Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wunderman, once a distinguished direct marketing advertising agency, hits a new low in taste

“We are in the business of using language persuasively,” says Lester Wunderman, founder of the advertising agency that bears his name.

“We constantly search for those appropriate and explicit words and phrases that will arouse interest and trigger action.

“When we do that, we are not just another part of our industry but of a special and unique group of imaginative and sensitive individuals who constantly strive to create effective, persuasive and even, on occasion, beautiful prose and poetry.”

That's mighty hifalutin’ talk for a guy whose company made its bones churning out junk mail and those 800-number TV commercials. But at least the thought seemed to have some validity when Lester was actually minding the store. In better times the Wunderman agency had a reputation for being a class act – or at least as much of a class act as you can have in the direct marketing business.


These days Lester, now “way up there” in years, is no longer running the place. Oh sure, he still helps front for the agency and even writes a blog for it, from which I’ve taken his comments on sensitive individuals and beautiful poetry. But one glance at the advertising associated with the shop tells you that somebody less august than Lester is running the place today.

Take the ad shown above, for KnowledgeBase Marketing®, which proudly bills itself as “a Wunderman company.” Was this vulgar piece of poop-in-your-face communication written at some far-away subsidiary office (say in Dallas) or at the Wunderman nerve center at 285 Madison Avenue in New York?

It doesn’t matter. Either way somebody in top management was snoozing at the switch when the ad got approved – and remains asleep at the switch even today. After all, the ad has run over and over again in direct marketing trade magazines. Presumably, agency management reads the trades about their own industry. Or can they read?

They certainly can’t read well enough to recognize bad writing when it smacks them in the chops. The author of this ad has a wee bit of trouble with his syntax. He means to say you should talk to KnowledgeBase Marketing if you’re having trouble increasing the percentage of readers and viewers who respond to your advertising. Instead, tangled in a web of ain’t-I-clever puns and mangled metaphors, he writes, “If upping your response rate is keeping you awake at night, talk to us. Rest assured, you’ll see your prospects in a whole new light.”

Well, at least you can figure out without gnashing your teeth what he means to say.


It’s a bit more of a brow-wrinkling exercise to plow through the Wunderman ad agency website. Getting through the prose there is like paddling against a current of molten tar. You’ll discover juicy tidbits such as:

“Customer data yield the insights and knowledge we need to help clients create meaningful customer dialogues in every media and at every customer opportunity. And we do it with a creative flair. Wunderman conceives, builds and runs the infrastructures around the communications we develop -research, databases, campaign management tools, all of it. We immerse ourselves in our clients' infrastructures as well, to become a total marketing partner.”


Nevermind that the Wunderman website’s techno-jargon brutally obfuscates whatever the hell it is they’re trying to say. (Yeah, yeah, you’ve probably decoded it if you read it carefully enough, but did you want to?)

Pretentiously fuzzy communication was on the verge of becoming the dominant discipline at Wunderman some years ago, when some fool briefly changed their honorable company name to “Impiric.” Eventually, wiser heads changed the name back and saved the agency from its neo-Dadaist approach to self-branding.

A brief aside: once upon a time there was a direct marketing advertisement for the mail order Sherwin Cody School of English. Written by the late John Caples, an advertising copywriter who truly knew how to write clearly and compellingly, the ad’s headline asked its readers, “Do you make these common mistakes in English?”

Maybe that ad ought to be required reading for every Wunderman employee.


P.S. The Wunderman “up yours” headline can’t even claim the virtue of originality. Back in the 1950s, a New York subway car poster featured a clean-cut guy wearing a skinny tie and a snap brim hat, holding up three fingers. The headline, for an interest-bearing bank account, read, “I upped my income 3% last year. Up yours!”

An old advertising pro, now deceased, once confided in me that he was part of the mischievous team at the Ted Bates advertising agency that created that first Up Yours ad. And yes, they absolutely understood that they had written a double entendre. They wanted to see if they could get away with it, he told me. The joke was meant to be on the client. But with the passage of years, he at least had the good sense to feel slightly ashamed of himself.

These days, the joke is on the agency that panders to the mentality of an 11-years-old juvenile delinquent who has just learned a vulgar new phrase.

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