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Copywriting with fists: why advertising needs beef

By Andrew Boulton

September 25, 2019 | 4 min read

The worst part about getting old, aside from the throbbing knees, plummeting jawline and the dramatic miniaturisation of your bladder, is that fewer and fewer people know what you’re talking about.

boxing gloves

Recently dropped from my dwindling repertoire of things I like to say is an introduction to students where I claim to be the only lecturer in the building who doesn’t dress like they’re on their way to Byker Grove.

On its last outing, no one even bothered to ask me what a Byker Grove is, such is the yawning gulf in generational apathy. To quote the Mighty Boosh, it’s all Pret A Manger and Lily Allen with young people these days.

Tempting as it might be to use this blog as an episode-by-episode retelling of that powerful urban fable (all you really need to know is Geordies, Spuggy and, crucially, never do paintball) instead I’ll talk about a rare parcel of common ground that will always remain intact – insulting your peers.

Away from the school playground, there is no more fertile terrain for the propagation of insults than advertising.

In a sub-category of ads I like to call ‘Your Mum’ creative, advertising has done admirable work in the field of belittling others in a bid for cheap, but nonetheless glorious, laughs.

Think of the small boy standing on two cans of Coca Cola just so he’s tall enough to press the Pepsi button on the vending machine. Think of Burger King inviting customers to, albeit virtually, set fire to McDonalds adverts in exchange for hot meat. Think of Newcastle Brown Ale buying up billboard space right beside Stella Artois ads merely to poke fun at the word ‘chalice’. Think of these things and titter like you’ve just heard a witheringly defamatory comment about the outlandish sexual habits of someone’s dad.

The only strange thing about this kind of advertising is that not everyone is doing it, probably a quivering demurral to that most timid of brand values, ‘positivity’.

Advertising is, by nature, adversarial. It is the business of being chosen above the others. And, whether a brand acknowledges it not, the subtext to every ad ever written is ‘we’re better than them’.

That’s why the continuation of confrontational creative is at the heart of the battle to arrest a steady slide into uniformity. Without it, we are just one of those magic eye pictures (remember them? Never mind) where you may cross your eyes as much as you’re able, you still won’t see the tiger.

The key though is to do it with wit and imagination. An advert that is all malice and no concept makes you wonder why that brand is so very worried about their rival. Think of the old Newman and Baddiel sketch (why do I bother) where the retort to a serious debating point would always be ‘that’s you, that is’ and you start to see that this sort of idea requires finesse as well as fisticuffs.

The other marvellous thing about ‘Your Mum’ creative is that it gives you an immediate springboard for ideas. Even if it’s not overt, thinking about why you’re better than them – or why they’re worse than you – gives you a starting point that comes with sharp edges and pointy corners. Just like your mum.

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