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It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it

The general consensus out there seems to be that French Connection’s new ad campaign is a right royal triumph. If you’ve been living under a stone for the past few months and haven’t seen it, click here to see what I’m on about.

This Is The Woman, This Is The Man has a cool, art-housey feel to it. A little bit French New Wave, with some arch copy (‘This is the man. He knows not what sequins is’). Brilliant! It’s as if the creators put in photos and text into a machine, pulled a lever, and out popped a lump of gold. Instant iconic advertising.

But something struck me as curious. The copy for the adverts for The Man are all in UPPERCASE. The copy for The Woman is all lowercase. Mais pourquoi?

My inner lentil-eating bra burner finds this mighty suspicious. Why are the slogans for The Man ‘Eat meat. Dress well’ and ‘Man should be brave”, but the ones for the Woman are ‘She knows we are looking’? Are they really trying to promote the message that the ideal French Connection woman is just a pretty thing to look at?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Perhaps the CAPITAL LETTERS are just to try and catch men’s attention because otherwise they won’t read it. Like having the menswear section on the ground floor, because otherwise they won’t bother to go upstairs.

Actually, this wasn’t going to be my main point. My main point was that typography matters. The way you shape the letters conveys subtle things about the meaning of the text. This is why I’ve interpreted the lowercase text as implying inferiority in comparison to the uppercase.

This isn’t news to anyone in design, but it’s something I hadn’t worried my pretty little head about much until recently. Ever since joining Velocity I’ve coveted the wooden letterpress blocks that we’ve got decorating the office. I finally got some of my own and I love them. But why? They’re just letters.

It could be my medievalist’s background: I studied manuscripts and book hands from the middle ages. Back then, people cared about how text looked (most of the time) because books were so expensive and written out by hand. Not only that, but they were beautiful because the content mattered. Reading a book of prayers was a visual as well as cognitive process. The image of the word on the page stuck in the mind as much as the meaning.

It’s the same association between the look of the word and the meaning that advertisers exploit. Guinness had several typefaces in the early years but since 1963 they’ve used a custom-made typeface called Hobbs, which is instantly recognizable:

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This is what it would look like in other typefaces:

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Just doesn’t work does it? It’s like having Coca-Cola as Coca-Cola. It’ll never catch on. Guinness needs to look sturdy and beefy but a bit old-school. It’s a classic, and it’s typeface needs to be classic too. Coca-Cola has to look carefree and fun with a bit of 1950’s diner about it. Perhaps I only think that because that’s how it’s always been, but Guinness has been through several incarnations and the unifying theme seems to be that they all feel stout and robust and no-nonsense. Just like a pint of Guinness.

And on that note, I’m off down the pub.

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