Tag Archives: copywriting

Those allegations. Do you deny, dispute, refute, rebut or contest them?

From (allegedly) kiddie-fiddling cardinals to (so they say) overly-lascivious Lib Dem leaders,  allegations of inappropriate behaviour are everywhere these days.

Leaving aside whether the use of that word ‘inappropriate’ is appropriate in these cases (is it really being too judgmental to take the view that abusing children is ‘wrong’ rather than merely ‘inappropriate’?), the allegations are generally followed by a denial of any wrongdoing.

However, a common-or-garden denial is somehow seen as insufficient. So the accused party will instead say he refutes the charges, presumably because it sounds like a more robust kind of denial. Sometimes they’re reported to be ‘contesting’ the accusations, or alternatively they might ‘dispute that version of events’. A ‘rebuttal’ of child-sex allegations is heard less often, perhaps because the word sits rather awkwardly with that particular offence. As does ‘sits rather awkwardly’. But shush.

The question is, if you’re a copywriter who’s been accused of something untoward, just what type of denial should you hit back with? Here’s your handy at-a-glance, cut-out-and-keep guide:

“You’ve been in the pub!”
A straightforward denial should be enough to counter this outrageous slur, provided you don’t allow your accuser to get close enough to smell your breath, or mangle your words to the extent that your very denial becomes an outrageous slur.

“Your copy is off brief!”
This is one you can refute, because to refute something is generally held to mean disproving it through evidence.  So you simply hold the creative brief up in triumph and say “See? You specifically asked for the copy to focus on the kill-rate of the MP7 Sub-Machine Gun, and for the tone to be light and whimsical!”

“You’ve lifted this copy!”
You can either deny or dispute this accusation, although disputing it suggests it contains at least a kernel of truth that warrants  argument and debate. Better to deny it outright, at least until your accuser comes back with the proof. Then you’re on your own.

“Your copy didn’t generate a response”
You can rebut this criticism simply by providing a sheaf of the responses your ad did get, taking care not to mention that 90% of them were complaints about tone, veracity or plagiarism (see above).  Rebut, then, is similar to refute, although back in the 90s New Labour was famous for its effective ‘rapid rebuttal unit’ (strapline: ‘Yeah but, no but, REBUT!’) rather than a ‘rapid refutation unit’. That would have been silly.

“You totally lost it with the client when he rejected all your perfectly reasonable ideas, telling him he had the imagination of a small stick before pouring coffee over his head.”
Up to you. If it didn’t happen, deny it. If you can produce a happy, smiling client, refute it. If it was tea not coffee, dispute ‘that particular version of events’. But if the accusation is that it was your art director who carried out the assault rather than you, you should take legal advice and contest it.

All clear?

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You want hard-working advertising words. That’s why we’ve identified two more.

I say ‘we’, because I wasn’t alone in spotting this comparatively recent trend. The estimable Tom Albrighton over on ABC Copywriting did all the heavy lifting back in May. Quick on his feet, that Tom. All I’m bringing to the table is a few more examples.

I’m talking about the ubiquity of the two words ‘that’s why’ in advertising copy. As Tom says, it follows the formula:

At A, we know how important B is. That’s why we C, which gives you D.

Or: You know this? That’s why we have this

It’s cropping up everywhere. It’s like every copywriter in town has been on the same course. Which would be strange, because copywriters don’t go on courses.

Here’s a few examples I’ve half-heartedly collected over the past two weeks. There are loads more out there.

'Find healthy'? Let's not go there.

One ad. Three that's-whys.

Oh, so that's why!

This is a bit of a non-sequitur, in my opinion.

Basically, we wanted to increase profits and hurt the competition. That's why we were compelled to make our products look and sound desirable. Otherwise we'd have just thrown together the first thing our designers came up with.

It's Sidney again, still looking for healthy. Hang on, wasn't he 88 in the previous ad? Time flies when you get old. (That's why you should try and enjoy every day as if it were your last.)

Cheerio!

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We provide our own emphasis

One of things I don’t like about the Daily Mail – apart from the misogyny, the homophobia, the jingoism and racial intolerance, the bile, spite and malevolence, the rejection of anything new or different, the small-mindedness, the crass populism and the utter, utter hypocrisy – is the underlinings.

They turn up in headlines like this:

‘So, who has got the fattest legs in showbiz?’

‘It’s official: immigrants do come from overseas’

‘How faceless Brussels Eurocrats plan to steal our children’s faces’

The sub-editors use these underlinings literally to underline the DM’s agenda. Each one says “You know those prejudices you’ve got? Well they’re well-founded. You’re not racist or irrational. Those dark thoughts and fears you harbour are in fact completely normal. Everything’s alright with your head. You’re amongst friends here. We’re like peas in a pod, you and I. And there’s nothing wrong with good old British peas, unlike swarthy, swan-eating foreign peas.”

Underlinings are ubiquitous in advertising copy, too, though their presence is driven by commercial rather than ideological reasons. “Can you just emphasise the price?” asks the client. “The price is a big selling point. And the phone number, can you put that in bold, along with the web address, and make sure they’re mentioned up front. And somehow draw attention to the ‘offer closes’ date. Oh, and underline the free set of steak knives. In fact, could you emphasise everything and makes sure it all gets mentioned first?”

Copywriters generally end up accommodating at least some of the clients’ wishes because, well, we like to eat. The result, though, is all too often deeply unattractive ads and, worse, a patronising shoutiness that doesn’t trust people to read the ad ‘properly’.

