Talking rubbish – why copywriting conversation is not going well

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.

Two young women are stood in an eerily clean kitchen discussing the virtues of a particular yoghurt. ‘This yoghurt gives me the strength of twelve giant sea otters,’ says the first, gently placing a friendly hand on the top of her companion’s arm, because they’re friends and this is something friends do. ‘This yoghurt tastes like the tears of a young Vanessa Redgrave,’ shrieks the other. Then the first woman hoofs the other through the window before transforming herself into a magical whistle.

Not terribly realistic is it? But as ludicrous and incomprehensible as my interpretation of a real women’s conversation is, I’m sad to report that mine is neither a new nor rare failing.

Dialogue in TV adverts between women very often strikes me as beyond contrived. Perhaps this is understandable, they are after all flogging yoghurts, not trying to film an (admittedly yoghurt-centric) episode of Panorama. But if the intent is understandable, often the execution can be unforgiveable.

If written conversation achieves absolutely nothing else, surely it must reflect what we would recognise as conversation we have had or would like to have? Try to speak many of the lines stuffed into the mouths of these minor Holby City characters and friends will assume you are out of your yoghurty mind.

You may be uncertain as to why the implausible conversation between two paid strangers on the tiny, flickering box I point my furniture at bothers me. ‘So what?’ you may cry (although I’d find it hard to believe that anyone outside of 1980s Grange Hill still uses that phrase). The ‘So’ and the ‘What’ are quite simply that, as copywriters, aren’t we forever demanded to create something that shows we understand the audience we’re addressing? Even if the message is clear and complete, if it fails to speak in terms or tone our audience recognises then we have little more than a well-crafted, but entirely un-read, piece of writing.

Should we assume that brands who so wilfully misunderstand how their customers live their lives are doing far greater harm than just forcing questionable conversation into our ears? How do we choose to feel about a brand whose representation of our friendships makes us do a little sick in our mouths?

Women aren’t the only ones to have awkward thoughts and words imposed on them. There have been plenty of adverts that depict a group of (hashtag) ‘Massive Lads’, having some kind of (hashtag) ‘Top Bants’, where the barely concealed subtext seems to be comparing the size, shape and service history of their gonads. Without wishing to seem cryptic, even men who talk like this, don’t talk like this.

Perhaps naively, I hesitate to blame copywriters for the quantity and frequency of the unnatural dialogue we see in television advertising. A brief that demands something perky, aspirational, light, intimate and uplifting (and often far more besides) leaves little room for the reality of a.) how women really talk and b.) how women who really talk the way we know they really talk will respond to us suggesting they actually talk in an embarrassing and stilted way.

Why any brand wouldn’t start with a comprehensive understanding of the true nature of female friendship and build a tone of voice from there seems to me (hashtag) ‘Odd’.

But having said all that, I do quite fancy a yoghurt.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for (hashtag) 'Awkward Bants'

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