Stumbling over copy

I’m showing my copy to the account director. I watch closely as she reads the text. I like to think that I can tell exactly whereabouts she is on the page simply by observing her reactions.

That little nod means she’s reached the part in the opening paragraph that resolves the slight sense of intrigue contained within the headline. Smaller, almost imperceptible nods mean she’s mentally ticking off the product’s key selling points. And that half smile must be in recognition of the little gag I put towards the end, which neatly refers back to the headline. I begin to smile myself.

But what’s this? She doesn’t hand the copy back. Instead, she narrows her eyes and picks it up off the desk. She holds the sheet of A4 a few inches further away from her, as if she’s suddenly having trouble focusing on the words. She frowns and her lips start forming an O.

“All OK?” I say brightly, conveying, I hope, an air of finality.

“Yes,” she replies. I’m just having trouble with this word.” She mentions the word.

“Really? I quite like that word. I thought it made a nice change from the usual.”

“Maybe that’s it. It wasn’t what I was expecting. I stumbled over it.”

There it is. The stumble word. We can’t have people stumbling. In copy, everything’s got to be smooth and level and free of any linguistic obstacles. Gently undulating is acceptable, but molehills, potholes, sudden twists or turns; these are verboten.

The nice flat plains in the south of Australia's Northern Territories are interrupted by this unsightly stumbling block, Uluru.

Were you expecting ‘forbidden’, there? That’s what I had in mind, then I changed it to verboten at the last minute. It sounded stronger, more absolute. But did you…stumble? Did you stare at the word with a look of bafflement, shake your head and go back to Twitter?

I think copywriting that sometimes uses the unexpected or the unfamiliar – even, in the right circumstances, the unheard of – can enhance the experience of reading it.

That’s doesn’t mean being wilfully obscure or peppering your copy with impenetrable jargon. It just means occasionally straying from the everyday, the overly familiar and definitely the clichéd.

I thought about this the other day when I came across this poster for Fitness First, ostensibly encouraging people to join their gyms. Health clubs tend to pour most of their ad budgets into January for obvious reasons, though it would be interesting to see if this campaign makes a blind bit of difference to FF’s membership:


Try not to look at it for too long.

Now this poster isn’t in any way a shining example of the adman’s craft. I think that possibly every element of it could be improved. But the thing that stood out for me, as I casually took it in while padlocking my bike by the train station, were the words ‘our members are fitter than yesterday.’

Fitter than yesterday. I”ve never heard that expression. A search on Google (UK) yields just three examples, none of which uses the phrase as a figure of speech. So whoever approved the copy for this poster – and it must have gone through SOME sort of approval process – wasn’t unduly concerned about it containing a phrase that might have made people ‘stumble’.

I thought it sounded quite cool. It contained a truth. It required a teensy bit of thought. The words made me think, ever so briefly, about fitness, age, decay and mortality. Had I not heard the sound of my train approaching, and had the rest of the ad not been such a complete fucking disaster, I might have made a mental note to book an appointment at the nearest gym.

Sometimes, it’s good to stumble.


Filed under Ill-informed advertising observations

13 responses to “Stumbling over copy

  1. Nice post.

    You could have used ‘Never knowingly undersold’ as an example of built-in memorability, but that’s just… old.

  2. Doh, Mr Malden you beat me to it. I was going to use that very same poster (or another example from the campaign, it doesn’t matter which as they are all utter crap) in a forthcoming rant for my blog. To use it as a shining example of, well I can hardly put it any better than you have already – ‘ a complete fucking disaster’.

    Later, whenever, another time. Sounds familiar?

    No, actually. I’ve never heard anyone use that exact phrase. Let’s ask Google. Google’s with me. Not one hit anywhere on the planet. But if the writer meant ‘Do any or all of these individual phrases sound familiar?’ he or she should have written ‘sound’ without the ‘s’. Or better still, thought of something interesting to say and do with the client’s money and Primesight’s bit of station wall.

    But the bit that really gets me is the line ‘Not to us, our members are fitter than yesterday’.

    It’s that comma. It shouldn’t be a comma. A full stop, certainly. A hyphen, yes why not? A semi-colon (trips to bathroom for copy of ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’). Maybe. But a comma?

    And as for the art direction. Don’t get me STARTED. Oh you didn’t. I started myself. Well, sufficient to say the A/D must have had a day off. Or a week. Or more likely there wasn’t one.

    I’m stumbling off the the fridge now for another beer. Thank you for allowing me to rant on your blog.

    • bravenewmalden

      Personally, I still look forward to your blant. There’s a rich seam of wrongness that’s yet to be worked about this campaign.

  3. Lordy

    Yeeesh. What a frikkin’ car crash. Call the police. Call me horrified. Call me a taxi and get me away from it and its soulless gymnasium. Because I too, am a Brave New Maldenite who is forced to look at it. Every. Freakin’. Day. And do I not like that. Sound familiar?

  4. Yes it is a disaster of an advert, but is it quite as bad as my personal favourite up during last year’s World Cup?

    • bravenewmalden

      That ad is indeed a whole world of appalling.

    • It’s not the worst ad in the world. I think it is a real attempt at topical humour. Yes – German humour.
      Every Chelsea fan and many English fans would have known Ballack was out of the World Cup, as he did his ankle in playing for Chelsea in May. Hence, ‘time to spare’ is a wry poke at Mr Ballack for missing the World Cup in June, which they knew must have pleased all the English supporters. See? Germans laughing at themselves. You will have a fun holiday in Germany after all.

      The client wasn’t to know England would offer such an appalling display of football when they came up against Germany’s eleven that, as it happened, our lot would have almost as much time to spare as Mr Ballack.

      • I take your point and that might make sense except I remember at the time there were a whole number of other adverts displaying other characters and the joke, which you claim, wouldn’t work.

        Having said that, it entertained me every day when I came into Victoria Station

  5. BertSwattermain

    I love it when account handlers and clients put their thinking caps on, because surely they only became account handlers or clients because their copy writing skills were just too damned good.

    The Fitness First 48 sheet looks like a junior designer’s concept that the agency decided to run with, unchanged. It is a good premise and could have been a distinctive campaign, if the art director hadn’t been on his holidays.

    Just wait until my agency wins the Fitness First account. We’ll show ’em. Unless the account handler or client get their colouring pens out again.

  6. Pingback: Does clunky click? | Believe in Better, Helping You Find Healthy | ABC Copywriting blog

  7. Pingback: Does clunky click? | Copy Writing Career

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