Culture of Perfectionism

[April 16, 2010]

In developing creative concepts for any advertising medium, conflicts often arise between a client’s specific demands and the task of motivating consumers to take a desired action. This conflict is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the frequently protracted process of finalizing the copy.

Like most conflicts, this one is multilayered, affecting different aspects of the process at different times. It can be summarized under the general heading of perfectionism. Perfectionism itself, the compulsive pursuit of an unattainable idea, is plenty destructive on its own. Doubly so, since the criteria for achieving “perfection” are deeply irrational.

In the sphere of advertising copy, however, this compulsive drive to write, rewrite, or revert to “safe,” existing copy also has a disastrous impact on brand-building and ROI. Sadly, this particular type of perfectionism, this Anxiety of the Word, grows out of a fundamental misunderstanding about the way language works. No matter which marketing ideology you subscribe to, you must realize that what motivates people to action isn’t individual words.

What motivates is a clear, fresh message, based on a deep understanding of audience desires. That message is a promise, of reward, fulfillment, enhancement, of health or of wealth—but never a promise that only certain phrases will appear on the page. Why, then, devote so many hours to incessant word-picking, while relegating the real message, the promise to consumers, to a few trite phrases of marketing speak buried in the back pages of a creative brief?

Deluded by a deluge of diddly details.
Let’s go back to first causes and realize that language is a complex phenomenon encompassing far more than words on a page. Words are only a conduit for ideas pouring out from a specific point of view, in this case, a sales proposition. Layered on top of that is what should be a very carefully conceived brand persona—emerging from the total impact of the communication.

That’s because language communicates through a composite of word, rhythm, gesture, accent and honest emotion. In advertising, the core of this phenomenon is a promise of affirmation. We’ve all had the experience of being “sold” and, thinking back, the process involved a lot more than just reading a formulaic call to action. It consisted of a gradual matching of our personal attributes and goals to key attributes and goals of the brand and the specific product.

Now, as I see it, the key word here is “gradual,” and this is another reason why we need to stop fussing over individual words. For all this wrangling grows out of another delusion, deeply embedded in current practice: The idea that each communication with consumers must convey all and every detail of the product’s benefits and features.

Little words. Big picture.
Why does this matter? Because you can’t drive a message home just by repeating it verbatim. You must weave it into the very substance of your relationship with consumers. Take, for example, the message “I love you.” As most people would agree, that message takes time to express itself meaningfully. In a similar way every marketing message, to be credible, lasting and believable needs to be rolled out over a period of months.

So instead of trying to “fix” the words in a specific consumer engagement, you’d do better to put that pent-up energy into mapping out your brand promise in more depth, and deciding how to stage its communication over the course of a year, five years, ten years or more.

Once you start “thinking big” about language you’ll see just how futile, trivial and misguided a perfectionist obsession with individual words actually is. You’ll let Copy Creatives stop editing and go back to their real work: The intricate weaving of targeted idioms, brand messaging and deep structure that creates memorable, meaningful and motivating communication.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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