Review of the Year 2017

It’s been a year of words. I started off reading them, collecting snippets on a Tumblr called Reads. But since August I’ve mainly been writing them. Realtime Notes is an Instagram collection of poems about current events — I’m on poem 247 and hoping to carry on for a while.

Given that I’m effectively reviewing the year hour-by-hour on Realtime Notes, I’m not sure this Review of the Year is strictly necessary. But then again it’s important for the world to know what packaging copy I found funny this year, and there is a satisfying catharsis in writing these things — and hopefully reading them too. 

(NB: I've tried to link to all the original tweets where I've found stuff. In most cases, the links take you to the original tweet where the image was found, rather than taking you to new/extra stuff. So don't feel you have to click on everything. Yes? Does that make sense?) 


In the year of the mainly female silence breakers (a well-handled move by Time), it’s interesting to see how brands are handling masculinity. 

Branding for men still generally takes the approach of turning oats and coconut into grenade chaos.

Easily the most insecure branding of the year goes to They Hate Pimples for turning a spot cream into military camouflage. (And definitely not make-up.)

Meanwhile, Tesco has read the mood and dropped the Mansize from its tissues. (I still prefer Kleenex Brand Tissues, handy for any embarrassing brand situation.)

But Three Lads are still just Three Lads.

Speaking of insecure masculinity, Trump has continued to troll the world, and there have been some nice instances of the world trolling him back. 

Some good crowd size trolling here.

An excellent New Yorker cartoon.

Keeping it simple.

But the award goes to the New Sunday Herald, for this excellent TV listing.


On a related note, probably the most useful thing I wrote this year was an emergency guide to writing protest signs. With so much to protest about, there have been too many signs to mention. But I enjoyed the ‘Welcome to Kenya’ signs on Trump’s visit to Obama’s birthplace in Hawaii.


While there has been lots of brilliantly creative popular protesting against Trump, official responses have been mixed. I wrote about the New York Times campaign and how I felt it missed the mark. The Washington Post also went arguably a bit too gothic with ‘Democracy dies in darkness’. More recently, it felt like CNN got closer to nailing it by using humour, which helps make a serious point more powerfully.


The worst ad really should be Pepsi, although at least it kept us entertained.

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I really wanted the cellist at the beginning to join the march Woody Allen-style.

Among the duller takes were that it shows the perils of using in-house agencies (like ad agencies never do bad ads), or the ‘we’re talking about it, so it was all a cunning plan’ take (you cannot plan things this bad, and being talked about doesn’t always help your brand.)

In any case, the cultural feedback loop moment of the year came when protestors started throwing Pepsi cans at police.


The single worst ad of the year, for its outstandingly bleak and misanthropic use of media, is the audio ad in the Virgin Trains disabled toilet. You have no choice but to listen to it – it comes on automatically when you walk in. 


This was also the year that Virgin Trains replaced this iconic piece of in-toilet copy...


...with this rhyming version.

I feel like this is an improvement but, as with the French Revolution, it is probably too soon to say. 


To confuse things further, the YHA nicked the Virgin Trains copy, so who knows what to think any more.


I’ve a feeling a lot of people will pick Jigsaw for their unambiguous celebration of immigation. I get uncomfortable with brands preaching politics, even if you agree with the politics – and I think the message loses impact by being too overt and preachy. However, a lot of people loved it. And I’m aware that the experience of encountering an ad in person is very different to seeing it online – I suspect it was quite moving to walk around the tube at Oxford Circus and feel the affirmative power of those ads.

On a related note, I wrote at length about brand purpose this year. While I’m sceptical about it as a core way of thinking about brands, I do think brands participate in culture and can do little things to shift norms. Casting a gay couple in an ad may seem like box-ticking, but these small acts add up to gradual normalisation – I just think they work better done quietly and modestly, rather than ‘look at us leading the revolution’.


As a response to these times, I prefer the humour of Timberland – a rare case of a brand trying to empathise with ‘millennials’ and getting it right.


Some quickfire ones now. Smart use of punctuation as data visualisation.


Contrast with this conspiracy infographic displayed on Fox News – like a map of its inner mind. (Both of these last ones via @michaelbierut)



An argument for using bots instead of humans to write tweets.


