When I was a kid, growing up outside Richmond, Virginia, I looked forward to the rare occasions when we got to go downtown. Richmond is a historic place – and the Virginia Capitol is a wonder to behold (particularly when you’re a tween-ager fascinated by all things Civil War). But my favorite attraction was a few blocks over – I want to say Grace Street , but it was a long time ago. I’m talking, of course, about the Times-Dispatch presses. Back then, the paper was printed downtown, and you could stand right there on the sidewalk and watch the presses roll. Thirty years later, my favorite thing to do as a newspaper publisher was to walk into the press room and snag a paper right off the line, snap it open and check the print quality.
I can’t help it. I’m utterly fascinated with printing presses. When I was a magazine publisher, I volunteered for the inconvenient flight to Baraboo, Wis., whenever my schedule permitted, just so I could hole up in my hotel room til 2 or 3 in the morning, waiting patiently for the call letting me know it was time to do the press check. Since my production manager back then was terrified of flying, it was a win-win for everyone. But mostly me, since I got to stand there ready to shout “STOP THE PRESSES” if necessary. (It never was. Sigh.)
I think I wanted to be a pressman even before the journalism bug bit me. Even now, the wall above my desk shows off an antique printer’s tray and a very-slowly growing collection of type. One of these days, I’ll have a full set – and then I’ll start looking for my own Letterpress. (Laugh all you want. When the zombie apocalypse hits, I’ll be the one you turn to for your daily news!)
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know about the printing press. That invention is what made the protestant Reformation happen! (What, you don’t think Martin Luthor hand-printed hundreds – nay, thousands – of copies of his 91 theses? You don’t think that one copy he nailed to the church door was enough to spark a global shift in religion?)
Here’s another – the word stereotype has itself been stereotyped!
That’s right. Stereotype gets a bad rap, when in fact the original stereotype was a mighty useful implement to old-world pressmen. (Don’t even get me started on “typecast.”) Seriously, before the Internet, before desktop publishing, before electricity, printing plates were set quite literally one letter at a time. These plates – called stereotypes – took a long time to produce. To save time, typesetters would keep templates of words and phrases they used on a regular basis. These templates of ready-to-use phrases were called cliches. (A teacher once told me the word derives from the french word for “click,” but I don’t know if that’s true.)
Nowadays, cliches are stereotyped (did I just say that?) – marketing experts warn you to avoid using them, um, at all costs.
Sure, I don’t ever need to hear “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” again. “But wait – there’s more” has lost any authenticity it may once have held.
But cliches are cliches for a reason – these are journeyman phrases, immediately recognized by almost everyone in almost every demo. They’ve stood the test of time. Today’s cliche can accomplish for a marketer exactly what yesteryear’s cliche accomplished for the pressman: enable important information to be conveyed in a recognizable, easily understandable manner.
Now, don’t go jumping the shark! I’m not suggesting that your marketing recycle old material just because it might be recognizable. But you can draw inspiration – not to mention audience – from a clever twist on a cliche.
One of our favorite examples comes from an old billboard for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, that read: “If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the Monet.”
You see where this is going?