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This is Why Ghost Writing for Robots Made Me a Better Writer


Writing Copy for Bots...

At my desk, I scratched out sketches for an upcoming shoot when my phone rang. And rang. I couldn’t find it, buried under reams of paper that blanketed my office from one end to the other. When I finally answered, a nameless voice on the other end of the call sprang out of the gate with a question. I immediately regretted taking this call.

He asked, was I the guy who made the milk commercials? I answered that the Dairy Farmer of Washington was my account. And then he boldly announced he had some ideas for the next commercial. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke, a television viewer with too much time on their hands, or a just a nut. It was none of the above. This person was about to take my job.

When I asked how he got my number, he explained that he had already spoken with the Dairy Farmers of Washington and they had suggested that he contact me. That was the whole conversation. Scant on details or even the guy’s name; guess who I called next? Yep. My client. And after I told them about the call, they couldn’t stop laughing. I didn’t get the joke.

They explained that they’d just hired a new agency. Which didn’t sound funny to me at all. They asked the creative director to call, because they’d like me to continue directing the spots. But that’s a different story.

Genuine human conversation not only contains information, but subtle nuances. Both were lacking in my original phone conversation. Without one, you have nothing but vapid thought, and without the other, you have a robot.

Characters Wanted

And this is precisely why brands and publishers have been hiring comedians and scriptwriters. (Insert robots not taking over the world joke here.) If you’re unfamiliar with chatbots, one of my favorite examples is Gary Payton Trash-Talking, sponsored by menswear brand DXL.

Everyone is Doing It

Every prominent bot maker on the internet, from Google to Microsoft and even Facebook Messenger, is hiring wordsmiths to make their robots sound… well, more human. The gig could be anything from punching up an AI script to creating an entire full-blown character. The latter delves deeper into the bot’s persona, motivation, past, fears, goals and daily habits. You know, the backstory. Why? Those bots carry more well-rounded conversations because customers are talking to a three-dimensional character.

Sharpen Your Pencils

The best book I’ve ever found on the subject of creating fully developed characters is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Making funny? Well, there are many great books on humor for that. But for those writers who can marry the two, I see a real blue ocean opportunity. Sure, it takes more time than the pedestrian snark and cynical wit of most advertising. But if anyone thinks a few lines of code is enough to birth a spokesperson for a brand, I point you to recent spectacular fails, like Tay from Microsoft.

Robots Need Not Apply

To date, the only reliable author of the natural language process is still a human writer. And being one, I use the word “reliable” with knowing trepidation.

Which leads us back to the mystery caller. A week later, I was asked to pitch the directing job for the Dairy Farmers of Washington, which I did. The new agency used almost all my recommendations (even the grocery store) I called out in my treatment. They just didn’t use me. Sigh.

MIKE

Siri, Who delivers alcohol?

SIRI

Here’s a list of the top-selling rubbing alcohols on the web.

MIKE

Close enough.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike

Wanna list of all the comedic devices to use in advertising? Read all about it.

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