Also an argument for using bots instead of humans to write tweets. 


As with everything on the Internet these days, it’s hard to know if Photoshop was involved.* But I was impressed by this ‘found’ version of Wonderwall by @thepunningman.

* I can now confirm no Photoshop was involved. Hooray, some things are real.



OK, packaging copy. As usual, there was some heroic padding going on.


And the saboteurs at McVitie’s casually dropped a line that translates as ‘It’s English but it’s good’.


But this was mainly the year of funny tweets about packaging. Firstly, someone cracked the butter code.

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 13.39.25.png

And Alex Andreou realised what’s really going on with cereals.

But this Apple Juice observation was my favourite — go here to retweet it.



This was the year that Beanz Meanz Heinz turned 50 and was celebrated in an exhibition at Selfridge’s. I believe the correct hashtag is #copywritergoals

We also witnessed a slogan occurring to Donald Trump in real time.


Cards Against Humanity refocused their energies on Prongles – a real, unauthorised and widely distributed pastiche of Pringles. It was a convoluted joke and the target wasn’t especially clear. But the best thing about it was the slogan.

And in a new twist on slogans, probably my favourite of the year was Yes good by Emerald Nuts, taken from a real customer review on Amazon.


Two winners here: Chuck Schumer for this letter about Senate oversight of Presidential nominations, in which he took a letter from Mitch McConnell (written in different political times) and sent it back to him. 

The other winner is this person’s dad for a brilliantly pedantic birthday card strategy in which he crosses out the bits that don’t apply. 


Here’s an example of a ‘design for good’ project without a fanfare, hashtag, case study video with Sigur Ros soundtrack, or story six months later about how it was all a scam.



This was the year that Twitter moved to 280 characters, which turned out not to matter very much. Probably the best moment was when Trump ceased to exist...

... which had parallels with the silent News at Ten, probably the most eloquent commentary on 2017 that there has been.


My personal highlight was the release of Sideways Dictionary, an online dictionary of analogies for technological terms, created in partnership with Jigsaw and the Washington Post – one of the most enjoyable and mind-bending things I’ve written.

Also, this year saw an updated version of Perpetual Disappointments Diary come out with Pan Macmillan, and a new version in the US with Chronicle Books. (Pic by @lettemoore)

And I briefly went viral with a piece for McSweeney’s and Louis Theroux said he loved it.


My wish for 2018 is for hotels to introduce tone-of-voice-free rooms. Over the summer, I stayed in a Citizen M hotel, which was great except for the cacophony of copywriting (all of which looks nice as individual executions on a screen, but less so when it’s combined into one room where you have to live and sleep).

I’ve collected a few other examples (scroll through above).


To be fair, Malmaison is quite funny. But it takes a very funny joke to be funny the eighth time you read it.


Lots of people have sadly gone, some of them memorialised in Realtime Notes above.

And not forgetting Brenda Webb, who fell to Cher.


Not sure who came up with ‘The rest is science’, but it was a moment of genius. A reworking of the most beautiful dying words in literature (Hamlet’s ‘The rest is silence’) to mark the passing of a great scientific expedition. 


Trump before the Last Judgment. Although maybe it’s the image of next year. (Photo by @oss_romano)

That was quite a long review, wasn’t it?

Since you’re here...

Preamble: This is a post about the Guardian’s ‘Since you’re here’ ads inviting readers to become paying members, as an alternative to erecting a paywall. The ads have always bugged me because I think they could be much more persuasive. I first drafted this in October, then decided not to publish it. Instead, I emailed the Guardian directly – I wasn’t expecting a reply and, sure enough, didn’t get one. Around the same time, the Guardian announced how well its campaign was working. So I forgot about this post and left it in my drafts. But reading it again, I think it makes some good points. However well the strategy is doing, the copy could be a lot better. So, anyway. See what you think.

I try to read a wide mix of news sources, but for a long time my default option has been the Guardian. There are several reasons, but they all ultimately relate to its business model – no paywall, no billionaire owner, no government influence, and no shareholders apart from the Scott Trust.

