Emily Zarndt swore by Barkthins.
She stuffed packages of the chocolate-and-seed treats into her backpack before hikes and bike rides and urged friends to give the product a try. She was, she said recently, “kind of addicted.”
Then, she happened upon a Bay Village billboard exhorting consumers — in a cartoonish Boston accent — to eat Bahkthins. “That’s Boston,” the ad read, “for snacking chocolate.”
Zarndt was put out. Not only did she consider it a confusing bit of marketing — what did chocolate bark have to do with the New England dialect? — but even as a relative newcomer to the city, she found the use of the accent trite and overdone.
“It’s just so annoying,” says the 29-year-old quantitative software developer, who has since disavowed the brand, teaching herself how to produce a version of the snack at home. “These companies are just trying to grab attention . . . and I don’t like it.”
Blame it on the Wahlbergs — or all those Boston-set movies — but lately, advertisers seem to have decided that the only way to win over Boston consumers is by playing up The Accent. On billboards and subway placards popping up across the city, companies peddling everything from bourbon to cold medicine are dropping their r’s in the name of sales.
In the years since Dish Network memorably hawked its Hopper service with the help of a Boston-centric family repeatedly bellowing “Hoppah!,” trucks have rumbled through Greater Boston streets pitching “Makah’s Maahk” whiskey. A recent ad for the dog DNA-testing company Embark featured a Boston terrier in a reindeer costume, with a voice bubble reading, “No, I am not paht reindeah” — while a current campaign for DayQuil VapoCool urges Bostonians to “Vapah-rize yah cold.”
And in a city that’s nothing if not proud, the onslaught has quickly drawn the ire of many locals who consider the practice hackneyed, patronizing, and hopelessly out of touch.
“You can’t just slap up ‘Wicked pissah’ onto a billboard and hope to relate to Bostonians,” says Kathy Kiely, president of the Ad Club in Boston, a trade association for New England’s marketing, media, and communications industries.
For the record, John McHugh isn’t opposed to some good old-fashioned Boston nose-tweaking; like many, the lifelong Massachusetts resident got a kick out of 2016’s “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring Casey Affleck as a chain-smoking, r-dropping Dunkin’ Donuts regular.
But the incessant attempts to appeal to Bostonians through references to their supposed dialect?
“It’s trying to play on some sort of regional sense of pride to make me buy your product,” says McHugh, who works in health care. “And if anything, it makes me do the opposite.”
The practice of tailoring ads to specific markets has grown increasingly popular, says Doug Gould, an advertising professor at Boston University who also works as a creative and art director; in recent years, advertisers have relied on a variety of regional tropes and colloquialisms in an attempt to forge a connection — injecting a y’all into a marketing campaign in the South, for instance, or using surfer-speak to appeal to consumers in California.
“Clients and agencies like the idea of trying to create some aura of personalization for the consumer,” Gould says. “If you can get closer to them, find a way to relate to them — whether it’s by targeting their likes or dislikes, or through the way you speak to them — you have a better chance of being successful.”
The problem, he and others say, is that it’s a lot easier said than done.
In many cases, the ads are being produced by agencies based far outside of New England, by creative teams relying upon little more than a quick Google search to try to capture the city’s essence — so it’s no surprise, perhaps, that things don’t always go well.
Having studied linguistics at the University of Sydney in Australia, Bibek Gurung took particular exception to the DayQuil ad, which he said altered a word — “vaporize” — that Bostonians don’t even pronounce differently.
“It makes me roll my eyes,” says Gurung, a 27-year-old who works in marketing and communications in Boston.
Adds Mark Philip, vice president and group creative director at Digitas in Boston: “It’s easy to do it bad; it’s hard to do it good.”
But not impossible.
The state’s recent “Use Yah Blinkah” electronic road signs, while not technically an advertisement, generated a largely positive response. And Dunkin’ — which regularly peddles Boston stereotypes in an effort to sell coffee — gets a pass, many locals say, because it’s homegrown. (As Kiely puts it, “Family gets to make fun of themselves.”)
One ad commonly held up as a successful use of the accent was last year’s “Be a Masshole,” a video spot in which a tough-talking man at a bar urges citizens — in a profanity-laced dialect packed with Boston references — to support transgender rights.
The ad drew a warm reception in advertising circles. Still, the folks behind it were understandably nervous about how the public might react.
“I don’t think we were all high-fiving each other” afterward, says MullenLowe creative director Ben Salsky, who calls the Boston accent an advertising “third rail.”
“We were like, ‘Phew, we [got] it right.’ ”
At the end of the day, says the Ad Club’s Kiely, it comes down to authenticity.
When she was starting out in the business years ago, there was a popular industry creed: You don’t have to be a dog to write a dog food ad. But in today’s world, where increasingly savvy consumers can snuff out disingenuousness — and outsider pandering — quicker than ever, she’s not quite sure the old adage holds up.
“In this day and age, you almost do have to be a dog to do a dog food ad,” Kiely says. “Or at least get the dog’s opinion.”Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.