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In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we ponder whether a controversial marketing event was more deserving of moral outrage or ardent praise. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

BBH Labs' Homeless Hotspot Hoopla

There's a classic episode of Seinfeld where Kramer and Newman come up with a harebrained scheme to hire homeless people to pull rickshaws. The folks over at the marketing firm of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH Labs) in Austin, Texas must have thought that that was a good idea, because in 2012 they gave a bunch of homeless people twenty bucks, T-shirts that read: "I'm [name], a 4G hotspot" and then armed them with Verizon mobile hotspot devices. BBH said that it envisioned the program as a modernization of the newspapers that some homeless people sell, but (no surprise) others begged to differ. 

Wired magazine espoused indignation: "It sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." There were accusations that BBH were “priming an affluent, iPad-toting public to think of that person as a commodity.” Influential tech bloggers like Tim Carmody worried that the homeless were being “turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards.” Some took the tongue-in-cheek approach, writing on BBH's own blog site that “My homeless hotspot keeps wandering out of range, and it’s ruining all my day trades!”

It appeared that the event was about as popular as a mobile dead zone—but not so fast. A few of the “human hotspots” didn't see things that way. One volunteer, Clarence Jones, told the media: “Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that. I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

Saneel Radia, director of innovation at BBH Labs, defended the program: “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people.” Mitchell Gibbs, the director of the shelter that houses the project volunteers, was shocked by the criticism: “It’s an employment opportunity, regardless of who is offering it.” Then there's this: Before BBH seemingly turned the homeless into homing beacons, they also created Underheard in New York, a project that gave four homeless men mobile phones, Twitter accounts and unlimited texting to share their lives and tell their stories. There was controversy over that project as well, but one result was that one of the men was able to locate—and reunite—with his estranged daughter.

So, was BBH's project an act of charitable benevolence in order to raise awareness of the homeless, or objectification of real human beings in order to use them as a marketing gimmick? If it was only a marketing gimmick (and BBH is a marketing firm) it was one that, in this instance, required something else: recognition of another human being, one who is suffering. Sure, plenty of people deemed it was dehumanizing, but on reflection it was actually kind of the opposite: it was literally humanizing. Thinking about and looking at the homeless is hard, and a basic truth about our ad-driven society is that we sometimes have to skate close toward exploitation in order to raise awareness about serious issues. “We're glad to have started a conversation about a population that is often treated as invisible,” said Ms. Radia. The debate about exploitation and advertising is a complicated one without a self-evident answer. So in the end, the debate about whether BBH were objectifying the homeless or empowering them is less important than the fact that it got people talking about the homeless, and thinking about their lives. Perhaps the righteous indignation should have been more focused on "homeless" rather than "hotspot." 

When manning your corporate social media channels, ever wonder:  How do I capitalize on a pop culture trend without getting sacked by Twitter trolls or Facebook haters? This week, we applaud two retailers who turned the #DeflateGate football fiasco into a social media touchdown for their brands. It's part of our new marketing win series, "RAD-vertising."

An NFL investigation, a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, and an eyebrow-raising weekend press conference by Coach Bill Belichick on how "rubbing" footballs changes their matter have made #DeflateGate one of the most viral hashtags of 2015.

It all started Monday morning with rumors that 11 out of 12 footballs used in Sunday's NFL Playoffs were under-inflated, casting the New England Patriots' win into doubt. As allegations of cheating flew, fans rallied to both defend and sling mud at the Patriots on Twitter, Pinterest, and more social media.

Instead of watching this incredible Twitter trend flash by, two savvy non-sports brands slyly used the scandal to promote their products. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts tweeted a photo of a football-shaped pastry propped on the gridiron with the teasing tagline, "Ours are fully filled."

The clever joke resulted in more than 3,480 retweets and 2,250 favorites by "Tweeps," or Twitter users, in addition to dozens of replies and discussions.

Likewise, Bed Bath & Beyond tweeted a photo of a Duck Dome Rechargeable Air Pump with the equally pithy, "You know... In case anyone needs one of these before the big game."

We applaud both tweets for using a playful tone, employing appealing images, and, most importantly, being timely and shareable. The brand managers wisely didn't take sides in the heated #DeflateGate debates; they merely touched on it and used the upswing to promote their merchandise.

We're already craving doughnuts for Super Bowl Sunday. How about you?

Diamonds in the Rough: Clever Copy Makes Gluten Tolerable


Ten years ago the term “gluten” was little known outside of food science. Today it’s a near-intolerable buzz term. Fortunately for many food, health, and lifestyle copywriters, it’s also spawned an entire marketing imperium. Whether you’re a firm anti-glutenite or believe the health concerns are hype, gluten is a hot topic in many circles. Breaking down this bloated subject into digestible content for lay-readers is a job for the brave of copy arts. When I spotted this GlutenEase Enzyme pamphlet on a friend’s coffee table, I had to grin (and Instagram it). Supplement companies don't usually come to mind when I think of standout copy. Kudos to this copywriter for catching a fellow wordsmith’s eye! Here’s this writer’s three cents on what makes this random pamphlet a rare gem:

First of all, puns. I’m a huge proponent of plays on words—within the right context, of course. If you’re writing finance copy or crafting legalese, your quips may miss the mark. In the case of this trend-driven health supplement, however, “gluten for punishment” is a bullseye. Call it corny, but admit that this phrase itself is a gem—though I’m sure the writer was not the first to coin it (if so, I bow). The original “glutton for punishment” is prevailing enough to resonate with a wide audience. The pun is a direct, concise, and clever leading hook, prompting the amused reader to ask those soul-searching questions: Am I an unconscious masochist? Must I be gluten-freed? 

Keepin’ it real: When it comes to gastroenterological subject matter, it doesn’t pay to put on airs. This writer gets right down to business with two leading questions: Does bread leave you bloated? Gluten leave you gassy? It’s clear that this copywriter knows his or her audience. The target reader is probably Googling “why does my gut feel like a hot air balloon?” or “is chronic farting a condition?” Leveling with readers outside of the privacy of their web browsers makes them feel like they’ve got a friend in their cruel, gluten-tyrannized world. There’s no need to pander to the gut-wrenched with sterile phrases like “lower abdominal discomfort.” 

Alliteration goes a long way: Even if you feel strongly about the perils of the pesky protein, gluten isn’t a scintillating subject in and of itself. Various unpleasantries and scientific details make it a bit of a bore to handle (from a copywriter’s standpoint). A little alliteration (a lot, if you ask me) and cleverly placed assonance will make your copy sing, as is the copywriter’s goal. Great composition isn’t just about the words themselves—it’s the sounds that link the words to create flow. Observe:

Does bread leave you bloated?


Gluten make you gassy?


If you love to eat wheat but hate the way it feels, odds are you are among the 15% of the population who is intolerant to a protein molecule called gluten.

Music to a copywriter’s ears. (Though, for parallel construction, we’d add a second “does”)

The writer draws readers in with short, alliterative questions—with the breaks to ruminate—then a sonorous conditional clause leads the reader to the crux of the copy, wherein he is staged to be sold.

If this pamphlet sounds a bit like a late-night infomercial, that’s because the formula is classic...but effective. Well-wrought copy doesn’t have to be elevated or embellished, but it does have hook, line, and sinker. Follow a pun with sloppy or jargon-packed language and you’ve lost a good lead. For anyone with tummy troubles who still “picks up the phone today,” I see a future full of sweet gluten ease.

Image courtesy of Lauren Tucker.