Balls™

I’ve long admired James Dyson’s determination. That refusal to give up on his now iconic cyclonic separation approach, despite rejections from all major manufacturers and distributors, is one of the great stories of manufacturing and design innovation. His breakthrough technology was marginalised because it would disrupt the established cleaner bag market. It was only because Dyson had the tenacity and imagination required to manoeuvre around some very substantial hurdles that we customers can benefit from a new and better type of product. Cleaner bags now seem like a dusty relic.

Dyson Ball ad – headline, standfirst, odd imagery.

I was expecting to enjoy a reminder of this pioneering spirit when I came across an ad for Dyson’s new Ball vacuum cleaner, in Saturday’s Guardian weekend magazine. The ad featured a large photograph of the handsome Dyson Ball, the headline ‘Engineering Matters’, an introductory standfirst of one paragraph, and then six blocks of copy picking up on separate product points. How refreshingly matter-of-fact this looks, I thought (glossing over the rather peculiar terms ‘Drawing Limited Edition’ and ‘Drawing Number 10129/227’ in the bottom left area of the page).

The first sentence of the introduction read as follows: ‘The limited edition Dyson Ball™ machine celebrates the fascination of engineering.’ At this point I had to put the magazine down and begin the long job of wearying out what this was intended to mean. I understood the pretentious ‘limited edition’ bit, and I rather liked the use of ‘machine’, but I was confounded by the idea that a vacuum cleaner should or could celebrate ‘the fascination of engineering’. It’s an odd thought, in the same way that it would be odd for a product to celebrate people’s enjoyment of great music or appreciation of fine wine. It’s great engineering, music and wine that should be celebrated, surely? And isn’t it the human maker who’s doing the celebrating, not the machine?

Sentence two is bizarre: ‘Dyson spent three years questioning, testing and developing the advanced cyclones and a vacuum cleaner riding on a ball.’ First, let us imagine Sir James questioning an advanced cyclone. What language does one use for such a conversation? Cyclonic? And then there’s the delightful idea of a vacuum cleaner riding on a ball, no doubt surrounded by washing machines on ponies, dishwashers on skateboards and an ironing board on a unicycle.

Sentence three declares: ‘The result is an entirely new type of steering mechanism’. But how does the advanced cyclone affect the steering? And why is the clinching third sentence of the main copy about a steering mechanism, rather than a much bigger, benefit-led idea that captures your interest? Personally, I’m not in the market for a new type of steering mechanism, but I am about to buy a new vacuum cleaner.

Dyson ad. Double click for a detailed image showing body copy, in all its technical glory.

The six blocks of body copy are littered with conceptual culs-de-sac. ‘It took 5 years and 5,217 prototypes to develop cyclone vacuum technology – with no loss of suction’. With no loss of suction when – over those 5 years? What or whom experienced no loss of suction? Here’s another: ‘The motorised brush bar attaches to the machine through a yoke designed using FEA – a methodology balancing usage with strength. The inclined angle of the yoke geometry is configured to increase the steering ratio…’ What does FEA stand for? How many potential customers really care about yoke geometry? And isn’t it the case that – rather than owning the qualities of usage with strength – the FEA design methodology helps create good usability and strength in the attachments of the machine? And what of that copy in the bottom left area? ‘Drawing Limited Edition’ refers to the featured product, so is ‘Drawing Number 10129/227’ the illustrated product’s limited edition number or an allusion to the technical drawing-style layout of the ad?

I could go on. I will. ‘Technology has been concentrated’. ‘The articulation was tested 723,000 times’. ‘To test durability the machine was slammed into concrete 5,302 times…’ And that was pretty much the experience I felt I was having as a reader of this nonsense.

So why has the tone of voice of a successful, inventive, characterful, friendly brand come to this? Yes, it makes sense to draw out the clever, well-tested, well-designed elements of this machine. Yes, talking about engineering design helps define a unique position for the brand at a time when many household products talk blandly about usability and price (an interesting argument for features over benefits, perhaps). But if you set out to celebrate engineering you must ensure your copy is brilliantly engineered. The ideas must make sense. The thoughts must connect. The jargon should lead to illumination, not frustration. The benefits should flow from the conversation, not remain obscured by self-satisfied technical babble.

