I expect you’ve seen it – the Dish Network commercial with the cowboy hats. The hats just keep getting bigger, and I just keep getting lost. I’ve probably seen the commercial twenty times, and I still have no idea why the hats are getting bigger.


Now, I’ll admit that I might just be missing a reference or allusion to some pop culture thing, but while my own ignorance may be to blame, Dish Network has made a grave error – at least as far as I’m concerned – They’ve made me feel dumb. Every time I watch the commercial I get frustrated and then, because it’s my natural tendency, I blame myself for not “getting it.” (Other personality types might get angry instead – that’s also not good.)

Effective writing, like effective marketing, doesn’t alienate the reader by making her feel dumb or angry; instead, it draws her in and makes her feel smart. A clever innuendo is awesome (think Liz Lemon here) if the reader gets it; it makes her feel “clued in” and intelligent – like she is witty and wise herself. But if there’s any risk that someone might miss the joke or even have to pause and figure it out, the writer is wisest to skip the joke or, at the very least, make sure the story still makes sense without the reference.

That’s not to say that we should dumb down what we write. A really good literary allusion or pop culture “tip of the hat” deepens writing (and gives English majors something to discuss in papers), so don’t be afraid to incorporate them. Do be sure, though, that the piece still works if that reference is missed.

Really good children’s animated films do this well. The first time I saw Toy Story I laughed hysterically, not because of the story line but because of all the smart allusions in the film. Now kids wouldn’t know those references, but that didn’t matter – the movie still made sense without them. But for those of us who took kids to the movie, or like me just saw it because the animation was mind-blowing at the time, there was more to the story, if you’ll forgive the pun. That’s the kind of reference and allusion that make writing work on two levels rather than leaving everyone in the dark.

So please, feel free to clue me in about the cowboy hats if you will. I’d love to understand the joke, but I fear as far as Dish Network is concerned, the damage has been done.

How do you gauge the line between clever reference and complete obfuscation? Have any examples of either to share?