, how wrong and terrible Ayn Rand thinks it is.

On Friday the company announced that it would be replacing more than 100,000 title sheets appearing on the DVD and Blu-ray versions sold through major retail outlets. It also set up a website for consumers to order replacement title sheets for their copies. The new text replaces “courage and self-sacrifice” with “rational self-interest.”

To its credit, Atlas Productions’ announcement struck exactly the right tone. First, it took customers’ complaints very seriously, demonstrating that they understood why “self-sacrifice” was wildly inappropriate, and showing how they would make things right. But they also recognized the humor in the situation, leading with the self-deprecating headline “ATLAS SHRUGGED Inadvertently Releases Collector’s Item.”

How did “self-sacrifice” get into a description of an Ayn Rand story? I suspect that everyone involved in Atlas Shrugged Part 1 was overextended and working very hard to get the product shipped in time. Under this pressure, the copywriter fell back on a stock phrase that in most cases applies perfectly well to a given movie. Courage, self-sacrifice, sure. Done. When others reviewed it, their brains — occupied with other vital details of the launch — accepted a phrase they’d seen many times before.

In addition to slowing down and choosing your words carefully, you can avoid this by nudging your editors and subject matter experts when you know things are especially crazy, to make sure they’re giving your draft a thorough reality check. Leave comments in the draft asking questions and calling attention to certain sections. Follow up with them afterward asking for confirmation if you’re feeling especially paranoid (but don’t be a pest.) There might be a million other things clamoring for their urgent attention, but a single overlooked word can make a huge difference.

(Via Badass Digest)

Bowie’s “Space Oddity” vs. your copywriting

5 Sep

Andrew Kolb's Space Oddity

Ambiguity is a hallmark of many great works of art. They present us with many potential meanings or layers of meaning, and no interpretation can be said to be the “right” one.

If you’re a copywriter, ambiguity is not your friend. You want clarity. You need it from your clients so you can communicate their messages effectively, and your readers need it from you so they can understand what you’re telling them and what they should do about it.

What’s the difference between the ambiguity of art and the clarity of craft? I’m so glad you asked. Take a moment, if you will, and enjoy David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” with me:

Now try and answer these questions:

  • What does Ground Control think of Major Tom?
  • How does Major Tom feel about his mission?
  • What does Ground Control think of the newspaper reporters?
  • How does Major Tom feel about being in space?
  • How does Major Tom feel about his wife?
  • How does Major Tom’s wife feel about him?
  • What happened to Major Tom out there in space, and why?

Dude, I don’t know either. Ground Control’s apparent detachment, the vapid interests of “the papers”, and the line “she knows” (instead of “she loves you too”) always suggested to me that Major Tom is completely alienated from the world, and when he took his spacewalk he just decided to keep going. But there are potentially many other ways to understand it, which is what makes it such a classic song.

Recently, illustrator Andrew Kolb created a wonderful picture book based on the lyrics. Read it here, and then try and answer all those questions again.

Look! Clarity! I know exactly what’s going on, what everyone thinks and feels, and  — very important here — how I should respond emotionally. The voice of Ground Control has a person behind it, and the anguish in the line “SHE KNOWS!” is absolutely heartbreaking.

Kolb is taking an idea, settling on one interpretation, and then illustrating it so that I immediately get it.

Your job is not to be weird and challenging: Bowie has that covered. You have Kolb’s job. Set your sights on doing it as awesomely as he does.

PopCap’s zombies are polite: building a world for your brand

18 Jul

PopCap's Zombie Letter

Geekwire recently shared a note that Seattle-based PopCap Games wrote to its new owner Electronic Arts. If you’re not familiar with the company, it might be…confusing?

PopCap makes the popular game Plants vs. Zombies, and in this note the company spokespersons are the zombies that march relentlessly through your yard, attempting to eat your brains.

PopCap’s doing an interesting thing here from a copywriting perspective: it is presenting an alternate, fictional world in which the characters in its games are PopCap employees. The zombies are aware of the company’s acquisition, and when they got the news they felt that a friendly note to their new “Zomboss” was in order.

It’s not as if PopCap has any trouble being funny without speaking through a character: just see the list of changes that the company announced once the news became public. But by letting the zombies speak, PopCap as a company was able to benefit from the fictional elements that make their games compelling. (As well as make jokes about eating their new owner’s brains, a type of humor that’s hard to pull off if you’re not a zombie.)

A frequent problem game companies face is that their audiences shower their games with love but don’t care much about the company. This is natural: games have engaging characters, catchy music, and worlds that you want to visit again and again. They are designed to beat the pleasure centers of the brain repeatedly with a Wiffle Ball bat. They exist  to be loved.

One way to transfer some of that love from the game brand to the company brand is to overlap the game and real worlds, as PopCap does in this example. People who play games would love to believe that your offices are wondrous places where amazing things happen all the time. Social media in particular is a good place to bring that idea to life, and make your company news more entertaining by building a consistent brand fiction that incorporates your game fictions.

Maybe your headquarters is in Culver City; but maybe you also have an office that’s in orbit around Saturn, with the attendant problems in sharing people and resources. Perhaps the ferocious little critters that eat everything in sight  in your new game have run amuck, and your employees are frantically sealing the exits and rounding them up.

This works best if done sparingly: overdoing the fiction can backfire, and create a gulf of unbelief between you and your audience.

It also works best with humorous characters such as PopCap’s zombies. If your game is full of tragically beautiful people mourning the loss of their homeworld, you’ll want to think hard about how you’ll treat them if you incorporate them into your company’s alternate-world mythology.

And finally, it works best if you have some measure of consistency and continuity. When you finally rounded up the critters, where did you imprison them? Is there a massive vault under your building? Where did it come from — did you build it, or did you find it there when you moved in? If you found it, what else might you need it for later on? Will the original owners come back for something they left behind? (Maybe they’re the villains in another game you’re launching.)

With the right characters and the right tone, used appropriately, this type of brand world-building can liven up your news and inspire new types of content across your channels.

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