Watching the unfortunately titled (I’ll get to why in a minute) Inventing David Geffen on PBS, I was struck by what an amazing trendsetter Geffen was. He had an unflinching talent to read and then create cultural moments. First with music, then with film.
Think about it. Geffen was responsible for the success Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, CCSN, Jackson Brown but also Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Counting Crows, Hole, and Beck. Not to mention the co-founder of DreamWorks.
Given his track record, I think PBS make a mistake in framing his biography in terms of self-invention. Yes, I know he was gay and coming out was big for him personally. Yes, he was a poor kid from Brooklyn. But that seems like a minor subplot in an otherwise bigger life. The story, it seems to me, was his unwavering ability to discover, nurture and create a cultural context for his artists. His gift was three-fold:
1. Geffen understood the historical moment. In “Doctor My Eyes,” Geffen artist Jackson Browne sings “I’ve been waiting to awaken from these dreams,” and with that line articulates the post-60’s malaise. Many of the music he represented in the 1970’s had a feeling of introspection and inwardness, which was how the country seemed to be feeling. Likewise, in the indulgent Reagan era 1980’s Geffen gave us Aerosmith, with more sex, less guilt. And then there was Nirvana in the 90’s ready to deal with all that Gen X rage.
2. Geffen understood and could spot talent, even potential talent. Lots of people can read “the times” and make trending predictions. But he could take something raw and nurture into something better. Not that his artists were always happy with his decisions, but that he took his work seriously—and that created a culture of craftsmanship around him.
3. Finally, he knew how to market the hell out of his artists and fought like the Brooklyn kid he was to do so. It’s not easy to sell something that is ahead of its time but Geffen managed it over and over and over again.
The question is: Was Geffen an artist as much as Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan? Or maybe Andy Warhol is a better analogy? Or maybe we need another word for what he did. I like the idea of culturist—someone who is able to not only predict and understand cultural changes but is able to create works of art that articulate a moment.
Look what I found at PBS.org. This is an example of Web site copy that serves neither its brand nor its purpose. It is, in fact, bad copy. Not because it is poorly written, but because it doesn’t understand the user.
First of all, the message “Become a PBS Insider” is off-brand for the public supported broadcaster. The very point of PBS is that it’s free, quality programming for everyone without commercials. It’s the antithesis of exclusive. I get that they are going for an aspirational, emotional message, which I would applaud, except that it’s not right for the audience.
Secondly, the offer needlessly over-promises. Consider the descriptive text “Get the inside scoop on what’s happening at PBS. Receive monthly updates, gain access to PBS exclusives and more!” This copy oversells something that does not need to be oversold. I bet people who go to PBS.org would be delighted to receive a free monthly email reminding them of new series, favorite shows and schedules, without some promise of “PBS exclusives,” which if experience serves me correctly, is something completely meaningless. I would argue that even offering all this might turn people away, particularly PBS viewers as it reeks of such a strong sales message.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the header confuses the user. As we know, people scan websites, meaning that all headers need to be clear and concise in order to register. “Become a PBS Insider” doesn’t tell me enough to read further. A more appropriate title would be” “Sign Up for Monthly Email”
Copywriters, marketing directors and content managers please pay more attention to your copy. Your users will thank you.