The Copy Cat

By The Drum | Administrator

October 5, 2006 | 8 min read

A client surprised me recently. He told me that his agency’s research ‘proved’ that customers did not want to read much.

I was surprised, not because the ‘research’ contradicts the evidence of a couple of hundred years of mass literacy. Or that the massive sales of any number of massive books suggest that people enjoy reading quite a lot. Or indeed, that 50 years’ of ‘reading and noting scores’ from the US ad industry, and empirical data from direct marketing, suggest that more copy is generally more effective than less.

No, I was surprised that anyone would want to read any copy at all as it is currently written in most ads.

Here are a few opening lines from magazine ads lifted from a recent issue of what we still call the Manchester Guardian:

ï The AEG-Electrolux LAVALOGIC washing machine has a weight sensor that precisely measures the load, big or small, according to the programme you choose.

ï We’re pleased to say we still bake in the same brick ovens. We still use the finest quality flour. Each biscuit still tastes great, with only 14 calories and 03. grams of fat.

ï The car lovers say: our dream’s come true. A powerful hybrid that combines a 1.5 litre petrol engine with its electric motor counterpart whenever needed to give more power and quicker, smoother acceleration.

ï The Optio Wpi takes pictures wherever your active life takes you. From the ski slopes at 0?C, to the beach at 40?C, this compact lightweight and stylish camera can even operate for up to 30 minutes when submerged four feet under water.

Now, I didn’t choose these because they were particularly bad or particularly short (but I’ve quoted you most of the copy that’s in those ads anyway).

What’s your feeling about them? Banal? Predictable? Faintly preposterous? But don’t you think it’s more that they are just sort of unreadable? But why? They are short and the spelling is good and the grammar is, um, grammatical.

Maybe they are translations? Or is it because they are all a bit technological, except the biscuits?

That’s bullshit, of course. The personal benefit and enjoyment of clean clothes is no more technological than the pleasure of eating a cracker.

My feeling is that it’s the product-centric world they inhabit, empty of both human interest and the enjoyment of reading, that makes them repel readers in both senses of the word. This muffled connection to real life makes me feel like my head’s been submerged under four feet of water for 30 minutes, anyway.

But maybe it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Because I can’t believe that I would have read a single word of any of the ads had I not been thinking about this issue as a professional adman.

Contrast these with a few opening lines of journalism, again chosen more or less randomly from the same magazine:

ï “When Steveland Judkins was a little boy, he decided to jump from the roof of the shed in his back yard. Yes, he was blind, but what was the worst that could happen?”

ï “I have been to many mothers’ groups and each time, within three minutes, the conversation comes round to the topic of primary interest: how often we feel compelled to put out.”

ï “Swingy little jackets are two a penny these days (almost literally, if you go to some high street stores), but how cool is this pleated piece of fabulousness?”

Now you might say that music, sex and shopping are inherently more interesting than a car, a camera or a cracker. But even Stevie Wonder could see the irony in that.

I think it’s more a question of attitude: it’s only boring if you are. Journalists still know what Adland has forgotten: that people will read at length for information of course, but also for insights on life, for fellow feeling and for fun.

So how has advertising become as short on interest as it is on copy? (And could the two be connected?)

Here’s my quick stab at a few reasons. I list them here without much fear of contradiction since – mea culpa, mea culpa – I’ve been as guilty of perpetrating them as the next adman.

Hey Whipple: Of course, some clients have nothing meaningful to say. And that’s undoubtedly better than those who believe that impenetrable, po-faced dreck is actually preferable to human interest. But, as exemplified in Luke Sullivan’s seductive, but flawed, theory, the fashion for simple image-based communication among ad agency creatives has been going on so long – oh, at least since the 90s – that we have forgotten enduring underlying principles.

The aim of advertising isn’t instant communication.

It’s maximum engagement: the most resonant, salient experience times the greatest amount of time. Let’s face it. You can ‘get’ a poster – a poster posing as a press ad – in a flash, but how long can you look at it?

Two art directors are not a creative team: Everybody in sport and business knows that the strongest teams are built upon diversity. The classic agency creative team used to be laughingly described as ‘someone who couldn’t write (an art director) teamed with someone who couldn’t draw (a copywriter)’. So how did agencies let the term ‘creative team’ become absurdly translated as ‘two people who both studied visual communication and the one who draws least well gets to be the copywriter’? See paragraph above for possible answer.

Under such circumstances, it’s possible brevity becomes a necessity rather than a Twain-like struggle for concision.

Copy ‘spoils’ the ad. Like notes spoil a song, I suppose. Like all creative people, art directors are employed because they look at the world differently from everybody else. And yet they often seem blind to the inevitable corollary – that the rest of the world does not necessarily share their visual taste, minimalist tendencies (especially in body text point sizes) or lack of love for the written word.

I repeat – just in case you missed the point earlier on: people like reading, if you make it easy and enjoyable.

Agencies are too cheap. Clients may find this hard to swallow, but bear with me. Spending on ‘communications’ in the UK remains reasonably buoyant. But less and less of the cash is being billed out by traditional agencies. So the diminishment of the creative agency as a line item in the client’s budget has seen a reduction of the agency’s importance in the client company. Which means the management of agency relationships slips down the pecking order. Which means the agency is dealing with more junior clients. Who don’t have budgetary control. Who do piecemeal projects rather than strategic vision. Who are under pressure to cut costs.

So, faced with such price pressure, agencies employ cheaper staff. Which, I’m sorry to say, means younger people. Who don’t have the experience and expertise – yada yada yada... So, if you want your advertising to reflect the rich life experience of an increasingly aged consumer, pay your agency more, but tell them you want an older creative team on your business.

Research: Any mediaeval focus group would concur 100 percent: the world is flat and forms the centre of the Universe. But logic tells you that research findings may be true and the conclusions false. For example, 60 percent of Americans believe in angels. But does that mean angels exist? Not even 60 percent of the time.

Indeed, conclusions can even be convincing and still untrue. Yet, in creative testing, most clients and some agency folk would probably consider ’60 percent of respondents said’ as pretty hard evidence.

Added to which is the problem of self-reporting: people just don’t really know what they want, how they act or what they really do. We may ‘think’ we do not/would not read copy. We may ‘think’ we are not influenced by advertising. We believe we make sensible, rational, economically-satisfying choices. Human history, heck, our own lives, suggests otherwise.

It used to be the agency’s job to remind the client how the real world of human communication, motivation and action worked: how your mind is a series of attenuated filters that suck in and sift through much more than we know we know.

Anyway, all I really wanted to say is that copy is coming back. Or if it isn’t, it should be.


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