The business model increasingly relies on voluntary donations from readers, either as one-off gifts or monthly payments. If you’re a Guardian reader, you’ll be aware of this, as most articles are interrupted at some point by this message:

It’s never struck me as a particularly effective message, persuasion-wise. Partly because it embodies the tone that all the Guardian’s critics hold against it. Earnest, slightly preachy, uncomfortable talking about money, very middle-class-guilt-trip-inducing.

Guardian critics would say that it’s therefore pitched perfectly for Guardian readers. And they might be right. Maybe a moral guilt trip is an excellent way to sell to Guardian readers. (Reports suggest readers have responded well enough.)

But I’m convinced they could do a lot better. It’s not just the tone of it – the messaging seems all wrong. Especially “We do it because we believe our perspective matters – because it might well be your perspective too.” It’s a neat enough turn of phrase, but it’s surely wrong for this age of bubbles and division. You shouldn’t be buying the Guardian because it parrots your ‘perspective’ back to you. And the Guardian is underselling itself in any case, because it doesn’t have one ‘perspective’ – it’s a platform for many perspectives. That’s one of its selling points.

Speaking of which, where are the selling points? The whole paragraph dwells on the Guardian and its future, but never connects it to the reader and what’s in it for them (apart from that unsatisfactory nod to echoing their perspective).

It’s frustrating because the Guardian at its best is full of wit, confidence and authority. And it’s an important cause – independent, investigative journalism is badly needed as a bulwark against the old enemy of Murdoch/Dacre and the new enemy of algorithm-driven fake news.

So given it’s a cause I believe in, I’m going to pitch some ideas to them. I wouldn’t normally do this and maybe it comes across as presumptuous, but it seems appropriate in this case. They’re not free ideas – there’s just no paywall. If they like them, they can pay me whatever seems fair.

First, here are some straight headlines, making the case concisely and with no excuse-me-sorry-about-this intro:

Investigative journalism
needs investment

To hold power to account
we count on you

No billionaire owner. No shareholders. No paywall.
There is no better model for fearless, independent journalism. But to keep delivering it, we need your support more than ever. (No pressure.)

Put those with a call to action, and you start to get a more confident, authoritative tone.

Or for a longer copy version:

You haven’t reached your article limit this month because there isn’t one. We plan to keep independent, investigative journalism free for everyone, regardless of income. So we’re not building a beautiful paywall, or even a renovated fence. But if you can afford a little to support us, you will be backing journalism that answers to no one except its readers. We know some powerful people would rather you didn’t do that. We’d love it if you did. 

What else? Maybe this:

You don’t have to subscribe to our point of view
to subscribe to the Guardian

That’s a better message than ‘it might well be your perspective too’, isn’t it? It broadens the market and suggests that Guardian readers are independent thinkers. 

You can also introduce a visual dimension. Use one of the many dramatic shots in the Guardian archive with this headline:

A thousand shots like this
for the price of a single espresso

That’s also an act of price anchoring – compare it to a coffee, something from the Guardian-reader world. And it’s selling a benefit to the reader, instead of appealing to guilt. Remind them what they’re getting for their money:

Your support means the world
and everything happening in it, every minute of every day

That’s a pretty good sell.

And remind them that it’s good value:

Good journalism matters more than ever
And actually costs less than ever

That’s true – if you give £15/month, it’s still less than it used to cost for a daily paper.

You can also try some caustic wit, and attack some agreed hate figures. Use a big picture of Trump/Dacre/Murdoch with:

He doesn’t want you to support us
but please do it anyway


Without your support, journalism becomes a race to the bottom
Specifically, Murdoch’s bottom.
And then up it.

or maybe a picture of Boris Johnson with:

Leaders pay for their lies
when readers pay for our journalism

You can also tap into some of the people that Guardian readers like:

Please give Frankie Boyle a tenner
Or make a monthly gift to the grumpy git. 

Or why not showcase some of the brilliant writing that goes on every day in the Guardian, e.g.:

Boris, a malevolent baked Alaska, is living out in public the great dramatic sweep of a life that asks what if a hero, instead of a single tragic flaw, had all of them. Frankie Boyle

Every month, we publish about 90,000 sentences. This is one of them. A contribution of £20/month works out at 0.02p for the above sentence. We believe this is good value.

For specific things like the Patron scheme, you could try some self-deprecation:

Patronise the Guardian (for a change)
Get more from the Guardian. And help shape its future. Become a Patron. 

