Tagging Along

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Thank God for the internet, the greatest enabling technology for procrastination ever devised. I was roaming around IMDB.com, the movie trivia megasite, for arcane Godfather minutiae, cleverly avoiding this column. When I saw the "tagline" category, I wondered if this was divine intervention, ordering me back to work.

"All the power on earth can't change destiny" was the tag for The Godfather II. This contradicts the movie, since Michael Corleone clearly chooses his father's path. The tagline is both bland and wrong. Intrigued, I probed deeper in the database. The tag for Being John Malkovich was "Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can." Ouch. How can a movie bursting with comic invention sell itself with a stale tuna sandwich of a tagline? Sure, movie taglines are like gossamer, disappearing in months, while consumer tags may run for years. But classic tags are unbearably difficult to write, even with geniuses like Francis Ford Coppolla involved.

I wonder if taglines are still relevant. They presume that consumers read and remember, vs. watch, listen and archive. Taglines are evolving into pure stimuli. Intel doesn't have a tagline, but a four-note musical signature. Target uses the red bull's-eye iconography across a wider spectrum of media than any tagline could. The Gap is moving steadily toward a purely visual and musical message. This is the next logical step for advertisers - transmitting a pure, cultural tone, like a dog whistle, into the collective unconscious. MTV proves tone lasts longer than words, images, spokespeople, even the product. MTV wandered so far from music videos it had to invent additional channels just to keep "MTV" legally accurate.

Budweiser's "Whassup" is evocative and baldly impermanent. When "Whassup" does a "Where's the Beef?" off the high-wire of American media, Bud will have to brainstorm furiously. But that tone is perfect. Let them ride the wave.

Like magazine stories, movies and TV shows, taglines have been condensed to their essence. Bill Bernbach's "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's (real Jewish rye)" typifies the unabashedly literate message exercised in the 1950s and '60s. Today's tags substitute clever shorthand for literacy. Not that brevity implies thoughtlessness. Nissan's "Driven" is smarter and more effective than BMW's "The ultimate driving machine" or Volkswagen's "Drivers wanted." What does this mean? The message is ominous, suggesting a bleak existential void, death, unemployment.

VW isn't the first advertiser to suffer the phenomenon of tagline de-evolution. Clairol's classic "Does she or doesn't she" was marvelously suggestive, implying multiple meanings. Whereas Clairol's "A totally organic experience" is part of its jarringly sleazy shampoo-as-orgasm strategy. Perdue's snappy "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" built the brand, and begs for updating. But "Naturally juicy chicken" raises the unfortunate specter of chicken juice. Chicken juice is a Lysol commercial.

Many companies can't find a tagline to express their corporate voice. Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" is a wonderful, rhythmic haiku, but is it true? Aren't I chained to my desk? As a Word user, I would prefer "Where did my page breaks go today?" AOL's "So easy to use, no wonder it's #1" is insultingly banal. As an AOL subscriber, I feel like a dumb old dog who is flunking obedience training. The Palm Pilot sells itself with "Simply Palm," a sludgepot of creative nothingness. The Palm is not simple at all - it's powerful.

The internet's orgy of Super Bowl cleverness tracked the smoke-and-mirrors fate of the whole industry. Travelocity.com's "Go virtually anywhere" is a lovely play on words. Too bad the website is destined for virtual obscurity. Old-fashioned packaged goods are producing much of the best tagline writing. If you have little kids, Jell-O's "Make some magic" acutely sums up the brand's appeal to the stir-crazy. I love Tropicana's new "Squeeze the Day" campaign. It revises and revitalizes the brand's whole selling proposition while folding the product into itself as a mnemonic device.

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