Copywriters on Madison Avenue constantly grapple with the question of where their work sits on the totem pole of "real" writing. Are they scriveners churning out what the novelist Richard Yates (himself a sometimes adman) called "grubby little jobs for hire," or are they skilled poets performing on a commercial canvas?
Today, the glamour of the "Mad Men"-era is long gone, but great copywriting is still very much a core part of the gig. We live in an age of wild media clutter, and big ideas are more difficult to communicate than ever before. Large chunks of the public discourse are played out in 140-character koans and pungent status updates. People who want to express themselves effectively can learn a lot from the hard-won concision of the copywriter.
Long before social media existed, the proto-tweets of advertising had penetrated American popular culture: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." "Where's the beef?" "A diamond is forever." "Think different." You'd be hard pressed to find a writer's craft that has more directly influenced the vernacular.
But for every iconic line like these, there are a hundred failures. Writing bad copy is easy, which is why the majority of advertising feels disposable.
So what can a fledgling scribe learn from a good copywriter? For one thing, remember that less really is more. The average billboard has no more than eight words. It takes a lot of effort to make a beer, rice or shampoo seem special in eight words.
The first step of copywriting is to brainstorm. What are we trying to say? What specific mood are we trying to evoke? We toss around images, key phrases, associations. We throw down dozens of half-baked ideas in sweaty notebooks. It's painful.
We recently spent what seemed like weeks trying to come up with a tagline for athletic-wear brand Puma that would distinguish it from its competitors. Puma has a highly differentiated position in the marketplace. Some athletic companies just celebrate winning at all costs. Puma also champions "social" sports—think foosball, darts, karaoke, bowling and other wildly popular games that you're likely to play with a drink in your hand.
So what do you call the athlete who has no intention of waking up at 5 a.m. to train but who still wants to win? We needed a name, a handle, something that would endure. "Champions of the night?" Hmmm. "Night-thletes?" Nope. "The every athlete?" Too bland. "Sportastic?" You're fired.
Then, just when we were ready to pack it in, inspiration struck: "the after-hours athlete." That had the ring of truth to it. Now an entire category at long last has an identity, and Puma has a rallying cry for the masses.
For Prudential, we needed to develop something optimistic and in-touch: "Bring your challenges" did the trick. For Unicef's Tap Project, an effort to raise awareness of the global water crisis, we wanted to suggest karmic connection. Our tagline: "If you take water, give water."
Hopefully, like the best ad copy, these phrases will enter the cultural vocabulary and never leave.
And so it goes. Rather than thinking expansively about a product, service or project, we constantly hone for size and space, and then hone some more. We refine and finalize through subtraction. We embrace simplicity without (we hope) seeming like simpletons. We boil down language to its core emotional constituents, to the point at which words disappear and only a feeling remains.
The truth is that good copywriting paved the way for the tweet long before Twitter was actually invented—but who needs all those characters!