Finally, you could throw in a disclaimer:

Please don’t support the Guardian
... if you can’t afford it. We aim to bring independent journalism and informed opinion to everyone, everywhere, regardless of income. But if you can afford the price of an extra coffee or two every month without it being a stretch, then your support makes all the difference.

Maybe that’s a paternalistic, Guardian-y sentiment, but it’s an important one, and in terms of persuasion I suspect that *not* asking for money is a good way to get it. (Another thing that rankles about the existing ad is that phrase ‘a small favour’ – it’s not that small a favour for the just-about-managings.)

Anyway, those are some ideas. I genuinely support the Guardian’s business model and what’s at stake is more than just the Guardian itself – it’s the whole balance of the fragile news ecosystem online. We could be looking at a future of paywalled bubbles versus algorithm-friendly free news.

But it all depends on demonstrating the model can work – and it’s a tough persuasion challenge to get people to give money they don’t need to give. I think the Guardian could blaze a trail with this, but they have to come across as the smart, cool people – not the earnest vicar awkwardly shaking a collection tin.

Now I just need to get them to read this.  

Postamble: This post is a slight follow-up to a previous post about the New York Times ad campaign, which you can read here if you’re interested.

Realtime Notes: Quarterly Review pt.2

Following on from Part 1 (see previous post), this is part 2 of the Quarterly Review, looking back on three months of Realtime Notes – Instagram poems written in rapid response to current events.

Part 1 covered What Happened. Part 2 takes the form of more general reflections on why I’m doing it and what I find interesting about it.

In the spirit of a project that sometimes feels like me talking to myself, I thought I’d do this in the form of an interview with myself.

So Nick, why did you start this project?

It wasn’t a planned project – I wrote the first one (above) while sitting in the pub one day, and decided to continue. I don’t think that first one was one of the best poems, but it had some of the main ingredients there – a sense of drawing a link between the personal and the global, and a register that combines wordplay with some serious topics.

I think I started to get that more successfully the next day (note 4 above), where you have elements of family events and world events overlapping. (NB: At this point, I hadn’t learned how to do em-dashes on my phone.)

Before that moment in the pub, I’d had this pressing sense for a while that I wanted to do a new project, and I’d been interested in the idea of ‘live’ writing – exploring an area between the spontaneity of speech and the craft of writing. Realtime Notes isn’t live writing – they’re all edited and crafted, just in a short space of time, usually anything from 3 to 30 minutes, although some take longer. But I’m interested in that idea of treating time as a formal constraint in poetry.

What does that mean?

Well, I think most formal constraints in poetry have more or less gone now. You can make it rhyme or not, scan or not, make it a prose poem. You don’t even have to write it yourself – there are lots of ‘found’ poems around. But one of the last remaining expectations is that poetry should take time. It’s about highly concentrated language, under the pressure of sustained editing and craft – the ultimate ‘slow’ art form.

So to do this thing where you’re rattling out poems as near-first-drafts runs counter to that and feels slightly taboo. I’m not saying it’s a new thing – people have written quick poems before. Coleridge woke up and wrote Kubla Khan in a few minutes before he was interrupted by someone knocking on the door – I’ve always identified with that person knocking on the door.

Why do you do them on your phone?

Initially, it was just the immediate tool to hand. I like writing on screens – I saw an interview with Leonard Cohen where he talks about the added theatricality that comes with bright black on a bright screen, like black fire on white fire. It’s also useful that the Notes app automatically time-stamps each note – I consider those the titles to each poem. And it’s easy to create a screengrab and share it quickly to Instagram.  

Why Instagram?

In some ways, it would have been better for me to do it on Twitter – I have more followers on there as opposed to a couple of hundred on Instagram. But Instagram felt like a friendlier place to put this stuff, which is sometimes more personal. And there’s a nice spirit on Instagram where a lot of people are pursuing creative projects – sketching, photography and so on, so it’s a more natural fit. 

Using Notes and Instagram must have limits too?

Yes, in a way they’ve created the main formal constraint on the poems. If you want to keep a portrait format on Notes (which generally looks better and more readable), then it limits the line length. And it’s a struggle to get more than about 17-18 lines onto one Instagram shot. I have tried poems that run over more than one shot, which I may explore more. But generally I enjoy the enforced brevity. 

