I ain’t your mate: where do we draw the line with friendly copywriting?

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

I have the unhappy habit of finding myself in the front row at comedy gigs. One such blunder saw a comic declaring to the room that I had the distinct look and vibe of a lighthouse keeper while my ginger mate, sitting no further than 18 centimetres away from me, escaped entirely unmolested.

Seated a few rows back at my most recent show I thought I had escaped any kind of unfavourable nautical comparisons. And so I had until the comedian, Jon Richardson from ‘8 out of 10 Cats’, made a remark about advertising that metaphorically kicked me in the spleen.

He observed that he was ‘sick of f*cking adverts pretending to be my mate.’ I shuddered a little at these words. But Jon, that’s what I do.

It’s an observation that probably doesn’t get quite enough consideration in the industry. Casual, conversational marketing urges us to talk to our audience the way a friend would in a pub. I’m not sure this is always right.

The distinction between copywriting that is friendly and that which is assuming the role of a friend is slight but significant.

No matter how good a product is or how compellingly it is marketed, the affinity someone feels for their can of soft drink, trainers or credit card is never going to approach that they would feel towards the people they care about.

This is no failing in the marketing model. Our products and the messages we use to sell them may replicate or imitate human warmth but the turn of phrase that can have an individual mistake their newspaper for their dearest pal has not yet been invented.

Our role, particularly as copywriters, is not to make the leap from marketing to mate but to measure how far we are able to extend into that space. Too little and we sound dry, corporate and not like someone our audience can relate to. Too far and we are an intruder, slapping backs and bantering with people who never once welcomed us into their conversation.

Of all the balancing acts a copywriter must execute, striking the right level of friendliness and distance is one of the trickiest. The degree of familiarity is different with every brand and every message.

It’s also one of those challenges where you can never triumph entirely. Yes you scaled the mountain, but on the way up a Yeti did a poo in your hood.

But for every Jon Richardson who loathes the manufactured chumminess of advertising there is another who is able to relate to your message because you have spoken it with friendliness and ease.

Everyone’s threshold for this construct of affable copywriting is different. Jon Richardson cited the Vauxhall ‘Reasons to be cheerful’ advert and the McDonalds ‘nah, you’re alright’ spot as two that had especially rankled with him. The first I agree with, the second I found quite charming.

Ultimately we are in the business of voices. Those voices start at brands and reach the eyes and ears of people. What happens in between is what we have to get right. And that bit, my friend, is tougher than Yeti poo.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @Boultini

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter (with a distinctly lighthouse keeper vibe) at Together Agency.

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