Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Eat Here, We Have Heavy-Metal Windows!

The errors that occur in published material extend well beyond spelling and punctuation, although those are the most common. The fact that a firm or business hires professionals to create its ads or news releases or whatever is no guarantee that the result will be error-free and effective.

A fine example of PR myopia and carelessness appeared in a recent issue of a tabloid-sized advertising publication called The Merchandiser. Under the banner head “Featured Restaurant” appears a half-page ad for a newly opened place in downtown Frederick, Md. There is a four-color photograph of an unidentifiable food construct (it might be caviar atop a slice of cheddar cheese atop a very thin cracker) balanced on the back of a spoon. Beneath that are six short paragraphs in a very readable sans serif typeface, followed by the hours of operation, address, phone number, and website. Despite the oddity of the food image, the ad gives a good impression—until you read it.

Let’s start with two ludicrous errors in word choice, both in the homophone category. In paragraph three we are told that the restaurant’s Main Dining Room (their capitals) is “awash in a palate of amber and burnt rose.” Burnt anything offends my palate; the confusion of palate with palette offends my sensibilities. Then, in paragraph five, we learn that there is a “vintage palladium window overlooking Market Street.” When did they begin making windows out of a metal related to platinum? Such a window would weigh a ton and cost a fortune and not be at all transparent. A Palladian window, on the other hand, would look very handsome. To make matters worse, the sentence in which this imbecility appears is a grammatical mess.

Who made these errors? Who wrote this copy? I can only speculate and deduce. I was told by someone associated with the restaurant that they work with a PR firm. Perhaps there was a meeting at which the client requested that the ad mention the colors of the main dining room; the client may even have specified that the palette was amber and burnt rose, and the error here is entirely the copywriter’s. If the client prepared the copy and actually had the word palate written down, the PR firm should have caught the error; that is part of their job. Regardless of whether they made the error or failed to catch it, this howler is a blot on their reputation.

The confusion between palladium and Palladian is on another level entirely. I can envision several possible scenarios, all of which involve Spellcheck. It’s a certainty that the client knew what a Palladian window is, and the fault here belongs solely to the PR firm. Perhaps the client wrote Palladian but misspelled it; perhaps the copywriter mistyped it into the computer; or perhaps the client said Palladian and the copywriter heard it wrong or wrote the unfamiliar word down phonetically. My Spellcheck program offers both Palladian and palladium as alternatives for a likely misspelling, and I see the copywriter picking one without bothering to look it up even though he obviously didn’t know the meaning of either. For shame! May the shade of Andrea Palladio haunt you! (If he did know the meaning and used palladium anyway, his ignorance extends well beyond language.)

Now we come to the biggest problem with this ad. It has nothing to do with grammar, word choice, or punctuation, but it is something a good editor would have queried. The six paragraphs of text in this half-page ad for a restaurant tell us a great deal about the nineteenth-century brownstone that houses it, the décor and ambience of its various rooms, and its location in Frederick’s historic district. Oddly, only half a sentence mentions the food served in this marvelous edifice, and that only vaguely. To quote every word of it, we can look forward to “seasonal entrées” that “showcase classic flavor combinations prepared with fresh, local ingredients.”

So what kind of cuisine does this restaurant offer? New American? Classic French? Thai? The restaurant’s name, a shortening of the executive chef’s last name, isn’t much of a clue. His name is Italian; do we assume the cuisine is Italian? Turns out the place espouses a food philosophy called locavorism—that’s vor as in omnivore and loca as in local, not as in crazy. Call me crazy, but I believe most people debating where to go for dinner don’t choose a place because the architecture is exceptional. Some might be moved to try this one simply because it’s new and sounds elegant. But most people decide where to eat based on the kind of food that might be offered, and they have been given no useful information. This fundamental oversight is a fatal flaw.

This PR firm has produced an ad that doesn’t tell us the most important thing about the business being advertised and uses an unappetizing image to boot. (“What is that? Caviar on cheddar? Yecch!”) The promise of seasonal entrées, classic flavor combinations, and fresh ingredients is not very enticing. You expect that much from any fine restaurant. Good advertising sells the sizzle. This ad isn’t even selling the steak. It’s telling us all about the walls. Is the cuisine less appealing than the décor? Isn't the locavorism philosophy worth one paragraph out of six?

The client’s advertising budget has been ill-spent on an ad that contains not one but two laughable errors and will not entice nearly as many people as a well-conceived, well-written, and well-imaged one would have done. If this were my business, I’d probably be looking for a new PR firm. I would also make a point of proofreading all copy before giving it my approval to avoid embarrassment in the future.

This is article 4 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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