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Monday, 18 August 2014

The Hardy Weeds of Wackaging

Around three years ago, the knives came out for a trend in copy-writing dubbed 'wackaging'. Running amok were smoothie cartons and tube adverts affecting to be on-the-level, down-to-earth jokesters. They weren't trying anything as hard-nosed as selling the product; they were just 'letting you know' or 'giving you the low-down', while tossing around various bits of dated slang, dropping in a pun or two, or displaying a jocular self-awareness.

The Wackaging tumblr was soon set up in response, while articles in the Sabotage Times and the Guardian ripped into brands for their "faux homespun pish" and for "swaddling us, suspended in a fruit-filled Neverland, where we wake to find ourselves the life partner of a packet of ethical crisps". In short, these articles complained, consumers were being treated like children.

But wackaging survived the assault and continues unabated today. Here's a sign in the window of Oddbins I walked past on Friday:

Yeah, DH, you dawg. Come and buy some wine, and then we'll run it back to the Kiowa Ranch for you. Wait, I think we're addressing the customer now.

If this tone of voice is so obviously excruciating, why, then, does it persist? Possibly for the same reason there will always be people we find socially inept and infuriating. Brands, just like people, project a persona, and personae are always in danger of misfiring, always poised on the edge of caricature, particularly when they are freshly minted for an occasion. A person or brand that strives for an image of scrupulous professionalism can very easily (and arguably in the majority of cases) come across as humourless and inflexible. Similarly, and more spectacularly, attempts to appear relaxed, jovial, approachable and so on can manifest as the greasy, creepy advances of a chancer. It's from this we get the stereotype of the suffocatingly talkative door-to-door salesman.

But while we might take note of – and object to – such failures, the successes are likely to pass us by. Thus, the continued proliferation of instances of wackaging is probably the result of brands successfully transitioning to a friendlier tone of voice. Where they go, others follow, making missteps along the way, just as the unfunny clown at the pub is attempting to mimic his wittier, more elegant peers. So while wackaging still makes us cringe, instances such as Sainsbury's game of pun tennis with a customer over Twitter are hailed as PR successes.

The 'scrupulous professional' tone still has two major advantages, of course. Firstly, it has a solid grounding in tradition, with corporations being well-practised in inhabiting the persona of the no-nonsense businessman who can make you successful. It is a lived-in suit, a neutral grey that is less likely to raise hackles.

Secondly, it gels more readily with the practical need to disseminate dry facts about the business in question. The most egregious instances of wackaging include attempts to make information 'fun':

This jarring juxtaposition means that a friendlier tone of voice is prone to coming across as particularly disingenuous, when in fact, there's little to differentiate the promises of these brands from, say, a bank that proclaims it wants to 'do business' with you or make your life easier. One throws an arm around your shoulder while the other extends a smartly cuffed hand for you to shake, but both are gunning for your trust and loyalty.

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