Products? You’re having a laugh

How many tedious descriptions of new products and product applications have you read or tried to read in magazines or on websites? Too many, I suspect. I have certainly written too many during my career.

The problem is that the manufacturer sends out a press release and a hapless journalist is faced with editing and improving it – with, usually, no additional information. It isn’t too bad if there is a real story to tell. The highest standards of insulation, the lowest embodied energy, the fewest contaminants, a new simple technical solution – all these require is a little journalistic cynicism, the addition of a few phrases like ‘the manufacturer claims’ and it’s all done.

If the reader is impressed, they will follow up with the manufacturer and attempt to verify if those claims are justified. All the journalist is doing really is bringing the essential elements of the product to the reader’s attention. Nobody specifies directly from a piece in a magazine.

But there is a category of products that sells almost entirely on aesthetics. The specifier is choosing them because they think they look nice and, of course, only if they can afford them. So the words accompanying the picture are of little real value beyond telling the reader which materials are used (it is hard to tell real stone from reconstituted in a small photo).

Because there is the least to say, the press releases tend to be of the poorest quality. Once you strip out the meaningless superlatives, the release says little more than ‘This is a new sink. It looks nice.’ How does the poor journalist deal with this? They could write something that is equally anodyne. Or they could do what Michael Willoughby has recently done for the RIBA Journal and have a laugh. 

Michael conjures up mental images of hunter-gatherer husbands dragging home half a deer to cook on their barbecue ovens, of bored parents entertaining their children with science experiments on their lab-like kitchen worktops and of the vain but aging needing an ever-larger sink top to accommodate their growing collection of potions.

This is refreshing and memorable. And it is as likely to spark interest among potential specifiers as the usual pabulum – possibly more so.

Congratulations all round, although I am not sure that this approach would work as well when describing bricks and blocks – or, dare I say, rooflights?

Ruth Slavid

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