Aug 17, 2011

Not All Pun & Games: Kenneth Cole
- A Case Study In Bad Copywriting.

New Yorkers are becoming numbingly familiar with various Kenneth Cole billboards and outdoor advertising that feature around the city.

For the last decade, these ads - written by Kenneth Cole himself, attempt to convey the fashion brand as something beyond a mere clothing line. In an attempt to link the brand to current social issues and events, Cole may be doing more harm than good.

A well-known rule of thumb in the school of copywriting is - if you're going to use puns, make sure they are good ones - otherwise, they should be avoided at all costs. Cole's ads are becoming so poorly regarded in the advertising industry, one popular ad blogger has dubbed him "The Worst Copywriter in the History of Advertising™."

So where do we start?

Shortly after 9/11 - when New York (and the U.S.) was still in shock at the horror and devastation from the tragedy, Cole placed a billboard around the city with the line:


A second billboard shortly following this read:

"On Sept. 12th, families returned to the dining room table.

I couldn't find images of these billboards (if anyone can find an image, please let me know and I'll update this).

Post-Hurricane Katrina, Cole looks to find an upside.

Photo by Bucky Turko

By 2006, Cole attempted to address the issue of NYC's homeless with this little gem. Did the homeless people walking by this sign along with other New Yorkers find this re-pulsive?

In 2007, when the Iraq War and the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction had been dominating the airwaves, Cole had something to offer. The play on words - to "Weapons of Mass Distraction", by this stage, was older than the hills. This is one WMD that was better off staying hidden.

Riding the Obama wave of hope late in 2008, Cole makes a new precedent in stooping to low puns.

2009 would prove to be a bumper crop year for bad Cole punnage.

The American economy hit a severe slump and many became worried about keeping their jobs and paying bills.

But Cole still managed to find a way to appeal to those who are more concerned about their clothing than their country.

In winter of that year, Cole shoehorned his brand into the miraculous landing of a passenger flight on the Hudson.

Were people warming up to Cole's punnery or was it polluting the ad-mosphere?

In early 2011, riding the coat tails of the Arab Spring, Cole made a tweet that was less than appropriate about the uprising in Egypt.

After grabbing the desired headlines and free publicity, the predictable apology was summarily delivered.

Most recently, Cole has attempted to latch his brand on to the Gay Rights movement.

As well as war or American foreign military involvement. This wordplay borrows from one of Bertrand Russell's famous quotes, "War doesn't determine who's right, only who's left".

While a lot of these lines are hit and miss - in my opinion, the majority fall in the "miss" column. I believe many see it as a shameless attempt to attach a brand to social causes and while there's nothing wrong with doing that, the methods (or lines) Cole employs, lowers the bar.

I'm guessing Kenneth Cole never went to ad school or honed his skills in an ad agency. If he did, I suspect the initial feedback he'd receive from a junior copywriter would be to avoid the bad puns and that his strategy is showing and is a little too obvious in plain sight. Puns tend to be tacky and debase the product or service they are attempting to promote.

Here's a social cause other fashion advertisers might want to get behind - eliminating bad advertising and poor copywriting puns.

1 comment:

  1. After a lengthy career in advertising, public relations and promotion, I am, like you, a watcher (and collector) of advertising, good and bad. IMHO, Kenneth Cole bears a strong resemblance to those carpet salesman and used-car lot owners who insist on filming their own adverts. He should probably leave it to the professionals.

    However, Cole has a strong record of checkbook activism, which (again, IMHO) absolves him of a certain number of puns. Not as many as he uses, mind you, but some.

    Finally, a note: Cole's recent billboard which reads "Gay People Getting Married? (Next they'll be allowed to vote and pay taxes.)" is as succinct a statement of the libertarian argument in favor of equal rights as any I've heard: that a nation has no right to demand the full measure of citizenship (duty, loyalty, obedience to law, payment of taxes) from any population which does not receive the full benefit of citizenship. It is true for women, for ethnic, racial and religious minorities, and it is just as true for sexual minorities. I'm glad we, as a nation, are finally getting hip to that, and I applaud Kenneth Cole for pointing it out.