April 28, 2005

Voilá: the movie

To explain the fractured syntax of a New Yorker Infiniti ad, I invented an elaborate plot sequence, despite having no relevant knowledge or experience of the advertising business. Then I came across some misspelled French decorating a wine ad in the same magazine, and concluded (with equal ignorance) that the responsible parties are probably just incompetent and careless. Now Ed Keer, a linguist working as an advertising copywriter, sets me straight by supplying a believable plot for the wine ad blooper.

Having now been on the inside of an agency, I can tell you how this went down. The copywriter most likely made a mistake and wrote violá voilá in the manuscript. Then the sharp-eyed editor noticed the problem and changed it to violà voilà. All was fine until it went to the client for review. The client remembered back to her highschool French and changed it back to violá voilá. The editor at the agency flew into a rage. The account person asked if the client is right. The editor composed a heated email explaining the problem, complete with scanned dictionary and style book pages. The account person gently tried to explain the problem to the client. By this time the client had found a few colleagues to back her up. The writer, exhausted from coming up with 50 different concepts to sell cheap wine, ignored the whole thing. At some point after that, the account person uttered the phrase, "We're not going to die on our sword for this." And so it went to print.

That makes sense. I can see Bill Murray as the copywriter, Melanie Griffith as the client, and John Lithgow as the editor. Maybe the copywriter and the client are former lovers... and you can make up the rest for yourself.

I should know better than to ascribe to simple human error something that could instead be explained on the basis of a complex network of ignorance, interpersonal conflict, defensiveness and communications failure :-).

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 28, 2005 11:47 AM