Arm-wrestling with the obvious – copywriting and a mistrust of simplicity

By Andrew Boulton

June 1, 2016 | 4 min read

Ask a copywriter to chose the weapon with which they must fight a bear and their choice may surprise you. Instead of a pistol, a dagger or even a bow and arrow, most from our profession would plump for something far less likely to fell a mammal as big as a phone box – like a badminton racquet, or some Weetabix.

Bear waving

This isn’t because copywriters are any braver than the average occasional bear grappler. I’ve known copywriters who were scared of un-ruled notebooks. Nor is it because copywriters are especially less inclined to inflict mortal harm on a living creature. Get between some copywriters and their mid-morning Twix and they’d quite happily kill you with a plank.

The reason for our somewhat less-conventional choice of weapon is simply this – we hate the easy option. We detest the obvious choice.

This is, on face value, much to our credit. Were we, as a species, more comfortable with the simplest solution then the world of advertising would consist of around seven different ideas.

It is our utter distaste for the obvious that drives us in the direction of the unapparent, the unexpected and the imaginative. If we’re selling a thing that has been sold by others in its millions, a copywriter who brandishes the obvious solution is whispering into a hurricane.

But, conditioned as we are to look beyond, around and above the most obvious answer, we leave ourselves adrift from an entirely valid strand of the profession.

Imagine if you will (as if this blog wasn’t already positively oozing with analogy) a river. Across this river is a simple footbridge. Beside that bridge is a line of barely dozing crocodiles. Choosing the bridge is guaranteed to get you to your goal, although admittedly not in a way that will earn you much admiration. Bounding across the backs of a few murderous reptiles will take you to the other side in a dramatic, thrilling and entirely unforgettable way. If, of course, you do make it to the other side.

Naturally copywriting is more nuanced than this. Arriving safely and steadily at the right message can be an act of creative negligence, just as taking a wild and ultimately unsuccessful risk can be viewed as an entirely honourable punt.

But, on occasion, reaching for the easiest possible answer can be a perfectly legitimate approach. Any of you who are fond of the many vapid writing aphorisms that litter the internet may well have heard the one about ‘If it’s too simple. If it’s too obvious… you’ve finished!’

To seek out the startling approach to any brief is a professional compulsion amongst copywriters – which is why so many of us respond to even the most straightforward briefs by hopefully, and rather sheepishly, tossing in a wildcard at the end. Something about robots or monkeys with the legs of a zebra.

But to approach any copywriting task with the belief that the obvious is strictly off limits is to shut down a legitimate avenue of creative enquiry. We may very well take this approach and arrive at something astounding and original. We may, equally, find ourselves hurling Weetabix at a bear.

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