By The Drum, Administrator

June 2, 2006 | 9 min read

Words are a wonderful creation. They can be used in many different forms for many different purposes in many different languages. They can be written or spoken. They can be typed, handwritten, shouted, or printed. There is such a variety of forms that words can come in, but each and every one of them is used for the same basic function – to communicate to an audience.

A copywriter has at his disposal countless words in order to communicate a specific message to a specific audience. In marketing, more often than not, this message is sold with the aid of an image that in some way associates to the copy. But with adverts becoming all the more obscure in order to attract the attention of the public and capture the imagination, have the images become more important than the copy in the battle to stand out?

Copywriter Alan Black of BlackAd believes lack of good copy can halt a great ad. “Adverts and copy need to work together,” he says. “If they don’t work together then you have a failed advert. I always like to think of adverts as being bendy and straight. You can have a bendy visual, but it might not work quite right on its own. If you’ve got a bendy headline, then you need a straight visual. In a good piece of communication, one is always feeding off of the other.”

Freelance copywriter, Liz Holt, agrees that both an adverts image and its copy would need to work together on a level playing field. “The best and most effective creative work uses words and pictures 50/50 to grab attention and tell the story,” she say. “My best work has been created in collaboration with fantastic art directors and designers – they don’t write it, but the words wouldn’t work without the pictures. A recent example is the ‘Concept’ book, designed by Craig and Richie at Navyblue, which is a completely original approach to a corporate brochure. It needed brilliant, lateral images and design... and brilliant, lateral words.”

Holt continues: “Arguably, words are more important than pictures in other contexts, such as entertainment. When you read a good novel, you enter characters’ minds, know their thoughts and feelings, and through them live different lives, go to different places in a way that you can’t do by, say, watching a film. Visual technology is only now just becoming advanced enough to visually create Middle Earth or Narnia; but they have been alive inside the imagination for decades. Pictures are just playing catch-up with words. Words can also engage with you on multiple levels, more than pictures. But then again, I am biased.”

Copywriter Simon Platt has a similar opinion. “For an advert, mailer etc to work, the image and the words have to work hand-in-hand,” he says. “Use a useless image with brilliant copy and it doesn’t just make the copy look bad, it makes the whole thing look bad. Of course, in advertising, that scenario would never happen as the creative team comes up with the concept as a whole. In design that’s not always the case as copy can actually come from a variety of sources – even, god help us, the client. To me, too many designers just accept copy as supplied - they shouldn’t, it can seriously negate their own work.”

Black gives his own example of recent adverts that he felt displayed a good use of image rather than a reliance on words: “Very occasionally you can get one that does something new - that stands out. A classic example you might say, are the Tango adverts. The Volvo adverts also have a kind of new idea. The Sony Bravia advert (in which several different coloured balls bounce down a hill) was a nice idea. It had balls - excuse the pun - in its execution, which made it stand out. It’s nuts as an idea, but is it a brilliant idea? I don’t know.” Despite its heavy reliance on the visual, the Sony Bravia ad does use words along with the strapline ‘colour like no other.’

“Adverts like the Bravia ad are like a mime, they have to be sculpted,” Black continues. “The advert plays in the mind so that it is sculpted so that the audience has to figure out what has happened. It has a very straight strapline. So it has a bendy image and a straight line to play against it.”

Zane Radcliffe at Newhaven highlights his own personal favourite use of straplines to compliment an advert dominated by a strong image: “One of the best examples of visual and strapline working well together is the Pirelli poster that featured sprinter Carl Lewis ‘in the blocks’ and ready to run, only he wore a pair of stiletto heels. It is a powerful and intriguing image, but it would mean very little to most people had it not carried the strapline: ‘Power is nothing without control’. To me, the powerful advertising thought resides in the strapline. And the visual is just a brilliant expression of it.

“It is very rare to have a visual execution with no copy other than the client logo,” Radcliffe continues. “Examples include The Economist, whose branding became so recognisable that they felt confident enough to drop their logo in certain executions. And, of course, cigarette advertising that traditionally eschewed straplines simply because the law dictated that you couldn’t say anything about fags.

“Even rarer is the visual-only ad that would actually be made weaker by the inclusion of a strapline. A good example of this would be the multi-award winning ‘Skidmarks’ press ad for Mercedes SLK. This simply featured a parked SLK, and right beside it we could see skidmarks on the road, the implication being that other drivers braked suddenly to look at this stunning car. The ad didn’t need a strapline to say: ‘The Mercedes SLK stops you in your tracks’.” Black also cited this advert as another strong example of advertising without a reliance on words.

Freelance copywriter, Simon Platt, feels that while images may have their place in advertising, the use of words can convey far more information “Well, speaking as someone who struggles to draw a decent matchstick man, I use words exclusively; I trust the art director or designer to conjure up an image worthy of my genius,” he says. “Obviously I’m biased here but words can convey things that pictures just couldn’t – how do you create an image of my innermost thoughts, for example (without getting done for indecency anyway). But again, it’s the strength of the idea: if it’s a great idea, one line and a hand-drawn doodle should be all you need to make an impact.”

Black feels that the connection that an advert makes with its audience is the most important factor. “Usually the main point of an advert is to create a connection between the reader and its creator,” he says. “The copy also reflects the personality of the brand.”

Adam Smith, copywriter for Frame, feels that clients in Scotland can be on a tight advertising budget and that the use of words effectively can save money by avoiding the use of photography through the use of good copy. He also states that when pitching an ad to a client “a great 25-word synopsis is the most important part of presenting an idea”.

“That sets up everything else and even if the client or agency throws up at everything else you’ve done, they can come back and pick out what they like from the core idea,” he says. “After that the most important words are ‘research loved it’. Then it’s over to the pretty pictures, nice colours and upbeat music to close the deal. The words ‘it’s cheap’, are important too.”

According to Maurice Smith of TVI Communications, the largest demand for copywriting in Scotland is from brochure writing and, increasingly, online copy, whether it is for information or advertising. He says: “We spend more time writing for the web now than any other single medium. The continual growth of the web, means that this relatively new format affords every business, no matter of its size or history, the chance to promote itself to an international market, at its own discretion.” Smith goes on to say: “The web is a fantastic channel, but it has to be handled very carefully. You can’t write for the web in the same way as conventional print media. Organisations have a tendency to get round this by saying ‘let’s just stick our documents online in a PDF and they can download it.’ You cannot easily download, print and read a 120-page document and often they are wasting their time. Each medium needs its own methods and that is true for any channel of communication.”

If a conclusion may be drawn from gauging the opinions of several writers as to whether words are better than pictures, copywriters seem to agree that there should be an equal value placed on copy and images in advertising. The general consensus seems to be that one should impact on the other and convey the same message. At the end of the day, the only person whose opinion matters as to which is more important in an advert is the client, and what they value most.


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