the power of revision & the pathetic appeal

I followed a Facebook link to a video I just watched. The video shows an older blind man sitting on cardboard on the sidewalk in front of a huge city building. (The accents sound Scottish.)  He has a cardboard sign that reads, “I’m blind. Please help,” and a can for coins. His take is meager.

Then, a young woman with big sunglasses stops by, turns over the guy’s sign, and writes on it. We see a quick shot of the man touching the woman’s green pumps. The woman replaces the sign and walks off.

Now, folks are pouring money into the guy’s tin can. At the end of the day, the woman returns. The blind man knows her because he touches her shoes and recognizes them from her first visit. He asks her what she did to his sign, and she replies, “I wrote the same, but different words.” As the audience, we finally see what the woman wrote: “It’s a beautiful day, and I CAN’T see it.”

Initially, I thought this video underscored the power of revision. I wanted to find out more, so I googled the revised lines to find the video on YouTube (“What did you do to my sign?” The Power of Words, Motivation), and I found an analysis of the video on Nick and Sue Asbury’s blog, Asbury & Asbury–the posting is entitled, “I’m blind. Please leave my sign alone.”

Nick Asbury gives us the origin of the story in copywriting folklore, which attributes this tale to David Ogilvy. Ogilvy tells of a copywriter on his way to work who passes a blind beggar every morning. The blind beggar’s sign reads, “I’m blind. Please help.” The copywriter adds three words to the blind beggar’s sign: “It’s spring and…” According to Asbury, the copywriter’s revision in Ogilvy’s story, “It’s spring, and I’m blind. Please help,” respects the writer’s original statement and leaves room for the reader to imagine. As Asbury says, the revision is a “spare statement of fact that leaves the reader to fill in the emotional gap.” Asbury criticizes the revision in the video, “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t see it,” because the woman is “spelling out what was implicit in the original line,” and she forgets to add the “call to action.”

Asbury says the video has gone viral, but his criticism is that the online content agency, Purplefeather, the company who made the video, needs to respect copywriting history and folklore by getting the story straight.

Purplefeather ends the video with a vibrant purple slide covered in white print stating the company’s tagline: “Change your words. Change your world.”

The viral-ness of the video has little to do with copywriting and everything to do with the genre of motivational/inspirational videos.  Listed under the “Daily Motivation” channel of YouTube, “What did you to do my sign?” gets shared as inspiration. But what is being inspired?

The woman in sunglasses never gives the man any money. It could be argued that she gave him much more by offering words that compelled passers-by to drop coins they might have otherwise kept in their pockets. It can also be argued that the woman’s peremptory actions patronize the man; she never asks permission to do anything but exploits the man’s blindness by taking his sign, rewriting it, and does not even tell the man she’s done so. Her actions are portrayed in the short video as positive–she is the one person who helps change the man’s world. Before the woman revises the sign, we see groups of unaffected people, and after she revises the sign, we see an almost frenetic montage of people walking by the blind man and bending down to give him money.

Here’s Nick Asbury discussing the original story attributed to David Ogilvy:

It’s a lovely story, which has been making copywriters feel good about themselves ever since (and possibly making blind people feel somewhat patronised). It’s usually quoted in the context of how important the ‘emotive sell’ is when pushing the latest commercial message into the minds of unwitting consumers, which is what copywriters generally do when they’re not being selfless superheroes.

The woman in “What did you do to my sign?” does come off as a “selfless superhero,” and her only spoken words at the end of the video, “I wrote the same, but different words,” indicate that she’s just taken the blind man’s writing and tweaked it a wee bit. “Thank you, love,” are the man’s final words as our anonymous copywriting superhero walks off into the urban dusk.

“Change your words. Change your world.” Indeed. No question that our perspective, which often presents itself in language, shapes our environment. Full disclosure: the video moved me. I was hooked by the words–I wanted to know how the woman revised the man’s sign so that people responded to his plea for help.

The more I researched, the less I was emotionally affected by the video. During subsequent viewings, I thought more about the history Asbury discusses, more about the overbearing stature of the woman (the man sits on cardboard on wet concrete and is on a level with her shoes), the pathos of the story and its exploitation of the viewers’ emotions as a way to sell Purplefeather’s product–words that sell. Not words that change the world. Words that sell.

I thought this posting was going to be a simple posting about the power of revision, but it has morphed into a discussion of rhetoric and the pathetic appeal. I have found videos on Facebook that do inspire me–there’s one of a guy who helps people all day long (creative ads touching heartwarming thai life insurance commercial), and I love this short video (the main actor slays me with his expressions)–but the sponsor is a Thai life insurance company. Does that contradict the video and its powerful message and emotional effect? Advertisement works because it pulls our heartstrings and hopes the twang will pry open our wallets. Doesn’t stop me from watching that Thai life insurance video again and again.


when do precision and complex vocabulary become jargon?

Spoiler alert. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have an answer for this one.

Week one of the Graduate Writing Institute hosted by the Writing Skills Improvement Program at the University of Arizona is just over, and someone stated at the end of my presentation on style that she really liked complex, multisyllabic words. I do, too.

I had just read Helen Sword’s “Zombie Nouns,” in which she states the following:

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.

There’s a lot I applaud in this paragraph: Sword’s attention to a continuum–that nominalizations can both facilitate and obstruct communication–and her concern that academic elitism can derail students.

But I take umbrage at Sword’s dismissal of “heteronormativity” and “interpellation” as zombie nouns. As for heteronormativity–there’s no other word that works here. If you want to talk about how culture normalizes heterosexuality and marginalizes LGBTQ folk, that’s heteronormativity. A complex concept in one word. And if you’re a scholar in gender or queer studies, you better be able to say this word in your sleep.

As for interpellation, just browse through the web for some explanation, and you won’t find an easy one. That’s because interpellation describes complex social moments involving ideology. Think 20th-century French philosophers. Think theorists of power and culture. Think film studies. Better yet, check out the blog posting on interpellation at The Chicago School of Media Theory for a non-jargony and careful discussion. And if you’re a scholar in cultural studies, or film studies, or contemporary continental philosophers, you will need to cultivate an explanation for interpellation that pirouettes off your tongue.

The point is, academics must learn and employ specialized vocabulary. Are they going to go to a neighbor’s house for dinner and proffer a mini-lecture on their scholarly passions? Likely not. At least not using the specialized vocabulary required in seminars and in their disciplines’ publications.

Words do work. Long words often do a lot of work. Just because an academic writer uses those long words does not mean his or her writing obfuscates. I think it’s all the stuff around those long words that makes the difference between clarity and jargon.