Nick Olson, Student at University of Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton School

When my classmates find out I studied poetry in college, their typical reaction is, “Oh, so THAT’S how you wound up in law school!” And, in fact, studying poetry really did lead me to studying law and business – not because the market for poetry analysts had dried up, but because poetry taught me to appreciate all the subtle nuances in business communication and marketing.

Take, for example, some of the slogans from the marketing geniuses at Apple Inc. One of the very first slogans for the Macintosh computer back in 1993 was “It does more. It costs less. It’s that simple.”

See how effective that slogan is? One read and you’re halfway to memorizing it. Its pithy force led Apple to use it as a sort of slogan template for other products: iTunes had the slogan “Rip. Mix. Burn.” The 16 gigabyte iPhone had “More music. More video. More iPhone.” The 2008 iMac had “Beauty. Brains. And Now More Brawn.” Mac OS X had “It’s Here. It’s Real. It’s Amazing.”

Why does Apple love these kinds of slogans so much? Before you turn to ask a marketing analyst, you might consider going and asking a poet, because poets have a name for this sort of thing. It’s called an “isocolon,” and poets employ its crispness and parallel structure to leave an impact on readers. You can see why marketers like to use it as well – like Julius Caesar’s “I came. I saw. I conquered,” an isocolon can make a lasting impression on both readers and consumers.

But isocolons aren’t the only linguistic tool in the poet’s toolbox. Consider this memorable slogan from Bounce fabric softener: “Stops static before static stops you." This is a figure of speech poets call "antimetabole," and it has been used as a powerful, memorable rhetorical gesture by presidents ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country") and religious figures ("The last shall be first and the first shall be last") alike. Marketers too like to use it – it’s memorable, it’s piquant, and it’s effective.

Let me share one last tool from the poet’s toolbox. It’s called “anaphora,” and it’s the use of parallelism at the beginning of successive phrases or sentences. Here’s an example: the Coca-Cola Company, perhaps the biggest all-star in the history of marketing, ran an effective slogan in 1939: “Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you may be, when you think of refreshment, think of ice cold Coca-Cola.” Its repetitive and parallel force makes it one of the most effective poetic or rhetorical tools there are. It was the force behind Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. It’s the force behind the Beatitudes. And it’s the force behind many marketing slogans, too.

Poetry taught me to try to wield words like a doctor wields a scalpel. Or like an apprentice mechanic learning that it’s called a “lug wrench” and not a “twisty tire doohickey,” poetry transforms a writer’s and a marketer’s confusing mental hodgepodge into a rhetorical toolbox. It taught me to spend more time turning words into ideas, instead of wasting time trying to turn ideas into words. And it can teach marketers, slogan-writers, and branders, too.

P.S. I used all three kinds of poetic and rhetorical tools in the article itself. Let us know in the comments if you can find them all! 

  • Rose

    “it‚Äôs memorable, it‚Äôs piquant, and it‚Äôs effective.”
    i found one, the isocolon!

  • Grandfather Brown

    Here’s what I found:
    “It was the force behind Martin Luther King‚Äôs ‚ÄúI have a dream‚Äù speech. It‚Äôs the force behind the Beatitudes. And it‚Äôs the force behind many marketing slogans, too.” — anaphora
    “it‚Äôs memorable, it‚Äôs piquant, and it‚Äôs effective.” — isocolon
    “It taught me to spend more time turning words into ideas, instead of wasting time trying to turn ideas into words.” — antimetabole
    Your article is outstandingly well written.

  • Steve Baird

    Nick, you have certainly set the bar high for future guest posts here on DuetsBlog, thanks for your thoughtful and impressive contribution!
    Here is my brief and incomplete evaluation of your contribution: “It’s timely, it’s well-written, and it’s relevant.”
    Now I know what an isocolon is, thanks!

  • sarmsitha tarafder

    Thank you for imparting the mind behind the lyrics.
    Now I know about “isocolon”, “antimetabole” and ‚Äúanaphora‚Äù.

  • I agree with you in the broadening vistas of a poet’s vision. The poet becomes like
    Some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken
    Or like stout Cortez who with eagle eyes
    Gazed at the Pacific
    The poet has a greater vantage point to be able to command language rather than be commanded by language. Like Humpty Dumpty he makes a word stand up on its hind legs and then pays it extra.
    One point of disagreement, though. I’m sure you did not mean to limit the benefit of poetry to this only but it seems to me that a practical use of poetic power is something of a degradation. The poet also, as you know, has a sense of awe and perhaps holy terror at the immensity of the thing he deals with. To continue Keats’ poem:
    and all his men
    Stared at each other in a wild surmise
    Silent on a peak in Darien.
    There is a silence that comes to the poets’ house when no one can sleep, but its the silence of real artistic creation; to know that, as Michael Edwards suggests, every act of creation is a death and resurrection and in his admiration of, command of, creation of poetry the artist participates in a sacra creatura, a hagiapoesis, which leaves him, to some degree, breathless and incapable of meriting profit for his work.
    Of course after the hagiapoesis of getting up on his hind legs he is in his right to demand to be paid extra, too.

  • Great post. Always inspiring to return to the elementals.