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Word weary: the copywriter’s challenge of overcoming hyperbole

By Andrew Boulton

February 19, 2013 | 4 min read

To illustrate the point of this blog here is a handy guide you may wish to refer to during the course of reading.

Theory of Relativity: genius.

Cheese Strings: not genius.

Nietzsche’s theory of Perspectivism: genius.

Ed Sheeran: not genius.

And so on.

You see, there are many hurdles to being a copywriter (not real hurdles obviously, us copywriters have the lung capacity of a weak bee). But amongst the grammar pedants, the cliché police and those who, for whatever reasons, resent the inclusion of entirely made up words (those flibriddles), probably the greatest challenge is the devaluation of words.

Not all words. The word ‘rapscallion’ still has as much potency as it ever had, but vital superlatives in a copywriter’s alphabetical bag of tricks are becoming increasingly worn out.

If you were to plot on a table the frequency of a word’s use against its effectiveness then the graph would resemble the course of Tom Cruise’s career since everyone realised he was nuts and Top Gun started to seem like an incredibly long time ago.

‘Amazing’ things are generally not that amazing. ‘Genius’, on the whole, seems to apply more to trite and uninspiring creations than things that are actually remarkably clever.

Even the word ‘perfect’ has been overdone, despite the fact that one would assume that even the most hackish of copywriters must surely flinch at using it for something imperfect.

Hyperbole has torn a chasm in the world of marketing language and created an environment in which even the least savvy modern consumer can sniff out an overstatement faster than Tom Cruise sniffs out the script for an utterly self-indulgent film.

If you are writing about something that is genuinely and wonderfully original, then in all likelihood that message will appear alongside a dozen or so others, all of which make equally ostentatious claims for a relatively unimpressive product.

So what to do? It seems that many of the more successful and persuasive pieces of copywriting these days are ushering in the age of understatement.

Dyson products are, in all seriousness, probably the greatest things to have been invented since Richard Attenborough invented dinosaurs back in 1993 (but strangely failed to invent a Plan B in case all the fences broke).

But this is precisely the kind of over-egged language that Dyson have brilliantly avoided. Their adverts are calm, measured and to the point. Their language is neither vibrant nor colourful. It is straightforward and clear, yet thanks to some excellent writing and delivery their adverts are still consistently watchable and memorable.

Perhaps that is the future now for marketing. A whisper heard above the shouts.

I genuinely hope this is the case. As much as I genuinely hope that Tom Cruise sits at home every night punching himself in the face with a bag full of ‘Rock of Ages’ DVDs. Now that would be genius.


Andrew Boulton is a copywriter (and a flibriddle) at the Together Agency.


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