Poems on your packaging

Chatty packaging copy annoys a lot of people. So why not stop writing it and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead? Is it time for a packaging version of Poems on the Underground?

Image by kashley with thanks to @huntaround

Chatty packaging copy annoys a lot of people. So why not stop writing it and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead? Is it time for a packaging version of Poems on the Underground?

This is a thought I’ve had for a while – not an original one, but something that I don’t see any brands pursuing in a big way.

The premise doesn’t need much explaining. Packaging copy annoys a lot of people. It’s frequently overly familiar, infantilising and navel-gazing. The trend has even earned its own label: ‘wackaging‘.

The problem is, from the point of view of the client, packaging copy is hard to get right. The safest approach is to give straightforward, concise information about your product, but it feels like an opportunity missed. But try injecting any form of personality, and it can quickly ring false, or fall into the same over-familiarity trap as every other brand. In the end, you’re trying to give personality to something that is by its nature impersonal and mass-produced. There are a few exceptions, but generally it’s a losing battle.

This is frustrating, because packaging ought to be a great platform for writing. You have a blank canvas on which to write in a more relaxed, discursive way than conventional advertising allows. You often have a captive audience in a receptive state of mind, idly reading the cornflakes packet over breakfast, or the crisp packet over lunch, or glancing at the copy on the toothpaste tube while brushing their teeth. With such a great chance to engage and entertain audiences, why do brands end up annoying them so much?

Maybe it’s because they’re thinking too narrowly about the possibilities. Packaging is indeed a great platform for writing, but there’s no rule that says the writing has to be about the product that the packaging contains. Rather than writing at length about the simplicity of your ingredients or the lovely folk who work for your company, why not use the space as a platform for writing that people really want to read? A short story, a poem, or a thought piece by a great writer? It may not relate directly to your brand, but if people enjoy it, they’ll make the emotional connection.

In 1986, the American writer Judith Chernaik approached Transport for London with the idea of putting poetry on spare advertising space on tube trains, and Poems on the Underground was born. It’s been massively successful and introduced millions of people to great poetry.

What’s to stop a Kraft Foods or Unilever from launching a Poems on Your Packaging range, spanning everything from breakfast cereals to shampoo? What about a specially commissioned Carol Ann Duffy poem with your cornflakes, or Michael Rosen with your Cheerios? A thought for the day from Alain de Botton on your loaf of bread, a traditional haiku on your toothpaste tube, or a leisurely Clive James essay on your smoothie? It could be a great way to introduce people to interesting writing, and would spare us all the chummy copy about how simple-and-not-at-all-mass-produced your product is.

Posted by Jeff Wysaski at pleated-jeans.com

This isn’t a new idea. Plenty of children’s brands feature jokes and puzzles to turn the packaging into entertainment, albeit of the heavily branded kind. The original and best examples are the jokes you used to get on ice lolly sticks: no overt brand message, just a nice joke because there was space on the stick to write one.

But as far as I’m aware, the principle has never been applied on a bigger scale, or for a more grown-up audience. I’d love to see the big brands commissioning new work from our best poets, novelists, journalists, philosophers and comedians – and it feels like an open goal in the current climate. There are obvious upsides – you’ll be seen to support the arts; you can encourage literacy in kids and families; you can pitch it at a populist or higher brow level; you can turn the packaging into collectable items; you can run serialised stories to encourage brand loyalty; and you’ll be able to claim this whole territory as your own, before anyone else does.

One important footnote – this is about stepping back as a brand and giving the stage to other creative voices, in a generous-spirited way that ultimately reflects well on your brand. It’s not about commissioning a poet to write about how tasty and nutritious your Cheerios are.

If anyone knows of brands that have already done this, it would be interesting to hear about it.

Nick Asbury is a writer and one half of creative partnership Asbury & Asbury. He also tweets at @asburyandasbury. A version of this article originally appeared on Asbury’s blog.

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