It’s 1994, you’re in Toronto, you want to win awards. And your name is Bernbach.

Randy Diplock is a copywriter at Chiat/Day Advertising.At some point, our industry blinked.And, puns, the ones your Uncle Gord tormented your family with every Christmas, went from lowest-form-of-humor status to gold award.It started innocently enough.Some guy in Scarborough, Ontario was opening...

Randy Diplock is a copywriter at Chiat/Day Advertising.

At some point, our industry blinked.

And, puns, the ones your Uncle Gord tormented your family with every Christmas, went from lowest-form-of-humor status to gold award.

It started innocently enough.

Some guy in Scarborough, Ontario was opening up a new Druxy’s and needed a sign to go up on the hoarding. He calls his Uncle Gord who feeds him the following line:

‘Here we grow again.’

Shortly thereafter, an ad guy drives by, makes note, and the genie is out of the bottle.

(It’s my theory, and I can believe it if I want.)

We vowed we’d never let it happen to us.

But, one day, you’re stuck for a headline for light beer, and, before you know it, the studio’s kerning ‘The Light Idea,’ Guido Basso’s striking up the band, and you’re on a podium at the Harbour Castle hotel shaking hands with Tony Houghton.

Sometimes puns are the answer. Sometimes Madonna abstains

Think about it.

You’re a client, you’ve got a great product, and the creative team wants you to sign a cheque for hundreds of thousands of dollars just because ‘fax’ and ‘facts’ sound the same.

(By the way, for brevity’s sake, I’m referring to anything that’s a cheap play on words as a pun.)

We’ve all punned at one time or another. I’m not talking about harmless conversational puns. As long as it doesn’t get typeset, no one gets hurt.

I must confess, I, too, punned.

The one I did that bothers me most was a transit shelter for The Kids Help Phone.

The visual was a tight shot of telephone buttons and the headline read, ‘With your help, abused kids can punch back.’

Not exactly a time to use humor. If you can call that humorous.

It’s like doing a poster for Live Aid and saying, ‘Pull a few strings for Ethiopia.’ Or, something for the Red Cross that says, ‘Be a litre,’ or, ‘Give red so we’ll be in the black.’

Geez, these things are easier than I thought.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, needless to say, the child abuse poster won awards. I assure you that’s not why I did it, but it won awards.

It was that very ad that made me realize my problem. I mean, all I did was sit down for a couple of minutes and think what words were common to the problem and solution and bingo. Punch. Some of these kids get punched. You can punch telephone buttons. Punch back. Kids can punch back. Punch. Punch. Get it?

All of a sudden I’m on stage with, that’s right, Tony Houghton, and none of it’s making sense. All these people are clapping. Because I made a pun.

The scariest thing is that we’re all on the honor system. The Betty Ford Clinic won’t admit you for such a thing; there’s no Punaholics Anonymous. They’re developing a patch, but it’s still in its infancy.

I know what you’re thinking. Your ad had a pun in it and they couldn’t make deodorant fast enough. Well, sometimes, putting the product in front of millions of people will do that.

‘Ring around the collar’ sold a lot of Wisk, too.

Of all the people I’ve worked with, Ken Wieden gave me the best advice when it came to puns. Besides telling me that plays on words are as deep as a plate of piss, he told me he’d never write another headline he wouldn’t use in a normal everyday conversation.

It seemed to make sense because the reverse is true. Call me crazy, but I just can’t picture Boutros Boutros-Ghali at a state dinner with Yasser Arafat and asking him to ‘peas pass the corn’ in an attempt to impress him.

I haven’t even touched on the most important point of all.

By concerning ourselves with puns, we’re neglecting things that are truly different about our client’s product. Things that might make the consumer consider it over the competition.

Like car rental companies that try harder because they’re #2. Or a car company that’s confident enough in its product to proclaim that it’s ugly but it gets you there. Or by enticing people to buy something as simple as rye bread by saying you don’t have to be Jewish to love it.

But then comparing what Bernbach was doing in New York back then with what’s going on in Toronto today is a little unfair.

Because he wasn’t doing his ads for himself.

He was doing ads for Avis, Volkswagen and Levy’s.