Copywriting isn’t what it used to be

By in
Copywriting isn’t what it used to be

Professionally speaking, I grew up in the shadow of the greats in The Copy Book – people trained in the tradition of classic long copy advertising. It’s a tradition with roots in door-to-door salesmanship and direct mail – copy as an extended product sales pitch, weaving together features and benefits with wit and charm, and carrying readers skilfully towards the killer close.
I have one foot in that tradition too – starting out in telesales, then working for years in advertising and direct response charity copywriting, where every sentence has to earn its keep. For as long as companies want to sell things, it will always be a relevant tradition. Brands like Apple could learn a lot from old VW ads.
But my other foot has been in the less well-defined world of ‘writing for design’ – something that has always been around, but has become more visible in the last 20 years. People lament the passing of the great long copy era in advertising, but it’s more of a migration. Long copy has shifted to packaging, websites, brand narratives, tone of voice guides and copy-led identity schemes.
There are downsides to that shift. Instead of sharply honed sales pitches, most packaging copy consists of loose screeds of chattiness, designed to convey a personality more than a message. I suspect David Abbott would not have approved.
The upside is that copywriters are getting to do more things. I’ve been involved in projects where the writing isn’t marketing the thing – it is the thing. Sideways Dictionary was a project with Jigsaw and the Washington Post, creating an online tool that explains technology using analogies instead of straight definitions. Not because analogies do the whole job, but because they provide an entry point and a memorable hook that IT people can use in presentations and reports. Writing and lateral thinking as a public resource.
Examples from the Sideways Dictionary, an online toolkit of over 300 analogies to shed light on technological terms, now open to public contributions

Another positive change – lower costs of production mean writers are more able to produce their own projects, instead of waiting for a brief. Perpetual Disappointments Diary started out as an idea to produce an appointments diary with a series of disappointing twists. It contains a series of demotivational proverbs, reminders of Notable Deaths, and a contacts section for People Who Never Call. As a copywriter, you’re often taking familiar things and giving them a twist – this was born of the same habit of thinking.
Writers are routinely getting involved in the creation of brands. Most of my work is in collaboration with design companies, often at the stage when they’re branding or rebranding a company. I get to write verbal blueprints – strategic thinking combined with the basis of a personality – that become the brief for the visual identity and the basis for the whole brand. That’s an interesting thing to do, like tinkering under the bonnet of a brand.
Perpetual Disappointments Diary, an appointments diary with a series of disappointing twists, including useful travel phrases, weekly demotivational proverbs, and blank pages for pointless doodles
Page from the Perpetual Disappointments Diary
Page from the Perpetual Disappointments Diary
Copywriters have always been a combination of the huckster and the poet. But the poet has been given more of a free rein in recent years. I get to write weird stuff – a cut-up poem for a paper company, a 1000-word text-only mailer for a photographer, a book of corporate poetry called Corpoetics. Some would say we’re meant to be in the business of selling, not creating art. But art sells – ask Damien Hirst. Brands look to writers to bring the weirdness and writers should revel in that.
That will be even more the case as writers start giving voice to interfaces, turning brands into real characters rather than the notional, disembodied ones that have existed in the past. It’s an interesting time to be a writer because things are shifting – there’s new territory to explore and claim before anyone else does.
But most of the time writing is the same as it ever was. When I worked on a campaign for Cambridge University with design company Johnson Banks (a company led by a great verbal and visual thinker), it was based on the idea of an open letter from Cambridge to the world, which in turn sparked a series of imaginary letters from alumni – from Isaac Newton to Laura Bates. It’s an idea that could have been done any time in the last century, relying on verbal wit more than any particular technology or trend.
From Dear World, Yours Cambridge, a major fundraising campaign devised by Johnson Banks to celebrate Cambridge’s impact on the world, in the form of an ongoing open correspondence. See also top image

There’s good and bad in the way copy has developed. Sometimes it does feel like the great skills of the past have been lost. You look at all the vague chat and vapid brand lines and despair. But there has always been bad copy around – it’s what makes the good stuff look good. If they were writing now, I suspect David Abbott and Margaret Fishback (look her up) would be having fun. They might even enjoy the fact that copywriting isn’t what it used to be.
Originally published in 1995, The Copy Book has been re-released in a compact format by D&AD and Taschen Bibliotheca Universalis; taschen.comThe post Copywriting isn’t what it used to be appeared first on Creative Review.

Leave a reply