The Art Of Copywriting: Not Actually An Art

It probably seems easy to get people to read copy. After all, you’re reading this. Here’s another sentence that you’re reading. I could just keep going and going and you’ll just keep reading. And these words don’t even mean anything! I guess I could stop writing now and make my life a lot easier. Ok, later taters.

So what’s the catch? You may be asking yourself.

Here’s another question for you: Sure, you read it. But will you remember it?

Let’s back up for a second. Most people can write copy, provided they can form grammatically correct sentences. It’s not an art, it requires no special talent.

Writing copy is easy. Writing memorable copy is a whole other animal. And while I can’t teach you how to do it in one blog post (if I could I’d be a very rich person and probably not writing this blog), I can convey the importance of good, memorable copy.

What can history teach us, besides just like wars and stuff.

Let’s back up even further for another few seconds. Copy has been around since the dawn of printed advertising.

And though the headline DISPENSE WITH A HORSE kind of rules, these early ads were primarily informative, if not a bit overwritten. It wasn’t until the mid 60’s that writers discovered that they could sober up for like a half second and get clever with copy, using words to make people think instead of just learn.

VW ads* from the 1960’s were a massive disruption to the print ad game, using an interesting headline with supporting copy. While this may seem like a no-brainer today, this strategy (and resulting copy) shook the advertising world to its strait-laced, whiskey-soaked core. Suddenly ads were conceptual. Suddenly copy was clever, not just sales-y. VW ads were created by DDB, who went on to produce such advertising as Uncle O’Grimacey, spokescreature for the Shamrock Shake.

I could do a deeper dive into history, but there are already tons of books and blogs that do that better and coherently. Instead I’m going to share some famous examples of headlines, the kind that copywriters immediately think of when someone mentions “clever headlines” or say “hey, can you write a blog post about copy?”

The strategy for The Economist campaign was probably something like “The Economist keeps you educated and good at your business job.” But instead of writing a headline like “Read a Magazine That Will Make You Indispensable at Work,” the writer went a step further in defining the impact of being incredible at your job. It’s clever and it appeals to The Economist’s educated audience.

Even if your audience isn’t rife with MBAs, don’t assume they won’t appreciate a smart headline. This line is the probably the result of a strategy that’s something like “Enjoy an Unmatched Sense of Freedom on a Harley.” (Again, just guessing here.) What’s the opposite of feeling free? Being cooped up, like on an airplane.

What do these ads all have in common? They sell an idea, not just a product. They also use a single sentence to make a huge statement—sure, two of them include supporting copy, but even if you just remember “Live Below Your Means” the general idea stays with you. The writers have also taken time and care with the copy, thinking about each word and whether it’s necessary.

Do you have a favorite book or poem? Or maybe even favorite lyrics or television dialogue? Have you taken the time to think about how whoever wrote said piece took time to select each word or phrase or sentence? Not to get all English-section-of-the-SATs on you but writing marketing copy is to writing published material as designing a webpage or ad is to creating visual art. There’s a craft that goes into manipulating the English language to evoke a laugh or some second feeling that I’m sure I’ll learn about someday.

Find your audience. Then, ignore them.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet included a section on writing for different audiences. That’s because I don’t think the divide between Gen Z and Boomers or whoever is as wide and unpassable as most marketers assume. We’re all human. We all like being entertained, like laughing, most of us cry when things are sad. The best writers know how to write for human beings, not for target demographics.

Technical jargon not withstanding (which may or may not be necessary, depending on the client), trying to use slang to connect with a group of individuals is almost always going to end poorly. Think about how obvious it is when a city-centric ad is written by people who have never set foot in said city. It’s like that, but with age groups. Of course you need to find your audience, but that’s usually a job for strategists and/or the media department.

Think of it this way: If you were to show this year’s Super Bowl spots to a group of individuals aged 18-95, chances are they’re all going to like the same group of five or so ads. That’s because a good concept and good writing is universal.

And finally, in conclusion, we’ve come to the end.

There’s a million more things I could write about writing. And there’s also a good chance I could be wrong about all of them! Like a lot of things in life, marketing can be a fickle thing, and copy is just one small portion of the reason a campaign works or doesn’t work. BUT. If you can make that one small portion great, why wouldn’t you? Like every other journey in life, it’s completed one successful step at a time.

And hey, if you can’t keep the journey interesting, at least keep it brief. (I didn’t.)

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*VW ads were created by DDB, who went on to produce such advertising as Uncle O’Grimacey, spokescreature for the Shamrock Shake.

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