Friday, June 26, 2009
I’ve had several odd jobs, but one of my favourites was a couple years ago I was the writer for the subject lines in fictional emails. A manufacturer needed to promote its new cellphone, new PDA, new BlackBerry--they’d call me. I’d write the subject lines they’d use in the screenshots for ads. It was tricky. There was a fine line you’d walk, varying with the target demographic. A device aimed at busy professionals needed different subject lines than one pitched at college students, but both needed a mix of up-to-the-minute urgency driven by fun and that driven by profit. “meeting for lunch?” was always a good one, ambiguously suggesting both a bit of power-noshing among rising executives and casual hang-outs with trendy twenty-somethings. You could nudge it one way or another, trying to increase its appeal. Did some girl just-moved out on her own aspire to a Carrie-Bradshaw style existence, sipping cosmos and laughing with her girls? Swap the cosmos for a martini and the D&G shoes for an Armani suit, can we see the corporate lawyer slipping our phone in his pocket? Does that same phone seem equally well at ease in the pseudo-vintage shoulder bag of a turtleneck-clad indie kid, and can he pull it out without selling out when he’s at the coffee shop? Can he hold a venti in one hand, and in the other--no, the same hand, grasp our mobile messenger between his fingers like the new technocrati cigarette? A few tweaks to “meeting for lunch?”, and the answer to all of these is “yes.” “meeting for lunch?” was great. Sometimes we had to go after moms. “PTA meeting” worked well, and, surprisingly, even the almost too-clichéd “snacks after soccer game?”--or at any rate, the guys who hired me seemed to think it was a good idea. Early on we learned to avoid romance; never if you can help it use a subject line like, “thinking of you…” or “missed you today” or “Happy Anniversary!” These things smacked too much of spam; there were only a step away from notices of three new crushes or links to hot Asian teens. But we--I and the other subject-line writers--oh, yes, there’s a whole industry--did learn a few things from the spammers. One was to try to pique curiosity--or rather, to suggest that their curiosity would be piqued, well and frequently, if they bought our gizmo. Hence a lot of question marks, a lot of tentativeness, a lot of requests for confirmation of time or place or presentation topic. Orthography mattered too. Of course there were a lot more abbreviations in ads for teens--but not too many, not enough to make them feel as if they were being parodied, or like we were sucking up to them. The formula I finally settled on was to use only one or two abbreviations that were outright inventions of the 12-18 crowd (basic, businesslike abbreviations like FIY and ASAP didn’t count toward my quota). The key was to make those one or two really count, using bleeding edge terms that had barely made it to the internet forums, let alone the text messages sent by middle-schoolers. No lols. Not even an LMAO, and especially no rofls. L8r was off limits from about 2001 on. Same for almost any alpha-numeric combination. Instead, I would use IIRC, YMMV, things like that, things that established an easy sense of confidentiality between me and the shopper. Quirkiness counted--double ampersands and atypical spellings, even spellings that had never made it into the youth culture--spellings that I made up. Such things spoke of inside jokes and idiosyncratic friendships, the amorphous social structures of The Connected in the new century. It was hard keeping ahead of the game. Some acronyms had more staying power than others, and some were dealt quick deaths--that one carrier pretty much ruined BFF indefinitely for the rest of us. Even time stamps mattered. You had to use times that looked spontaneous, times that emphasized the fact that they could be sent at any moment. Odd numbers worked well. Primes were better. 37 after. 1:29. 3:57. Some times were more euphonious than others, to the ear and the eye. Who wants to get mail at 11:12? Not me. Or at any rate, I don’t think anyone else would. And the times had to go with the topics. “dinner tonight” wouldn’t be sent at 5:37--in time to make last-minute arrangements for a normal dinner. “dinner tonight” would arrive in your inbox at 7:32, because the event itself would have to be a full hour later--a time suggesting sophistication, a certain European quality, late nights and soft whispers and wine, a view of the bay and French cuff links. “hit the park?” was 7:32 on a Saturday, something you would see first thing upon waking up--because you would look at our device first thing, it would be as normal as reaching for your glasses--at a time full of possibility, when you were rested but ready to seize the day with urgency and gusto. “meeting tomorrow” could go all the way to 11 at night, or even past 12, but it was best not to press it and risk confusing our potential customers about A.M. and P.M. The important thing was to reinforce the idea that an important memo could come in after you had already shut down your computer. No road warrior feels like booting up the laptop once more before dropping off to sleep, but what about a check-in with your Blackberry? Of course you could. Probably nothing there, but worth it, for the five seconds it takes to check, right? I always wanted to be a writer.