Copywriter Andrew Boulton on how silliness makes you a more serious creative.
Whenever I find myself taking my job as a copywriter too seriously, I read a poem by Philip Larkin called Sunny Prestatyn.
Tempted as I am to pad out the word count by reproducing the whole thing here, I shan’t. But I do urge anyone who makes their living in the endearingly preposterous world of creative advertising to copy it out and pin it somewhere near your desk.
In the poem, Larkin describes a billboard ad urging people to visit ‘Sunny Prestatyn’. Unceremoniously ‘slapped up one day in March’, the model on the poster becomes gradually more ‘snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed’ as local urchins systematically deface the ad until, one day, she finds herself in possession of ‘a tuberous cock and balls*’.
(*Shit like this is why I read Larkin.)
At the end of the poem, the torn and tattered poster has served its term on the billboard and is replaced, absurdly, by a ‘fight cancer’ advert.
For me, the poem is a reminder not only of the brief – and often unhappy – life of creative work, but also how flippantly it’s regarded by almost everybody outside of the industry.
Sunny Prestatyn reminds me not only to avoid taking the business of copywriting too seriously, but also that to be a copywriter is to be wilfully silly.
Ours is an odd profession where the business of what we do is often directly at odds with the mechanics of imagination.
Creativity, I believe, requires play. It demands an atmosphere of fearless nonsense – permission to express your oddest observations without hesitation or filtration.
As soon as a copywriter falls into the trap of taking it all too seriously – which we all do, frequently and unavoidably – it breaks contact with that burbling spring of silliness so necessary to our craft.
Writing about Coco Channel, Karl Lagerfeld (probably not your immediate pick as a champion for larking about) said ‘Fashion does not have to prove that it is serious. It is the proof that intelligent frivolity can be something creative and positive’.
Frivolity, in copywriting, is too often treated as an underground activity. It is confined and concealed, and when it comes to sharing ideas, the silliness in which they were conceived is self-consciously tucked out of sight.
Edward Gorey, a demi-god of silliness, apparently once said ‘to take my work seriously would be the height of folly’.
And yet I know I’ve been guilty of wanting to be seen as a serious professional producing serious thoughts.
But it is, quite frankly, exhausting to masquerade as a serious person doing a serious job when you are neither.
In fact there is an argument that a copywriter’s capacity for silliness is a more accurate and affirming indicator of their ability than the po-ness of their face.
There’s another poem (don’t be fooled, I only know about four) by Charles Bukowski called ‘59 Cents a Pound’ where he writes:
there’s nothing better than the joke
the seriousness of us
the dullness of us.
And that too serves as a warning for copywriters. We have worked hard to shed our seriousness – or rather, to avoid contracting it. We have cultivated an inherent sense of absurdity and frivolity, purely because we need that within us to produce something surprising and strange and new.
Strangling that, solely because you have an inbox and an online calendar and performance reviews with a man in a stripy tie, is a fatal misunderstanding of what you want – and need – to be good at.
Stay silly, I say, or, for your own sanity, stay away from copywriting.
Andrew Boulton is a copywriter and teaches Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter @boultini