The Impatient Observer: Last Words

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I bought a stapler at Staples six months ago. A big one. I had blown through a series of inexpensive staplers. This would be my last. My starter staples quickly exhausted, I went back to the store and was amazed to discover the bin dedicated to my refills inexplicably empty. The Staples manager consulted the office supply gods. I took home a generic box of staples. Guaranteed to do the job. Only, they don't fit. Two dozen trips and phone calls later, still staple-less, I'm screaming at the hapless Staples manager, "Yeah, we've got that!"

The advertising tagline is a unique communication, with no direct analog in media or art. Immortal taglines - "Just do it," "Think small," "Good to the last drop" - seem inevitable, outside of time, mythological. They literally become the brand. But let's leave greatness aside momentarily.

Taglines often flounder because they're generic. Jeep's "There's only one" could easily apply to Mallomars, Howard Stern, or Beano. Grammatically, it could also mean Jeep only built the one vehicle, and they're advertising this fact because they're rich, insane, and spiteful.

Sony Vaio's "Dream on" means nothing. Do they imply daydream - forget that overdue marketing report and outline your screenplay? Maybe Brian Benben, from HBO's Dream On, will visit you. "Dream on" could be the tag for mattresses, art supplies, or Victoria's Secret.

Agilent's "Dreams made real" is worse. Even after I watched the commercial, I still had no idea what the hell Agilent does. Companies that adopt future-shlocky neologisms should not swim in the seas of obscure advertising.

Some tags sound meaningful at first, then vaporize. "There and back," for Toyota SUVs, has a nice ring, and pops a kernel of an idea - safety, return, wholeness - but applies to any van or SUV that doesn't flip over and burn.

Taglines often lose sense when unplugged. Apple's print ads celebrate brilliant, original thinkers, such as Einstein, but are curiously ungrammatical. Did they mean, "Think differently"? Or is the line condensed Valley-speak, as in, "Think, like, totally diff!" Either way sounds a little dumb.

Some taglines are annoyingly hyperbolic. Panasonic's "Just slightly ahead of our time" bothers me with its lack of internal logic and mathematical incoherence. The ad is the equivalent of "I gave 110 percent" or Spinal Tap's "These go to 11." I own several Panasonic televisions. Do I live in the future? If so, can I call Charles Schwab?

It's depressing when a great tag is dumped for business or politics. Coined by the talent agency CAA, "Always" was the best Coca-Cola tag in 20 years. Coke is one of the few universal brands that could execute the simple, lushly evocative "Always."

Now, Coke has moved on to "Enjoy." Boy, there's a word that surprises and delights. And it's one letter shorter. More time for beverage consumption. Hey, if "Enjoy" tests as too complicated, how about "Oooh!" or maybe the sleekly efficient "Yurk"?

Longer tags are not necessarily more communicative. Lexus' "The relentless pursuit of perfection" admits that no perfect car exists, leaving the brand to celebrate the empty materialism of snobby obsessive-compulsives. The line has a sick, anti-Zen spin, turning the journey-as-goal epiphany of maturity into pure, clutching greed. For God's sake, it's just a frigging Nissan with hardwood floors and a wine cellar.

Lexus has amended the tag to read, "The passionate pursuit of perfection," trying to inject a note of humanity into the high-priced handjob. But that doesn't work. Perfectionism relates less to the object being sold than to the buyer, so this is a cheap attempt at Freudian transference of emotion. You have passion because you want a perfect car? That's not passion - that's a diagnosis. Lexus should convert the ashtrays into Ritalin dispensers.

Which taglines do I admire? "Some things in life money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard" is wonderfully effective, especially given the competition, i.e., Discover's recent "For the slightly smarter consumer." Hey, for the much smarter consumer, use your goddamn debit card.

For me, the problem with taglines, or advertising in general, is that cognitive dissonance is always just around the corner. "Yeah, we've got that" is another example of advertising far superior to the product itself.

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