A pitfall of writing advertising copy is to try and grab attention, the idea is that once people are attracted or intrigued, they’ll read the rest of the message and buy the product, unfortunately, this just isn’t the case, if it was, we’d all be buying random goods against our will because we’d seen them advertised on buses or the internet, emerging later from our trance with yet another unwanted pair of shoes, If we’re honest, we all know from our own experience that momentary distraction doesn’t translate into a purchase, but somehow, when it comes to writing our marketing materials, wishful thinking or delusion sets in and we fall into the trap of trying to get attention, I once walked past a clothes shop, outside which was a model skeleton sitting at a table and a sign saying: Clothes to die for, it raises a smile, which is nice, but would it actually make you want to buy clothes? The slogan links the skeleton and the clothes, but only through a play on words; there is no real connection, so it functions as an attention-grabber, but nothing more, what really draws the reader in? As discussed, the answer is benefits: the good things that will happen as a result of buying what you’re selling, even something as lame as ‘look hot this summer’ would be better than the skeleton, because it communicates a benefit, however generic, a product as sensually rich as clothes will sell itself – the product should have been out on the street in place of the skeleton, but it’s tougher when your subject can’t be touched or even seen – because it’s a service, for example. Many print ads for B2B services get stuck at this point, feeling that they should include some kind of visual content, the advertisers lose the plot completely, opting for jokey, obscure or downright irrelevant picture/headline combinations that say nothing about what’s being sold.
It would be far better for them to choose a headline that communicates a key benefit and use images purely as illustration or decoration – if at all. A strong benefit, simply expressed, will always sell better than an attention-grabbing stunt. It might not be arresting, but it will attract the right kind of readers – those who are interested in buying, it may also be worth considering a simple positioning statement – ‘IT support services’ or ‘Facilities management’ at the top/beginning of the ad. This orients the reader and tells them what the ad’s about, while freeing you up from having to use such clunky language in your main headline, rather than trying to ‘convert’ readers, remember you can only sell to people who are interested, there’s no point grabbing irrelevant attention that can’t be converted into sales, if you believe that willing customers are out there, your task is simply to reach them with the right message.
For a while, the cars used by BSM (a leading UK driving school) carried this slogan:Learn to drive
That’s right – just those three words.
It seems almost too simple to be true, but if we unpack it we can see that this little sentence accomplishes four very important functions:
· It clearly defines the product (driving tuition).
· It communicates a key benefit of the product (you’ll learn to drive).
· It sets out a strong call to action, commanding the reader to act (learn to drive!)
· Through its basic, generic phrasing, it confirms BSM’s market positioning – the market leader, default option or natural choice.
Notice how this slogan respects its readers. Nobly declining to spin or sugarcoat its message, it gives customers some credit as thinkers and choosers, setting out the stall and letting them decide. Its simple, solid language makes counterparts like ‘For the road ahead’ (AA’s corporate tagline at the time) sound pretentious and patronising. (Most effective slogans are simple, but not all simple slogans are effective.)
But is it really copywriting? After all, it’s ‘just’ a simple, everyday phrase. There’s nothing really there – no technique, no clever choice of words, no sophisticated appeal to the emotions, no carefully judged tone of voice. Was it even deliberately created? Did, perhaps, the designer just insert it as a placeholder until the real slogan was created?
It doesn’t matter. Great ideas are where you find them. ‘Yesterday’ came to Paul McCartney in a dream. And if this phrase did come from a copywriter, it was an exceptionally intelligent, brave and independent one. Someone who wasn’t afraid to put forward the right solution – not the one that made them look clever, sophisticated or hardworking. For their part, BSM deserve praise for setting aside corporate pride and brand insecurity so they could communicate with customers in the most direct way possible.
Achieving this kind of simplicity isn’t necessarily easy, quick or straightforward. Pablo Picasso said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ Often, our first ideas are convoluted and confused as we try too hard to make something special, original or arresting. Then, over time and through many revisions, the diligent copywriter discards what isn’t needed to arrive at the essential.
When the answer comes, it can seem ridiculously simple. But that’s how you know it’s right.
Imagine asking a group of women what they love most about their husbands. One says he’s kind, charming, thoughtful, generous and handsome. Another simply says he makes her laugh. Whose opinion will you remember the next day?
Of course, not every brand, product or value proposition can be reduced to three words. Complex technical products and B2B services are very often tough to boil down to pithy phrases that don’t sound glib. But when it comes to developing the messages about a brand or product, it still pays to focus on, or organise around, a single idea.
Trying to cover too many ideas dilutes the audience’s cognitive resources and introduces ambiguity over the key message. It turns a straight-line narrative route into a garden of forking paths. It can only reduce the space you devote to hammering home the key idea. And, most importantly, it sends an implicit message of uncertainty and bet-hedging.
What constitues ‘too many ideas’ depends on context. For a short-copy ad, ‘too many’ means ‘more than one’. The copywriter is looking for copy, imagery and layout to dramatise a single key benefit in an arresting and memorable way. Anything beyond that is not needed. Company taglines are also strongest when they express just one corporate character trait, instead of trying to cram in two or three.
Longer copy assignments, obviously, will have more points to make. But they’ll still need a unifying theme or structure. And each paragraph will still need to say as few things as possible – ideally, just one.
Although writing to a formula is probably a bad idea, there’s a lot to be said for three sentences per paragraph. The first introduces an idea, the second develops or explains it and the third adds proof or punch. See how I’ve done it in this paragraph, and several others in this section.
It’s natural for projects to pick up content themes over time, like a snowball rolling down a mountain – the phenomenon known as ‘feature creep’ in tech product development. So achieving one-idea focus may involve getting rid of distracting extra stuff, or perhaps reassigning it to another campaign or publication where it will be more valuable.
The process can be challenging, but the outcome is worth it. While you may feel something’s been lost, what you’ve gained is more important: copy that you can be confident in, with the best possible chance of being read and remembered.