Why Johnny Runs Screaming From His Reading Assignment

by Freddy J. Nager

When Johnny first began trying to decipher this textbook, he was 16 years old.

Forget the question of why Johnny can’t read. For today’s students, ask “Why does Johnny dream of dropping out before he gets his master’s degree? Why does Johnny’s professor feel like running, too?”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the average business textbook.

Most business textbooks read like an IRS instruction manual first translated from English into Urdu then back into English by an iPhone app developed in an Uzbekistani sweatshop under the direction of a bad Shakespearean actor with a migraine.

And that’s when they’re interesting.

When they’re boring, they sound something like this excerpt from Advertising Media Planning (Seventh Edition):

“The marketing goals that the company and the agency agree upon should, if achieved, result in the solution of the marketing problem.”

It’s hardly the worst sentence I’ve ever read in a textbook, but let’s clean that up anyway, shall we?

“The marketing goals shared by the company and the agency should solve the marketing problem.”

Notice the issue here: after we eliminate the junk words and clauses, we find a sentence that’s so dull and obvious, even a caveman would say “duh.” “Marketing goals should solve marketing problems.” Yeah, that insight is worth the price of a textbook. No wonder the authors fussed that sentence up.

Here’s the next sentence:

“Marketing goals are measurable in most cases and provide a means of determining whether the strategy employed has been effective.”

After a slim-fast diet:

“Usually measurable, marketing goals can tell us whether the strategy works.”

When stripped of its accessories, the statement doesn’t sound very enlightening, does it? And if anything, a textbook must sound enlightening even if it doesn’t have anything to say.

So we put all the junk words back in, along with an army of subordinate clauses, fill 428 pages with similar prose from Dante’s Terms & Conditions, and (ta-daa!) we’ve got a textbook — a textbook that students won’t read, and that instructors like me have to translate before a live audience.

A textbook’s top priority should be education. (Insert caveman “duh” here.) For a major publishing house in a country filled with millions of professional writers desperately seeking work, there’s no excuse for sloppy prose — particularly in an advertising textbook developed by advertising experts.

What? A book that's informative AND readable? We can't take that seriously now, can we?

At the same time, I’ve been rereading Ogilvy on Advertising— not a textbook, but a professional’s ruminations on his craft. As could be expected from a legendary ad copywriter, the prose is concise and lucid and even passionate. Succinct sentences like “You can’t bore people into buying your product” slide right off the page into the brain for future reference.

So Johnny, don’t run yet. I’m trying to replace the overpriced 428-page tomes with slimmer volumes from professionals who not only do the work, but know how to explain it. I’ll just have to translate everything else for you. Hopefully, someone will soon invent an app for that.

Guest Blogger Freddy J. Nager teaches courses in social media, entrepreneurship and marketing at AULA. The founder of agency Atomic Tango LLC, Freddy has over two decades of professional experience in marketing and media, including 17 online. He previously worked for music label MCA Records and major ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and served such clients as Nissan & Infiniti, the NFL on Fox, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, National Lampoon and numerous startups. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MBA from the University of Southern California