There’s a fine line between clever and clumsy marketing


We recently ran across a very cool shop with a very attractive range of designed goods that very much appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to enter  because of one very silly word on their windows.

Does it bother you too?

What the hell is upcycling?

Yes, yes, we googled it and found its etymology on Wikipedia and we understand what it’s meant to communicate but for some reason that we can’t yet turn into an obscenely expensive model for clients but that we do feel deeply in our bones it simply doesn’t work.

It sounds clunky, and – at a time when most of the world is just beginning to recycle – it’s trying too hard.

It reminds us of one of the most common sins of marketing copy: getting too cute for your own good.

Here are a few examples of what we mean:


If this name for a tea company were any more on the nose it would be a growth.

Closer, by far.

This is a tagline generated by brand consultancy Siegel & Gale for satellite company Intelsat. The rationale is that “people, information and business goals are brought closer by technology assets flying hundreds of miles above the surface.” The reality is that the maladroit wordplay actually doesn’t communicate much at all.
*Thanks to Rob Meyerson at Semantic Argument for pointing this out several months ago.


We’ve nearly been beaten into submission by the sheer force of repetition. Nearly. But until we are, we’ll continue to cringe each time we see, hear or think of this mashup, more worthy of a 3rd-grade class project than a company with the resources of GE.

Being clever is okay, but it takes a keen sense for the outside world’s bullshit meter to pull it off. Sadly, the aforementioned organizations didn’t.

And lest our more intermittent readers mistake us for naysayers who have only aspersions to cast, here are a few marketing and non-marketing efforts we find so clever as to be sublime:

  • Fruitopia (bad product, great name)
  • Money Doesn’t Grow on Fees (ad headline for low-cost bank ING Direct)
  • Greenwashing (coined in 1986, before anyone even knew what ‘green’ was!)
  • Freecycling (the fact that it’s just one consonant sound from the original word is what makes it so good)
  • And finally, this Virgin America ad (in fact the whole campaign). Hilarious parodical photography tempers the grammatically awkward double-entendre headline to achieve a fusion of words and images that is truly éblouissant.
Now It’s Your Turn
Show all responses
  • Jeff Walden
    Nov 8, 2010

    Nice insight on upcycling. I must admit that there is not a single Virgin America ad I have seen that doesn’t make me think. Very clever work.

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