Don’t Call It San Fran
Going beyond superficial research to write compelling localized ad copy.
Universally beloved by clients, creatives, and media buyers, the use of hyper-local references in ads is a treacherous tactic. While a well-executed reference can certainly make a dull ad feel more relevant, reaching for hastily-researched local landmarks or cultural touchstones can just as easily turn a campaign from award-worthy to cringeworthy.
It’s the geographical equivalent of using ‘yeet’ or ‘bae’ in your Gen-Z-targeted copy and praying that it lands more as a meta we’re saying this knowing you’ll make fun of it and that’s okay because we’re in on the joke rather than we did 10 minutes of googling and are pretty sure this slang is still current. Occasionally it works out. But all too often, what seemed clever to the copywriter ends up confusing at best — and sometimes the object of ridicule. In my hometown of Atlanta it was fait accompli that either the terrible traffic or the preponderance of ‘Peachtree’ streets would be the we get you wink a writer would use.
During my seven years in San Francisco I’ve collected a few examples of successful geotargeted ad copy — and also a few fails. To start, let’s take a look at two approaches to calling out a regional vacation destination. For someone doing Wikipedia research rather than talking to real residents of the area, this sort of flub is easy to make — related to how some regions use a definite article before a highway number, while others simply use the number.
In the first example, Verizon — an East Coast company with an East Coast ad agency — mistakenly refers to a Northern California vacation as a ‘Lake Tahoe getaway.’ Anyone who’s lived in California (or Reno, for that matter) can tell you that Lake Tahoe is simply ‘Tahoe.’ Ebay, on the other hand, nails the terminology. It’s likely because eBay is headquartered in the Bay Area and used its in-house creative team — or else some writer just did his/her due diligence. Either way, eBay sounds like they know who they’re talking to.
Another East Coast company that misses the mark is Smirnoff. While the writer correctly identified SOMA (South of Market) as an SF neighborhood, he/she mistakenly assumed there must also be a NOMA. Joke’s on you, anonymous copywriter — we may have a NEMA (building), but we have no NOMA.
On the positive side I spotted this OKCupid billboard, one example from a campaign that adapted the NSFW acronym DTF to be more SFW by changing the meaning of the final letter in various ways. In this ad the F stands for Filbert Street Steps, a steep stairway that does indeed make for a romantic first-date stroll.
Going beyond geographical shoutouts, some brands attempt references to the zeitgeist of a given area. Sometimes this works, as in the Forward poster below. Relevant vis-à-vis both audience and timing (it appeared as Bay Area residents returned from the event — including one particularly smart placement along the highway entering the city), it’s as likely to elicit a smile from Burners as it is from those who roll their eyes at them.
Other tech companies inexplicably drop the ball when trying to tap in to local culture, as in this ad for Unison, a real estate startup. While the Bay Area is famous for its affluence, this company inexplicably name-drops a distinctly un-SF way to get wealthy. They could have said ‘be a VC,’ ‘have a successful exit,’ or other variations on startup success, but instead chose perhaps the most stereotypically Manhattanny profession. (The fact that the lines of type aren’t evenly left-aligned is also worrisome.)
Occasionally intentional inaccuracy is used to great effect, as in the ad below. The B2B company Segment successfully satirizes geotargeted ad fails, cheerfully proclaiming ‘Good morning, LA!’ to San Francisco residents, touting its data analysis services with tongue in cheek.
Ideally, local ad campaigns would be written by actual locals. But of course, it’s financially and logistically impractical to hire creatives on the ground in every market a company wants to advertise in. So what to do? How to ensure your New York copywriter writes headlines that ring true in Kansas City?