I’ve also done a couple of experiments with video poems, which is a nice extra possibility created by the technology. 

Talking of formal constraints, whats your attitude to form with these poems?

Some of them are a lot more formal than others.

For example, I’ve enjoyed using limericks as a frame for serious subjects. 

And there have been a few haikus, mainly as a form of sports reporting.

I find myself using rhyme a lot. I like rhyme – it’s sometimes seen as one of the more childish elements in poetry, but I think it’s deadly serious, the purest form of what poetry does – using language as music as well as message, and creating magic when they combine. When you’re writing at speed, I think it’s more realistic to weave in rhyme rather than achieve perfect scansion.

Speaking of which, I was quite pleased to semi-invent this form, where all the words in a single poem rhyme – I call it a uni-verse.

Other times, I like playing with existing forms like nursery rhymes and song lyrics – it gives you a frame to move around in. 


And there is also a recurring biblical theme in a lot of the poems – I like the severe perspective you get when you offset current events with ancient texts. 

And then sometimes they’re very loose or more like prose, but then the formal element is in the patterns of thought, and creating these little echoes in the text. Sometimes I directly take phrases from headlines and news reports. I don’t often go for obviously ‘poetic’ sounding language – I like using normal words, but trying to create that little spark that turns them into something more. 

Do you feel like you’ve found your ‘voice’?

I’ve been conscious of not getting too stuck in one style, so I deliberately try to mix it up. For example, it would be tempting to try to make every poem a witty piece of wordplay – essentially a gag – but then you end up feeling like a performing monkey.

I want to give myself scope to write looser, weirder, more allusive stuff too. Some of the poems take quite a conversational style, where I guess Billy Collins (the American poet) would be a reference point. 

I’m conscious of wanting the poems to be fast to ‘get’ as well as to write, because I think that’s in the spirit of realtime-ness. So I think generally you get something on the first read as you scroll through Instagram, rather than having to spend ages pondering it. But I like to think they reward repeat reading, because you can go back and notice some of the formal elements of how they’re put together. 

Generally, I think it’s important for poets to discover what their voice is, and it can take a long time to manage it. One of the advantages of this project is that it forces me down that path of discovery, and accelerates the journey. The time limit removes some of the self-consciousness that comes when you have all the time in the world, and I think it can reveal your voice to yourself. I do feel there’s a recognisable voice there, and it’s a question of working with it rather than getting trapped in it. 

Do you get writer’s block?

One of the reasons I’ve kept going at such a pace is that I’m afraid of stopping, because I think then it would start to dry up. In the past, I’ve even found that with Twitter – if you don’t tweet for a few days, you lose your mojo and it’s hard to get back up to speed again. 

Some days definitely feel harder than others, but I have a mental list of prompts that I can use to can help spark something. For example, if I have nothing, I might think about form first – like what if you make it a dialogue, or what if you start annotating your own poem (above). Sometimes it can feel like magic – you feel you have nothing and then something appears out of that nothing.

How do you ever do anything else?

It definitely takes up headspace, but it’s mainly spare headspace – I like following the news anyway, and even on the busiest days there are usually gaps... over a coffee or train journey. It might get difficult next time I’m working on another big project, like a book. But I’m hoping to keep going for a while. Generally, I think the more you write the better you get – doing this keeps the brain alert, so when it comes to doing other writing, you don’t have to ‘warm up’ as much.

Where do you see it going in future?

I’m still thinking about that. I’d like to think it would make a good book one day, because as well as being a book of poems, it would also have a plotline, or multiple plotlines, and whatever its value as poetry, it should have a certain value as a diary of one person’s consciousness living through what are pretty extraordinary times. 

I also have a vague idea of doing an exhibition, where all the words are on walls and screens and you’re kind of immersed in them, like walking through a year. Maybe that’s a vain hope in both senses of vain, but there could be something in it. 

Thanks for talking to me Nick.

Any time.


Thanks for reading this review – and big thanks if you’ve been following on Instagram. All the likes and comments, on and offline, really mean a lot. And I’ve already made some new connections with interesting people – someone even commissioned a poem. 

Meanwhile, the next quarter is already under way (with another sad celebrity death). Follow at