I bought some veg from Ant and Dec over the weekend. Well, not directly from them. They’ve lent their voices to M&S’s self-checkout machines. But what they definitely haven’t lent M&S is their personality.
Dec asked me to “Please insert your card” while the person at the checkout next to me got a “Card accepted” from Ant. If you close your eyes, it’s like an army of AIs have infiltrated the shop, jabbering away inane roboticisms about Sparks cards and the bagging area.
Imagine if their scripts for Britain’s Got Talent sounded similarly stilted. “Please begin your performance,” they might say, ushering a talking dog onto the stage. Then “Performance complete” as the dog saunters back into the wings, head bowed from a Simon Cowell bollocking.
The whole thing reminded me of all those funky flight safety videos that started coming out a few years back. Like the Air New Zealand one set in Middle Earth and the BA one starring Sir Ian McKellen and his A-list pals.
They got loads and loads of attention (and rightly so – it takes guts to refresh a staid old format). But I always had a nagging feeling they could’ve been so much better if someone had put their hand up and pointed out that the dialogue was terrible.
You’ve got Gillian Anderson in the BA one saying, “In the unlikely event of the aircraft having to make an emergency landing, you will be told to adopt this protective brace position.”
In the Air New Zealand one you’ve got an elf saying, “Lightweight handheld electronic devices may be used at any time.” And then Peter Jackson says, “For more information please refer to the safety card, or ask one of the flight attendants.”
I’ll forgive the elf, but why didn’t Peter Jackson say something? He’s got three Oscars!
This whole thing reveals how insidious bad writing is. It’s everywhere. It’s on our road signs and in our text books. It’s in our websites and the letters we get through the post. And the worst bit is that it’s even there when there’s a good idea and a big marketing budget.
As writers, it’s our job to fight back. To spot those moments of boring mediocrity and fight for risky interestingness instead.
If we don’t, nobody’s going to notice. But they will if we do.