Engineering does matter, and it is wonderful to know that a British manufacturing company has been breaking new ground and commercialising its products so successfully. I just hope this ad doesn’t signal a loss of verve and clarity within the Dyson brand. The copy seems cold and somewhat self-regarding. But, most of all, it feels distinctly customer-unfriendly. I can’t imagine James Dyson talking to me in this way. What’s going on?

Tim

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7 Comments

  1. Posted 27/09/2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    What’s going on? I suspect, and it is only a suspicion, the lack of an agency here, ‘recession costs blah etc’, and what we have is an internal marketing department unable to stand up to the dominant engineering culture of the company. ‘They buy it because of the engineering,’ they’ll have been told, ‘so dazzle them with that. Don’t worry about any of that fancy stuff, like being clear. Or making sense.’

  2. Posted 27/09/2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Brilliant post, Tim.

    I think this is the kind of thing Ben Goldacre describes as ‘sciencey-sounding’ language. Rather than conveying genuine information about engineering, it conjures up a vague ‘engineeringy’ mood by using complicated words and facty type stuff. Little better than a L’Oreal advert, where everyone stands around in white coats talking earnestly about advanced pro-cuticles.

    By the way, I own a Dyson and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s massively over-engineered. Changing from one attachment to another creates scenes resembling an F1 pitstop. It has convinced me that the entire Dyson brand is a clever plot devised by women to encourage men to do the hoovering.

  3. Posted 27/09/2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rishi and Nick. Very interesting points. What unites them is a sense that, just possibly, the engineering culture of the company is so powerful it may be over-riding sound communication principles AND sound product design principles. ‘Easy to use, simple to understand’ is coming under pressure from ‘sell the sophisticated engineering’, perhaps. And yet some of their previous press advertising has been beautifully clear and direct. I love ‘vague engineeringy mood’ – that captures it well, and it is very much in that ‘sciencey’ style. All of this reminds me of how clever BMW’s advertising has been. They’ve been selling over-engineered cars for a premium for years, yet their communications are wonderfully clear. It would be great to hear what the people at Dyson have to say. Or perhaps we should simply ask the machine (once he’s finished riding around on a ball, of course).

  4. Posted 05/10/2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Great article and some very valid points made.
    But for me, if this ad means that more men will be inspired to do more vaccuuming in future then it’s a winner!

  5. Posted 05/10/2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment, Tracey.
    Unfortunately, this ad is more likely to inspire men to sit in the garden shed, fiddling with their yoke geometry.

  6. Posted 12/09/2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    An agency has ‘taken over’ – that’s what’s going on (I have no idea, by the way. I’m just guessing).

    It always worries me when writers spend so long critiquing something that is so obviously a load of balls. Poor you getting sucked in.

    I’ve never seen this print ad, so I’m not sure if I’d have been sucked in too. I do know that I laugh at the TV ad for this ball thing a bit.

    I laugh because I think ‘oh yeah, wheels just didn’t work at all, did they?’

    The ball may be even easier, but four wheels DID work when you were hoovering around. It’s one of those non-innovations. Sad that they are focusing on this but there you go. Dyson’s decision, or some advertising/marketing ‘expert”s?

    Wasn’t there a ball-as-wheel innovation in wheelbarrows at some point too? Were they massive? Are they still around? I’m a city boy with a garden to small to warrant a wheelbarrow but I’m sure I still see the good old fashioned one-wheel designs too.

    You’ve reminded me about something else as well. The original Dyson TV ad introducing the cyclone never grabbed me, either. In fact I thought it sucked.

  7. Posted 12/09/2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Hayes. Be interesting to know whether it is an agency or in-house.
    On getting sucked in; I find dissecting why a communication works or doesn’t work helpful. I wish more copywriters shared their views.
    For me, it’s an improvement on the common ‘this is cool/crap’ type of comment – the Facebook ‘like’ button school of critical appraisal.
    Of course, if you’re going to analyse something you should do it thoroughly.
    Talking of copy analysis; this shows how far behind graphic design copywriting is, in terms of critical discussion:
    http://www.abccopywriting.com/blog/2011/09/10/rapped-knuckles/

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