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Trippingly On The Tongue

In advertising copy, it's amazing what works and what doesn't work.

If you're an accountant or a lawyer or a consultant with a marketing program, you don't have to know how to write an ad, but you should know some things about how to judge one written for you. You should know also that what you think works, may not.

While a great deal is known about what works in ad copy, there’s even more we don’t know. What makes it difficult for the uninitiated is that what you may judge to be great copy because of the sheer poetry, imagery, sound, and lyricism, may be lousy for accomplishing the mission of the ad.

Nor are copy rules decisive. When the advertising legend, David Ogilvy, was told that copy should be short and terse, because nobody reads more than a few words of an ad, he wrote the classic, "At 60 miles and hour the only sound you hear is the clock." It was a full page of text, describing the features of the Rolls Royce. It sold a lot of cars.

But in an imitative world, a great many ad people imitated not the selling aspects of the ad, but its length. We were then treated to a bunch of long text ads, most of which sold nothing. Some ad people simply didn't get it.

Perhaps the hardest thing for people who are not marketers to understand is that the process is a function of not only training, but skill, intelligence and imagination -- all of which are what we usually mean when we use the peculiar word "creative." There are rules, and there are ways to break the rules. But like the best abstract artists, who know better how to abstract because they are fine realistic artists, it's likely that those who know the rules best are those who break the rules best

The Limits Of Copywriting

The limits of copywriting are essentially those of the medium. You can't write 10 minutes of copy for a 30-second radio spot. The mechanics of writing for one medium are too infrequently translatable into another medium. You can't put 50 words of copy on a billboard alongside a high speed highway and expect the message to be read.

And yet there are times when originality, imagination, and skill dictate that all rules be violated. Fifty or 100 words on that billboard may be just the ticket if the headline is something like, "There are not enough words to describe ... " and you don’t really expect people to read the text.

The Objectives of the Ad

Writing advertising copy begins, as you might expect, with defining objectives -- of the campaign, of the marketing program, of the specific ad. These objectives will be unique to you and your firm, to each campaign, and to each ad. They dictate that the copy -- as well as all other elements of the ad -- are focused and relevant.

Elements Of A Good Ad

An ad that includes at least the following elements might be expected to be good …

The Foundation For Copy

Ads seem to work best when you...

Copy Structure

The purpose of a headline is to attract attention and to bring the reader to the ad. A headline that offers nothing to the reader in terms of either benefit or interest may effectively mask the cleverest ad, and one that's offering the most useful service.

The text should spring from the headline, and follow through the promise it offers. It should explain and clarify the facts and claims. It should be a logical progression of ideas, covering all of the points you mean to cover, even if it's done only with an illustration.

Copy can appeal to the intellect and reason, or it can appeal to the emotions, or it can do both.

The text of an ad designed to cause action should lead naturally to a call for action. What precisely do you want your reader to do? Call now? File for future reference? Send in a coupon? Send for a brochure? Remember something? Experienced copywriters know that the call for action works. It's not so much that when readers are told to do something they do it. It's that when they're not told to do something they're less likely to do it.

The copy usually ends with a logo and a signature for identification and impression, and sometimes also a slogan.

The Copy Platform

The professional copywriter usually develops a concept, sometimes called the copy platform, which is a clear statement of the copy objectives, focus, and approach. This is an attempt to articulate, as clearly and as simply as possible, what the copy shall say and how it shall say it. Shall it be extensive or brief? What tone shall it take? Shall it be breezy and light, or formal? What message shall it try to convey? What is the rationale behind the approach?

The purpose of this copy platform, whether it's specifically articulated on paper or merely understood in the copywriter's mind, is to serve as a guide to actually writing the copy. Many copywriters use it to present to their clients for a clear understanding of how the ad will come out.

Writing The Copy

The artistry of advertising lies in the ability to manipulate symbols and ideas in order to inform and persuade people. As in any art form, there are no rules that can guide you in doing this, except to list those factors that seem to work most consistently. And yet, remember, some of the most successful ads are those that violate the rules.

Two universally accepted axioms are that an ad must be simple, and it must look and sound as if it's worth paying attention to. And obviously, it must be complete -- it must contain all the information you want to convey. These axioms -- if indeed they are axioms -- spring from the fact that few ads are successful when these rules are ignored. Beyond that, clarity is essential. No matter how an ad is written it must be understood and easy to read.

It should be grammatical -- despite the fact that there are many examples of successful advertising that are clearly ungrammatical. A breach of grammatical rules, however, should be deliberate, and designed to serve a specific purpose. The rules of grammar are not arbitrary, nor are they engraved in stone. But the purpose of the rules of grammar is consistency, understanding and clarity. Unless there is a conscious reason to do otherwise, copy should be grammatically sound.

There are some other guidelines that professional copywriters also find useful ...

Writing is not the manipulation of words -- it's the expression of ideas. Words, grammar and punctuation, are merely the tools and devices we use to express ideas most clearly. To think of copy as a configuration of words is the same as thinking of a symphony as a configuration of notes.

Why do ads that seem well written sometimes not work? Because they miss these points of advertising. Because they attempt to merely translate somebody's idea of persuasive talk into the ad medium, which can sometimes be like wearing a tuxedo to the gym.

And because somebody didn't recognize that the art of advertising copywriting is not the art of literary writing. Different medium, different art form.