Crimes against rhymes: writer Charly Sommers on when bad poetry hurts good brands

Writer Charly Sommers discusses where big brands go wrong in their rhyming ads.

Charly, I wanted to chat with you about how bad poetry hurts good brands – and there’s no better time to do it than right after Christmas. Why is that?
Thanks for having me! Every year, we’re hit by a slew of Christmas ads on TV and other media… They aim to create a sense of cosy warmth, I think, often by parodying a carol, song or famous poem…

’Twas the night before Christmas…
Absolutely – they often reach for that one. Which makes sense because there are studies, aren’t there, about how using rhymes in advertising can be memorable and persuasive?

There are. The subconscious mind LOVES rhythm and rhyme. That’s why rhyming words often pop up in memorable product straplines… Heinz Baked Beans come to mind: ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’…
“You only get an ‘OO’ with Typhoo!”

Charly Sommers

Yes! But when longer poems don’t work, it’s not just the rhyme that’s the problem is it?
No. Very often the problem is bad meter and scansion – or ‘scanning’… Things that give a poem its rhythm. I know you don’t want to get too lost in the weeds here, so – simply put – it’s about the number of syllables in the words and lines of a poem, and which syllables you naturally stress. To put it another way, it’s about looking at what makes a poem bounce and hit your ear right – not just lining up words that rhyme!

“There’s scarcely an ad break on television that doesn’t feature a bad poem…”

So how often do good brands let a bad poem slip through the net?
Oh, quite routinely! There’s scarcely an ad break on television from November through to February that doesn’t feature a bad poem… My guess is that some advertising companies and media agencies don’t realise how nuanced the musicality of rhyming poetry is. I mean: most people can tell when a poem doesn’t rhyme very well, but bad meter is harder to pinpoint.

Let me get this right: a lot of these adverts are filled with words that rhyme… But the rhythm and emphasis are wrong? And that weakens the poem?
Right. And if a writer really doesn’t have an ear for it, they might only look at or listen to the sentences that rhyme to decide – wrongly – that a poem works. Of course, if the advert’s writer and everyone in the sign-off process thinks this way, then a bad poem inevitably reaches the screen.

And if we were going to discuss a specific example of this in a brand poem, where might we look?
From this Christmas? Aldi wasn’t toooooo bad this year, but Hasbro had one that was unforgivable!

Charly Sommers

Hasbro did? Oh dear!
Yes, the advert for the Monopoly Go app. Shall we dig out the first stanza; the first verse?

Well, okay. There’re are some terrific people at Hasbro so I’ll feel bad – but if needs must! Let me read it out. See how it feels…

It was the height of the holidays
And all through the town,
Laughter rang out when
Jen shut mum’s board down

Okay… Well, that does hit my ear very disagreeably. Why is that? What, specifically, isn’t working?
Well, this whole ad appears to be inspired by the Clement Clarke Moore poem, A Visit from St Nicholas, which you started to quote earlier…

’Twas the night before Christmas
When all through the house
Not a creature was stirring –
Not even a mouse.

Which flows beautifully!
So let’s take the opening line… The original starts off with a contraction of ‘It was’: ’Twas. That’s for a very good reason… ‘It was’ has one too many syllables for the poem’s rhythm. So when the Monopoly Go version starts ‘It was’, it immediately gets off on the wrong foot. They compound that by replacing ‘Christmas’ with ‘Holidays’… I see why, but that adds another extra syllable! So they’re two syllables out in the first line.

They’re sunk by the end of line one?!
Maybe not sunk – taking on water though! But they could’ve achieved exactly the same sentiment if they’d said:

’Twas the holiday season
And all through the town…

Charly Sommers

And what else is up in that the verse, Charly? The last line is very hard to say – but that has the right number of syllables!
Yes… “Jen shut mum’s board down” doesn’t work. The problem there is that – if you said it outside the context of a poem – you’d naturally put more emphasis on certain words in the sentence… Specifically: ‘Jen’ and ‘Mum’s board’.

“Jen shut mum’s board down”… Okay. But in the Monopoly Go poem?
In the Monopoly Go poem, the rhythm leads you to stress the words ‘shut’ and ‘down’: “Jen shut mum’s board down”. It doesn’t work because that’s just not how we speak! To some, it must barely be perceptible. To others, it’s a screaming error.

Well, on that: why does this matter, Charly? Why should brands care about whether or not their daft little rhymes scan properly?
Well, maybe they shouldn’t! It just seems to me that if you’re spending a fortune to partner a brand, promote your products or showcase a licensed character, you could spend a few hundred dollars on getting the script right!

Do most people even notice, do you think?
I think most people feel like something’s off. They may not know quite WHAT is off… But that’s not necessarily the issue. I think it’s more that people know when something is absolutely RIGHT – and they love it all the more! Julia Donaldson is a fantastic example. Donaldson is one of the best-selling poets of all time – and her scansion is absolutely flawless.

Got it.
Besides which, unless companies INTEND to create a bad poem to represent their brands, they’re not getting the most out of their campaign. Because the sentiments of these adverts are often very effective – so why not get the wording right?

“The sentiments of brand adverts are often effective – why not get the wording right?”

Fair enough! And before we start wrapping this up, let me ask you: what’re your top tips to avoid a bad poem?
Aside from avoiding a stilted rhythm and incorrect syllable emphasis, it’s to stay away from words and phrases that you’re using only because you think they FIT. Everything has to serve a purpose, and it’s essential to use words and phrases one would actually SAY. In other words: no shoehorning!

Which is, I think, a huge trap: people often end up using a ‘not-quite-right’ word – not realising that they’re buggering up the rhythm…
Right. And even if you don’t want to hire a writer to do your poem from scratch, I’d still suggest that you – at the very least – let a songwriter or a poet edit the script once you have your rough idea.

Great stuff. Any final words of advice?
Yes, on that… If a songwriter or a poet tells you your script isn’t working, do listen to them! Just because you can’t hear the flaws, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. I’ve lost count of the number of times a client has made a last-minute tweak and ended up – as you put it – buggering up the rhythm. If you’ve hired a writer you trust, resist the urge to tweak their work in isolation… You may not know what you’re undoing.

I was thinking that earlier… I wondered if someone saw the word ‘twas’ and – thinking it was old-fashioned – changed it to ‘it was’…
That’s very likely! But if something doesn’t work for you, just ask them what their thinking is.

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