Cowboy Marketers at the Copy Corral

[December 10, 2010]

After several years of careful observation, I’ve traced point of origin for most Web copy to one of two cattle ranches in Wyoming. At least, judging from the evidence at hand, the vast majority of copy we read on Web 2.0 sites is surely much more rustled up and corralled than written. Not to mention branded…

How does this happen? For one thing, many Americans share a deep mistrust for the written word. After all, writing forces you to think about what you’re saying and, once you start thinking, you aren’t going with your gut anymore. At a time when the phony cowboy ideals of the 1950s are sadly played out, a great many Americans cling to the idea that gut reactions, first impressions, and shooting from the hip are, ipso facto the only Truth.

“Land sakes,” drawls the stubbly-faced cowboy marketer, “don’t you fritter away yer time with none o’ that dang-blasted cogitatin’. Jes git them words out and git ‘er dun. Lordy, I reckon my secretary can type faster’n you.”

The distressing results of this approach are obvious to anyone who actually reads. Show of hands…you in the back…

“But nobody reads” says the bright-eyed Communications Major with the iPad velcroed to his T-shirt.

Git along little wordies!
Funny thing is, we spend an awful lot of time in this industry obsessing over words we swear no one will read. And gradually, I’ve come to realize that most advertising copy is birthed, reared and herded along with the express intent that it should go unread. Its only purpose is to serve as a patterned backdrop for an “ADD TO CART” button—though preferrably with a sprig of parlsey and a side of potatoes.

How does this happen? It starts with the premise that anything too definitive will alienate someone who, in all likelihood, will never visit the page. Hence, the unending stream of shapeless, lifeless marketing prose written in a dialect of English with no identifiable Time, Place, Culture, Gender or Fashion Sense.

Sure, it’s inoffensive; it’s also meaningless.
How does this happen? It begins when agencies make Process an article of faith. Simply develop a creative process, this belief-system promises, assign a project manager to manage it—and whatever results is Success. After all, it grows directly out of the process everyone validated.

Yet, I’ll wager, that process usually lacks any check points along the way—to ensure a project actually makes sense. Far from it. Sense, meaning and message are the very first casualties, as the wagon train of Process rumbles blindly on, giving equal weight to every scrap of “input.”

“Reckon my word’s as good as any around these parts.”

Snuggled cozily inside that wagon, people who can’t cobble together a single coherent sentence feel empowered. They’re only too eager to assess the relative “choppiness” of a paragraph, to evaluate its structure, coherence or flow. The fruits of this confused thinking—and feeling—about Copy are on display everywhere. And before you ask, here’s how it happened…

At this late date, many people are still confused about the relationship between words on a page and the message they want consumers to grasp. Putting too much stock in favorite catch phrases, or peculiar ideas about sentence structure, they miss the real task: Delivering a cogent answer to the question:

Why should I switch off Dancing with the Stars to buy your product?

Not that these issues don’t cross over into all other advertising media. Once, when I was writing a direct mail piece, a client insisted on two corrections to an otherwise utterly misguided project. The first was to change the phrase “Use the enclosed envelope…” to “Use the envelope enclosed.”

“No one can use an enclosed.” he smirked.

His second requirement was no less exacting. I was to change “See the coupon below…” to “See the below coupon…” because otherwise no one would know what coupon we were talking about—even though it was attached to the bottom of the letter.

So, while I couldn’t expect consumers to “use an enclosed.” I could expect them to “see a below.” And all the while my client was dithering about individual words, his competition was eating his sorry brand for lunch.

How did this happen? He was too preoccupied with words to say anything of value to consumers. Not that he wanted to. Like a typical cowboy marketer, he didn’t pay no never mind to communicatin’. He jes wanted to say stuff.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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