WHERE ARE YOUR WORDS FAILING YOU?
Recently, I was asked to rewrite an advertisement for a client
The client is in a very, very sexy category.
Yay, construction materials!
Here's the thing.
This stuff doesn't sell itself. Even construction materials require advertising that hits the mark.
No, it might not be sexy.
But it's an 8-figure business that's selling its product from New England to New Zealand.
AND THEIR BRAND IS ROCK SOLID
No pun intended.
In their category, they have a brand that stands apart, stands out, and stands up to the competition.
They're also just fun to work for.
The product they sell is a permanent cold asphalt that saves the user around 50% over the cost of traditional asphalt repairs.
Traditionally, a road repair is done twice: first with a temporary cold patch, and then later with a permanent hot mix.
You've seen the temporary pothole repairs. They're the ones that never last, destroy your suspension, and blow the chrome spinner wheel covers off your Smart Car.
This product eliminates the second, hot-mix repair. You just come in, make the repair once, and you're done for good. Guaranteed permanent.
They had an ad going out to the trade, and wanted the copy refreshed from a previous version.
AND THE HEADLINE WAS NAGGING AT ME
The headline, which they were happy to continue using, was "Patch once. Save money."
I looked at it.
It sat there on the page, mocking me.
What is missing, headline?
Why are you irritating me?
What is it about you that makes you incomplete?
I left it.
Instead, I went through the body copy and freshened it up.
And the answer to the headline dilemma punched through.
That's what it needed.
The headline had said, "Patch once. Save money."
What it was supposed to say was, "Patch just once. Save big money."
All of a sudden, the proposition is more distinctive and acute.
You're going to do even less work and save even more money.
I sent the headline over to the client.
His reply was something like, "Oh. That's better."
Apparently, the headline had been nagging at him, as well.
And this points to something all too common in writing advertising.
THE WRITER QUITS TOO SOON
Sometimes it's laziness.
Often, it's a time deficit.
Sometimes, it's just plain ignorance.
Occasionally, it's arrogance.
Regardless. Whatever you're creating, whether it's print, digital, broadcast--from a TV commercial to a website to a one-sheet--copywriting is a puzzle to be solved.
You can be the writer. You can be the client. You can be a middle man. It doesn't matter who you are.
If the words are nagging at you, the copy isn't finished.
Of course, this requires that you have the conscience to let those words nag at you. I've known too many ostensible pros whose bar for "Good enough" is way too low.
They suffer from an arrogance of ignorance and indifference that shoots everyone in the foot.
Those cases aside, there's a simple rule to remember about copy.
IF IT'S NOT ON THE PAGE...
It's not in your advertisement.
Or your website.
Or your brochure.
Or your commercial.
Or whatever else it is you're using to communicate with your customer.
And if you care, you will likely get that feeling, the one that says, "This isn't quite right."
The "Good enough!" attitude is necessary. There comes a point where you have to stop cutting bait and start fishing.
That notwithstanding, one MUST be scrupulous about one's words.
METICULOUS ATTENTION TO DETAIL RULES
A willingness to parse the copy and figure out what's missing matters.
At the very least, it's how a customer is enticed to pay attention.
At the very best, it's how you change the world.
Somewhere in between those two places is the bank.
It's where the advertising generates more response and makes more money.
And a good copywriter is going to sweat the details until vowels and consonants are dripping from his pores.
Example: last weekend, the Fabulous Honey Parker and I were running in a trail race.
(Notice I said, "running," not "competing." Saying that either of us is competitive strains credibility. But we always beat the people who never start.)
Someone running ahead of me was wearing a T-shirt from a local university.
The message on the back of the shirt, under the university's logo, was this copy: "Envy the past. Fear the future."
MY FIRST THOUGHT WAS: "WELL, THAT'S STUPID."
A university is about educating and enlightening with the goal of building a better tomorrow.
Who would teach anyone to fear the future?
Then, I thought, This must be something from the sports department. It's intended to taunt the competition.
A cursory Google search reveals that this is a message that has gone onto the T-shirts ever since the university's football team joined the PAC-12.
Here's the problem with me running behind a guy wearing a shirt like that.
There is entirely too much time to parse the words. I spent several minutes breaking it down and trying to decide whether it made sense.
As a message to the competition, which it undoubtedly must be, it's a couple of things.
One, it's arrogant, which is dangerous. Those are words that you may find being spoon fed back to you. They will not taste good.
Two, it's slightly off target. The words are wrong.
As I was running through the dust and rocks, I kept looking at that shirt and rewriting it.
I KEPT ASKING MYSELF, "IS 'THE' THE CORRECT WORD?"
At the risk of sounding a little too much like an erstwhile U.S. president who, under questioning, said that his answer depended upon what the definition of "is" is, you need to think about these things.
Because really, this message is not about a general past or a general future, but about one party's specific past and another party's specific future.
A past in which the university's team has reaped the glory of victory.
And a future in which the university's team is going to eat the opposing team's lunch.
So maybe the message should be, "Envy our past. Fear your future."
Because technically, that's really what it's about.
It's about you, on the opposing team, looking on our record with envy, and in tomorrow's game, being forced to go headlong and eat dirt.
PERSONALLY, I CAN THINK OF A FEW LINES THAT ARE MORE FUN AND LESS RISKY
"Fear not. Death will be glorious."
"It's a good day to die. Ready?"
"What's in your wallet? And do they take it at the ER?"
"We'll carry the torch. You enjoy the flames."
"Our mascot will look even better from down there."
"Come feel the pain."
OK. Are they good lines? Mainly, no.
But this is the process.
I wrote all of that in slightly more time than it took to read it all.
Too many people stop writing at the first idea.
Sometimes, that idea is brilliant.
More often, it's not.
OFTEN, THE WAY BRILLIANCE OCCURS, IS BY WRITING TONS AND TONS OF CRAP
Writing not nearly enough crap, and thinking only half way, is how too many people approach the problem.
Immature copywriters want to be like Zeus, hurling lightning bolts of genius down from Mount Olympus and then prancing off to the next erotic escapade.
The experienced copywriter knows: One is not Zeus. One is the erstwhile King of Ephyra, better known as Sisyphus, forced to roll that immense boulder up a hill for eternity.
And in case you didn't know, Sisyphus was sentenced to this endless task for...
How fitting. All of us committed copywriters are doomed to pay the price for our youthful copywriting indiscretions of ego-driven, crafty writing by pushing the copy boulder uphill for eternity.
We are doomed to participate in trail races where we run along, analyzing the copy on the back of the shirt of the guy in front of us and rewrite it while trying to not go flailing headlong in the scree and end up with a face full of pebbles.
DON'T LET YOUR WRITING GO ONLY HALFWAY
Whether you're writing for yourself or for someone else, or someone else is writing for you, the job needs to be complete.
It doesn't need to be art. Most of the time, good copy is not artful.
But all the time, when it works, good copy is a product of competent, thoughtful craftsmanship.
It is not the product of ego-driven cleverness.
And it's definitely not the product of lazy thinking.
And when the right words are on the page, magic happens.
And they become customers.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker helps people sell their stuff. An advertising Creative Director and Copywriter at Slow Burn Marketing, he specializes in big-brand thinking for small-business marketing. He has the voice of a much taller man.