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.
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:
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.