Where's the Beef? Where's the Verb? Something's Missing in New Ad Slogans

"Life begins here." That's the current advertising slogan for a famous product many of us reach for every day. Can you guess which one? Take 10 seconds. Ready, go.

Time's up. It's Coca Cola, the No. 1 soft drink in the world. Tens of millions were spent with competing ad agencies around the world (Coca-Cola uses many in its worldwide marketing campaigns) to come up with a winning ad tagline and all they could manage was "Life begins here." Bad slogan for a caffeinated beverage. Good slogan for an Ob/Gyn offering fertilization treatments.

If I hadn't looked it up, I couldn't have told you what the current ad line is for Coke. The last great Coca-Cola TV ad I remember was "It's the real thing." Snappy. Had a cute tune they sang on the commercials. In 1969. Since then Coke has had a long run of insipid, unmemorable slogans. Among them: "America's Real Choice" (1985); "Can't Beat the Feeling" (1989); "Life tastes good" (2001); and last year's winner, "Twist the Cap to Refreshment." The cans must've felt left out with that one.

Along the way, the well-compensated geniuses charged with shaping Coke's marketing push also created a couple of one-word sales pitches. In 2000 it was "Enjoy." Bold new idea there. Sort of a flippant blow-off really. Here's some chemicals and caramel coloring in a can. Enjoy.

In 2003 it was "Real," a slimmed-down throwback to the 1969 slogan but without the catchy song. Just "Real," as if that showed Pepsi and RC who's boss.

Ad slogans are tending toward the cryptic these days. Many of them make no sense, just random pairs of words linked together by the desperation of latter-day Don Drapers. For the Lexus Hybrid: "Engineer Amazing." Amazing what? Amazing-ness? Or maybe "amazement"? "Engineer Amazing" sounds like a pidgin English description of a guy at a drafting table.

Grammar be damned in today's ad world. Now in its TV commercials AT&T orders consumers to "Rethink possible." Not "what's possible" or "possibilities." Just the meaning-free "Rethink possible."

Remember AT&T's best slogan from the past? Of course, you do. "Reach out and touch someone," the 1979 commercial tag line. That was when their marketing focus was your phone calls to loved ones. Now they're a "lifestyle company" that spends nearly $2 billion a year to spread the inane phrase "Rethink possible" worldwide.

Apple in its latest ads asks us to "Think different." As if we're hillbillies who don't grasp the concept of adverbs, much less sophisticated software. (This one reminds me of the character in Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Welcome to the Monkey House" who had a plaque on his desk that said "Thimk.")

Adidas are selling sportswear and shoes with the line "Impossible is Nothing." They capitalize "Nothing." But why? And why try to pass off this empty clump of words as something inspirational? Do they mean "Nothing is impossible"? Why flip it to something that's not possible, at least within the constraints of our mother tongue?

Advertising slogans should be short, intelligent phrases that capture the target audience's attention and make them stop and think. Just takes a few seconds to make a positive impression with a good catchphrase that elicits some slight emotion and might inspire the consumer to act on it. Like, by reaching out and touching someone by phone. By opening a can of soup we're assured is "Mm, mm, good." Or by lacing up a pair of Nike sneakers to head out to the gym to "Just do it."

Know where that one came from? Spree killer Gary Gilmore uttered "Let's do it" as he faced a Utah firing squad in 1977. Eleven years later it was tweaked into a marketing campaign slogan by the Wieden-Kennedy agency for Nike and it remains one of the best in American advertising. Hear the phrase or see the trademarked "swoosh" logo and you know what brand name goes with it. Nike still spends nearly a billion bucks a year in advertising, but do they really need to?

The source of that phrase and other revelations about advertising are the inspiration for the excellent documentary film Art & Copy, which won an Emmy after it was aired on PBS recently. As the film points out, good slogans not only promote products, they become part of our everyday vernacular long after the original ads fade away.

Bad grammar sometimes works fine. Or should I say good? "Got Milk?" came from ad men Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein of Goodby Silverstein & Partners (who also came up with the Budweiser frogs campaign). The milk ad nearly got rejected because it sounded lazy and ungrammatical. ("Have milk?" doesn't quite work, though, does it?)

"Where's the beef?," created by Cliff Freeman of the old Dancer Fitzgerald agency, was Wendy's best-ever slogan from 1984; so effective at boosting revenues for the burger chain that it's being revived for a new print, broadcast and social media ad push starting Monday, October 3. The original campaign was almost vetoed a week before the commercials were set to hit television for the first time. But Wendy's execs saw tiny, elderly actress Clara Peller bellowing the question over and over in commercial footage and went nuts for her. She became a star and "Where's the beef?" entered the cultural lexicon, adopted by 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale to attack rival candidate Gary Hart's platform positions during a televised debate.

Original Wendy's "Where's the beef?" TV ads:

As one of the ad guys in Art & Copy says, there's a beauty to slogans like "Got Milk?" and "Just Do It." The writing is simple and clear and a bit provocative. "Advertising is a business of words," said legendary ad man David Ogilvy. "If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular."

"Rethink possible" is part of no one's everyday language. No one thinks those words. They're clunky and flat paired up like that. The phrase doesn't inspire or provoke or make you stop and think, "Yeah, I'd like to have some of whatever they're selling."

Advertising, said Don Draper on Mad Men, is based on one thing: happiness. "And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK."

He's right. We want to feel we've made the right choices. And we like and remember slogans that make us feel warm and fuzzy when we buy that thing and drive it or wear it or eat it.

The best slogan Frito Lay ever used was for Doritos many years ago: "Crunch all you want. We'll make more." Very reassuring and nonjudgmental. Go ahead and stuff yourself with fried corn triangles, it seemed to be telling us; there are plenty more where those came from.

The new Frito Lay campaign, with a folksy voiceover by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler, delivers a more mixed message: "We make them natural. You make them fun." It's an improvement, though only slightly, on their previous ads that said, with weird capitalizations, "Food Just for the Fun of It." That's right, junk food with No Nutritional Value. Just greasy shards of potatoes and corn covered in salt and flavorings. But now that we're the fattest nation in the western hemisphere, they're telling us something else. They're saying their products are "natural." Got chips? Yes, they do. Fun? That's up to us.

Do you need a slogan? Type in nouns, verbs and adjectives on this do-it-yourself slogan generator and it spits them out for free. I tried it with a few phrases from this column. Result: "Words are a terrible thing to waste." Good one.

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