I challenge you to check out the current top 10 titles on the Amazon best-selling fiction list and find any examples of underlining, emboldening or italicising used as a means of emphasis. OK, the literature vs advert comparison is slightly disingenuous. Books want you to get involved; ads want you to get online, get on the phone or get down the shops.

Occasionally, I suppose, the way to get people to do that is to yell and hector them. After all, the market stallholder doesn’t outsell his rivals by adopting a Sergeant Wilson-style sales patter: “I say, would you mind awfully looking at the rather generous price of my splendid tomatoes? In your own time.”

But not all ads need to shout and nor do they have to tell you how to read the copy. If it’s expressed well, the voice in your head can detect the importance of a message or the uniqueness of a proposition. It knows when to invest copy with whimsy, breathlessness, charm or urgency. It can also tell when a word needs emphasis.

I was reminded of this the other day after reading that the Metropolitan Police were introducing a new ‘101’ number for non-emergency calls. Presumably this will replace the distinctly unmemorable number they launched a few years back with the same purpose in mind. But I kept the little door-drop because I liked the way it allowed people to provide their own emphasis:

Admit it: your inner voice put an inflection on ‘has’, didn’t it? Then you read it again and emphasised both ‘is and ‘has’. See? I rest my case.

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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.

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Reading made easy

Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee

Chapter One – First Light

  • I was set down from the carrier’s cart at the age of three; and there with a sense of bewilderment and terror my life in the village began.
  • The June Grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept.
  • I had never been so close to grass before.
  • It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight.
  • It was a knife-edge, dark, and a wicked green, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

Did you have any trouble reading that opening paragraph from Cider With Rosie? You shouldn’t have. I made it easy for you by splitting the text into handy bullet points.

Laurie missed an obvious story-telling trick

Using bullet points in this way makes heavy blocks of text easier to read and digest. Without them, the dense forest of words looks intimidating. It creates a fear in the would-be reader that, were he to embark upon the ordeal of reading the text, he would only get as far as the fourth or fifth line before realising that he’d completely forgotten what was said in the first.

The utter refusal of authors to employ bullet points in this way shows complete contempt for their readers and probably explains why the vast majority of them remain unknown and unread. Can you imagine how much more popular the long-forgotten novel Peter Pan might have been if its author, one J M Barrie (?), had started the book like this:

  • All children, except one, grow up.
  • They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this.
  • One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother.
  • I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’
  • This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.
  • You always know after you are two.
  • Two is the beginning of the end.

See? The very idea of that reasonably promising opening being expressed in a solid block of black type goes against every grain of common sense.

Have I made my point?

You can sense that I’m being sarcastic here. And if you know me at all you can probably tell that I have recently experienced some sort of conflict involving the enforced deployment of bullet points.

Yes, and yes.

I had written a booklet setting out the design and copy guidelines that designers, art directors and copywriters should adhere to when creating material for a new advertising campaign.

The logo should always appear bottom right. Headlines should always be in Helvetica. That sort of thing. (Obviously it went into a little more detail than that.)

I’d used a mixture of bullet-pointed copy where it was appropriate, and regular copy where it wasn’t. But the client decided that all the copy should appear in bullet point format. So all the sentences that were designed to flow together, forming a narrative that makes sense to the reader, were summarily disconnected and made to stand alone.

The result of this was:

  • The copy in some bullet points was quite long because it had originally been a longish sentence
  • But not in others
  • As each sentence was honoured with its own bullet point, readers were likely to infer that each ‘point’ was invested with equal importance
  • They clearly weren’t
  • Narrative copy doesn’t work like that
  • Then there’s this irony
  • Mixing long bullet points with short little staccato ones created on the page the sort of design chaos that the guidelines were in part trying to prevent
  • And you had bullet points beginning with But and However and And

You could argue with some justification that as the booklet was aimed at designers it should be completely idiot-proof. Designers, it is often thought, think excusively in visual terms and have at best a nodding acquaintance with the written word.

Help for designers. Image courtesy leaeva.com

Well, maybe so. There’s no shortage of appalling design to lend weight to that theory. But the worst offenders aren’t going to pay attention to any copy, whether it’s in paragraphs, bullet-points, tattooed on their foreheads using mirror writing or personally set in second-coming type before their very eyes by Neville Brody dressed in a tutu.

A tutu

Neville Brody

Bullet points are great for lists of things. Dos and don’ts,  for example. Or when you want to show a number of different sizes of things: figures look confusing and illegible when expressed in flowing text.

They work best when there’s between three and 10 bullets. As mentioned, they should all be about the same length. Put a full stop at the end of the last one or not at all. No one will mind. Make sure the leading letter of each word can’t be added together to spell TITFEST. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

Are there any opening paragraphs that could benefit from being given the bullet(s)? Well, that chap Dickens wrote some titanic sentences. Perhaps we could rework the opening sentence of:

A Tale Of Two Cities

The following book is set in the:
  • best of times
  • worst of times
  • age of wisdom
  • age of foolishness
  • epoch of belief
  • epoch of incredulity
  • and many more enticing dichotomies
As the story unfolds it will be seen that contrasts continue to take centre stage as the protagonists:
  • had everything before them
  • had nothing before them
  • were all going direct to Heaven
  • were all going direct the other way
In summary
The period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Hmm. That still needs a bit of work…

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