A Copywriter Verses The Super Bowl

A W+K poet talks about writing for the big game.

Super Bowl LII was not lacking in surprises—the “Philly Special” touchdown by a backup quarterback, and the outcome of the game included. Another unexpected twist: a Coca-Cola commercial featuring an original poem written by an actual, living poet — who’s also a copywriter. The spot, “The Wonder of US,” celebrates individuality and features a poem by Becca Wadlinger, a Wieden+Kennedy Portland copywriter who holds an MFA and Ph.D. in creative writing. Here, Wadlinger (aka Dr. Word Lady) talks about poetry in advertising, what a poet’s doing in an agency, and the verses you should be reading right now.

Tell us about the decision to write a poem for the Coke Super Bowl spot.

We wanted to do something inclusive and beautiful, but we didn’t want another manifesto or to steal words from somewhere else. We wanted the writing to be in Coke’s voice, which is optimistic and human. My partner, Brad Trost, is an art director with exquisite taste, so I knew the thing would look fantastic. And being a poet, it seemed like a good way to express a message that’s important for people to hear.

You’re also a poet outside of advertising. How is the process of writing an ad different from writing poetry?

Ads are usually answers to briefs. They’re collaborative, whereas poetry is me sitting alone saying anything I want. Hundreds of minds meld together to make an ad. You make sacrifices and do a lot of creative problem solving. With poetry, if I want to write a prose poem about a butcher’s daughter who pulls a dead pet pig around by a string, I write it. No approvals needed. But with both, you hope someone will listen and connect.

You have a PhD in poetry… What’s involved in that?

Yes. It’s amazing what you can get online! Just kidding. I spent 8 years in graduate school. I translated old Norse and can talk about enjambment in a way that’s sexy. My MFA is from the Michener Center for Writers and my doctorate is from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. I did my comprehensive exams in Poetry (all of it, seriously, the timeline was from the Psalms to Plath), American Literature from 1865–1965, and a self-designed Scandinavian study where I wrote about the incredible Sami poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää.

Becca Wadlinger

Does having a PhD in poetry help with advertising?

I have a different perspective and set of references. I still read a ton and have cultivated a deep love for language. As a bonus, years of writing workshops desensitized me to harsh feedback on my work.

Really, though, it’s just one of those unusual things. You definitely do not need a fancy degree to work in advertising. It’s a fluke. I went a long time without many coworkers knowing about it. After a few years it got around, and now I have nicknames like Dr. Word Lady (thanks, Thomas Harvey!) and Dr. Becca, which is what a few of my clients call me.

How do you get into advertising from the poetry world?

Kevin Jones, a former W+K CD, was a fiction writer in my MFA class. I remember him telling me I’d be good at advertising during our first year seminar. Back then I was all, “Advertising? No thanks.” Several years later I moved to Portland and Lauren Ranke called me in for a freelance job, which was poetry related. I walked in knowing nothing about advertising or this place. I never left.

That’s what I love about W+K: how anyone can come from anywhere. Ideas come from anywhere. I’ve met creatives who were formerly physicists and janitors. I don’t know if any other agency would’ve hired a poet. It seems crazy. But kids, if you’re listening, go ahead and tell your parents you can study poetry forever and still get a job.

Do you still write outside of advertising?

Absolutely. I just spoke about this with art director and illustrator Nick Stokes, and we agreed that neither of us could work in advertising unless we had an artistic life outside of it. So much of advertising work dies in the process, but writers are egotistical and need to be making things for themselves all the time.

Poetry is a hugely meaningful part of my life. It’s a way of seeing the world. I communicate with poets I love through my own poems. I talk to dead people. My relationship to poetry is something that’ll be forming and reforming for the rest of my life.

And you have a book coming out next year?

Yes. My first collection Terror/Terrible/Terrific is forthcoming from Octopus Books in 2019. My personal work is imaginative, surreal, strange, and often morbid. A far cry from the Coke spot! But the poems are also sometimes funny and hoping to make the world a more empathetic place.

I want to read a poem. What poem should I read?

Very good question. Right now I’d go for Dinosaurs in the Hood by Danez Smith. And Perpetually Attempting to Soar by Mary Ruefle. And The Sheep Child by James Dickey, if you’d like something spoken by a half-human, half-sheep oddity.

You can read more interviews about writing and translation with Becca here.