Yesterday, I wrote about John McNally’s book After the Workshop, in which a writer with an MFA from Iowa has to take a job as a media escort because he can’t finish his novel. Driving far more successful writers than oneself around a city might seem like a pretty crummy job, but if I had to choose, I’d rather play chauffeur to midlist hacks than take what surely must be the worst writing job in the world: crafting the prose for Groupons.
If you aren’t familiar with Groupon, it’s a web site that offers a special deal to people who subscribe to its emailed offers. Most of the Groupons don’t interest me — I’m really not interested in spray tanning or teeth whitening, which seem to make up a hefty percentage of the mailings — but I’m always happy to get 50% off at a restaurant. I recently bought a 2-for-1 coupon at Five in Berkeley, which I’d been wanting to try.
However, every day, I have to keep myself from unsubscribing to the mailings, because they bug me so much. Here is a typical description of a hair-styling establishment: “The earliest salons were informal gatherings where B-list philosophers gibbered away so they couldn’t hear themselves dying of plague. Get an earful of the modern salon’s soothing hair-dryer purrs and scissor chop-chops instead with today’s deal: for $30, you get $100 worth of services at Gary Patrick Salon at its location in Pleasanton.”
In the world of Groupon, hair is described as “frayed head threads,” while spray tanners are “handheld hue-changers” and teeth are “mouth cubes.” I know this is supposed to be clever and attention-grabbing, but the tortured prose leaves me feeling like a “malaise-filled lemur,” to use another Grouponism. I had to find out: who writes this stuff? I pictured one freaky guy, perhaps someone who had watched a few too many episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” sitting at a desk at Groupon headquarters in Chicago with a thesaurus and a flacon of absinthe at his side.
However, apparently there is a whole staff of Grouponistas, and they’re hiring more. According to this help-wanted post, “We regularly hire full-time, in-house writers, who craft write-ups on our featured businesses and express what makes the experience and the merchant compelling… Copywriters inject creative, humorous tangents that are short, well-timed, and within Groupon Voice.”
The Groupon Voice! That’s the official name for what has been driving me crazy for these past few months. Wanting to learn more — or perhaps just a glutton for punishment — I checked out the Groupon style guide, a Google doc which helps the company’s saucy scribes learn the basics of purple prose. (See, it’s contagious.) Take a look at the Groupon thesaurus, which features this chilling list of synonyms for “hands”: “wrist-mitts, finger-docks, arm paddles, cheek slappers, open-faced knuckle sandwiches, Michigan silhouettes (only use in Midwest), turkey tracers/stencils, clapping utensils (good for events), knuckle wagons, 5-pronged pals, knuckle steaks, shake traps, high-five dispensers, nail farms, finger farms.” OK, I will admit that I sort of like “Michigan silhouettes,” and am disappointed that I will never see this description here in California.
The “humor taboos” doc goes into dos and don’ts: for instance, “over-used, unfunny humor crutches” are to be avoided (“Mullets, Snuggies, midgets, ligers” — I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a humorous reference to a liger, so obviously the Groupon folks keep different company than I do), as are too-specific references. “Feel as privileged as Bertie Wooster with the staff as your personal valet” is a no-no (what, Groupon subscribers aren’t Wodehouse fans?), while “Feel as privileged as an onion ring in a box of french fries, as the staff personally pick up and drop off your dry cleaning” is recommended as a substitute.
I see what the Groupon folks are going for, I really do. I recently heard an interview on NPR with Henry E. Scott, author of a new book called Shocking True Story: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine. Scott read some excerpts from the mag, which were heavy on alliteration and wordplay. This article about Liberace is a good example of Confidential‘s salacious style: “[T]he pudgy pianist’s many faithful fans would have popped their girdles if they had witnessed their idol in action last year in an offstage production that saw old Kittenish on the Keys play one sour note after another in his clumsy efforts to make beautiful music with a handsome but highly reluctant young publicity man.”
However, the Groupon prose is just too yucky. A brunch cruise of San Francisco Bay is described thusly: “While delicious edibles invade your largest head-hole, gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay will captivate your dual orbital openings…” That gruesome head-hole imagery doesn’t inspire me to want to sip champagne and nibble on French toast, though it sort of makes me want to listen to some Nine Inch Nails. This excerpt from an offer for Buttercup Grill & Bar is even worse: “The selection of beer, wine, and frozen non-alcoholic drinks make excellent candidates to chauffer the tasty bites down the body’s food chute, and eventually into the gastronomic ball pit at the bottom.” Food chute? Ball pit? Are you trying to make me hungry or nauseous?
Here’s some food prose that did inspire me to action, from the Rivoli Restaurant newsletter: “Sweet corn is SO sweet and delicious right now, so Wendy’s making her spoonbread soufflé with it, surrounded by a fresh summer succotash and paired with the perfect saltiness of Iowa’s La Quercia prosciutto… We’re offering a Moroccan summer vegetable plate, highlighted by an artichoke b’steeya (that awesome filo pie we sometimes do with duck), house-made yogurt and gypsy peppers stuffed with couscous and pinenuts…” We went last night, and for the record, both the soufflé and the vegetable plate were indeed tasty.
Anyone care to try to translate that into Grouponese? I’ll start: “For thousands of years, maize mazes have thwarted would-be corn-eaters from putting ears down their pie-holes. Capture a cob without getting lost in a labyrinth at Rivoli…” Ugh, I feel dirty now. I think I’d rather make my living writing those fake letters to Penthouse.