‘These two are terrible.”
“This needs more of a setup.”
“Not quick enough.”
“With this, you run the risk of severely offending 50 percent of the population. But your sign would get noticed.”
As a creative director at the Newburyport advertising agency Mechanica, Ted Jendrysik knows a great slogan when he sees one.
He also knows how to rip a bad one to shreds.
In fact, as Jendrysik rifled through my suggestions, I began to think bad ideas were all I had.
MassDOT, if you haven’t heard, has announced a new contest in response to those immensely popular “USE YAH BLINKAH!” electronic message boards that appeared in May. It’s our turn now to think up amusing catchphrases to address the problems of distracted driving, road rage, and forgetting to buckle up.
I thought I’d use my smahts — I mean, my creative prowess — and give the contest a try. But I knew I’d need some help.
Jendrysik worked with me at my first newspaper job in the 1990s, but while I stayed in journalism, he gravitated to advertising, eventually writing copy for such heavyweights as the Mullen and Arnold Worldwide agencies before joining his current shop. He remembered me when I called, and agreed to share some professional pointers on how to make a tagline sing — not just for my benefit, but for anyone who enters MassDOT’s competition, officially known as the #DOTSPEAK contest.
“When we write a tagline, five words maximum,” Jendrysik began. “Around three words is the right place to be, two words if possible. And being grammatically different really helps to make people stop and notice. If it’s all very logical and makes all the sense in the world, people won’t read it. ‘USE YOUR BLINKER,’ with the proper spelling, no one would have read it. But with ‘USE YAH BLINKAH,’ everyone stops. Everyone talks about it.
“Finding another example that’s that good, that’s that intuitive, might be challenging.”
A typical message board can display three lines of text, with a maximum of eight characters per line. (A character can be a letter, a number, a symbol, or a space.) Messages can extend onto a second screen that pops up shortly after the first, but must end there, MassDOT says.
Following those guidelines, I brainstormed 20 potential road-rules slogans, figuring I’d struck upon at least a few tantalizing ones. However, my initial test audience — my fiancée, Laura — was not impressed. “Guess you didn’t learn anything from watching ‘Mad Men,’” she said.
‘The Indy 500? That doesn’t really connect with a Boston audience. Feels a little generic. There’s got to be a better way to get people to slow down.’
To boost my confidence, I thought I’d start Jendrysik off with what I thought was one of my catchier slogans — “PLEASE SLOW DOWN. IT’S NOT THE INDY 500.”
He immediately hated it.
“The Indy 500? That doesn’t really connect with a Boston audience,” Jendrysik said. “Feels a little generic. There’s got to be a better way to get people to slow down.”
How about, “ROAD RAGE? YAH BETTAH DEN DAT!” I asked him?
“After the success of USE YAH BLINKAH you probably want to be real careful about having a second one that plays off the Boston accent,” Jendrysik cautioned. “If you go there, it’d have to be so much better than the first one.”
Which my idea, he said, was clearly not.
Naturally, strong humor can put a tagline over the top, Jendrysik said. “I read an article once by a creative director in London, and he said being in advertising is sort of like showing up at a party you weren’t invited to. If you want to stay, you’d better be funny.”
I scanned my list for the one idea I was sure would make him chuckle: “SAVE THE RAGE FOR YANKEES GAMES.”
He smiled, offering me true hope, before ruling it too problematic.
Would people understand the message was about road rage, he asked, if I used the word rage without the word road in front of it? Would the Yankees sue MassDOT for using their name?
“One way to look at it is that it’s all in good fun,” he said. “But if the Yankees decided they wanted to get acrimonious and stick one to Massachusetts for improperly or illegally using their name, they’re within their rights to do that.”
I served up my next slogan, which I fancied as pretty clever: “LAST BEER, $5. OUI? PRICELESS.”
“It’s like one of those MasterCard ads,” I said. “But for drunk driving . . . It really should say OUI conviction ... and by priceless, I mean, you’d pay anything to not have operating under the influence on your record.”
The more I muttered, the less I liked my own idea.
“This is just too complicated,” Jendrysik said. “Plus, I never understood why it’s an OUI and not a DUI? Or DWI? I’d be curious if you talked to people from Massachusetts about whether they call it an OUI or DWI.
“Also, ‘LAST BEER, $5?’ That’s a little hard to get your head around. ‘Oh my god — the last beer!’ That would be worth a lot more than $5 if it was the last beer ever. What you’re saying is it’s the last beer you had. You almost want to say ‘DOLLAR DRAFTS, AWESOME. DWI? PRICELESS’ or ‘DRINKING WITH YOUR BROS, $40. DWI? PRICELESS.’”
Even that slogan, Jendrysik said, wasn’t a winner because it would be too much for a driver to process while zipping along at 70 miles an hour.
One by one, my list grew shorter. “WOULD JESUS TEXT & DRIVE?” was cute, Jendrysik allowed. But if anyone had the ability to text while driving and not cause an accident, it would probably be Jesus, he said.
“THINK MATT DAMON DOESN’T BUCKLE UP?” was just too wishy-washy, he said.
“I don’t know; does he?” Jendrysik asked. “Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he rides a bike everywhere. I’m not left thinking, ‘You’re right: I should wear a seat belt.’ ”
Then there was my pop culture reference to the television show “Breaking Bad” — imagine what Jesse would cuss after saying, “Buckle up” — which obviously would offend more drivers than it would entertain, my expert said.
Jendrysik, though, did not leave me without hope.
My slogan to promote fuel economy — “CRUISE CONTROL. DOES THE GALLON GOOD” — was deemed “not horrible.”
“TAILGATE PATS GAMES. NOT OTHER DRIVERS” also showed promise, he said.
“Yeah, I think that totally works, especially if the board is going to be up in the fall,” Jendrysik said. “Nice use of a local sports team.”
But if Jendrysik were to pick just one of my entries to submit, it would be “65 IS THE NEW 75. SLOW DOWN.”
“It’s a fun little line,” he said. “Everyone talks about the, ‘This is the new that.’ They’re doing that all the time. The last one I heard was, ‘Sitting is the new smoking.’ Or ‘black is the new black.’
“Yeah, I like ‘65 is the new 75.’ I get that instantly. You don’t even have to say anything about speeding. Pretty cool.”
I had my winning submission, except for one problem: MassDOT isn’t looking for taglines to reduce speeding, at least not for this contest.
For the categories they’re currently addressing — road rage, seat belt use, and distracted driving — I just happened to come up empty.
But if Jendrysik’s tips and my examples somehow inspire the state’s next great safety catchphrase, I won’t complain.
“People will build off what you have, and maybe they’ll win the contest,” he said. “That’s the creative process for you.”Peter DeMarco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.