Consumer Messaging & the Tyranny of Labels (1)

[January 3, 2011]

One of the most important aspects of Language is the way it shapes our perceptions. A perfect example is the experience I had at a dinner party, a few years back. The main course was delicious—until I learned what was in it. Once the words “pigs’ knuckles” entered my brain, I lost my appetite and much else besides.

That’s just one of the ways the labels we attach to things can affect our experience. In this sense, Language not only conveys information, it is information.

Take the label “copywriter.” Over the last 50 years, as American marketing, like American society, has become more literal-minded, the meaning of “copywriter” has become increasingly limited. In 2012, your garden-variety marketing wonk defines “copywriter” as a technician who writes to order.

And due to the splintering effects of literalism on workflow, that order now frequently comes from a highly specialized “strategist.” According to common lore, copywriters only exist to realize a strategist’s strategies. They do so by pumping pre-approved PowerPoint slides full of category-appropriate stock phrases—kind of like a building contractor insulating your attic.

According to one school of thought, this analogy is entirely apt. It positions writing as a mechanical process, a skill anyone could learn if they didn’t have loftier things to attend to.

Step away from the whiteboard.
It’s easy to see why. As America’s descent into literalism continues—as evidenced by this season’s GOP debates—even people who should know better think in terms of “Pharmaceutical Copy,” “Real Estate Copy,” “Financial Copy,” “Insurance Copy.” That they also posit the existence of “Mommy Marketing Copy,” “Hispanic Marketing Copy,” and “Alternative Lifestyle Copy” is just this side of bigotry.

Yet this is what Language does to thought and perception if you let it. Ironically, as the premier label-makers of American society, the advertising industry is the one most thoroughly snared in labeling’s artful web. 

Having created a marketing category, we can’t walk away from the tight limitations it puts on our communications with real people—as opposed to the statistically generated mannequins many market researchers long to settle down with and start a family.

Ultimately, the seductive power of Language lies in the reassuringly mechanical thought processes it tempts us to accept. If my goal is to write me some Real Estate Copy, I know I can’t go wrong as long as I color within the lines—as laid out by ritualized service pledges, terse action statements and self-congratulatory heralding. 

After a few years, you can write this kind of dreck in your sleep, which is why so much of what we ask consumers to read is unreadable—except in the most literal sense.

“Moving, meaningful, human? Just write it already.”
As I see it, the saddest piece of this puzzle is the rampant ignorance of the truth behind the “copywriter” label. Do yourself a favor: Peer through the inky fog Language squirts at you when you let it run wild. You’ll realize that copywriting has very little to do with words. 

The real task of a copywriter is to create a compelling message and then build a structure through which it can flow. It’s a collaborative task that can’t be handled by the harried keyboard jockeys our pressure-cooker scheduling produces. It’s also an evolving process, which is why the rigid mandates of many strategic advisors are a prescription for disaster—precisely because they’re prescriptive.

To the chagrin of consultants everywhere, crafting an effective communication is not a connect-the-dots exercise you execute with a “fool-proof system.” Instead of proceeding word-for-word from a literal transcription of “key learnings,” “audience insights” or “user profiles,” your creative messaging team, led by an accomplished copy creative, must interact with the data, test its limits and listen intuitively for its true emotional resonance.

Sure, the strategists’ hard work is duly noted and the directional leads it offers are often invaluable. But only someone with the experience, training and talent to understand the impact of language on thought, emotion and meaning can properly manage the intricate interplay of fact, image, sound, rhythm and pacing required to motivate consumers to action.

Everything else is just words, the empty rattling of conventional marketing wisdom, a body of knowledge curiously ignorant of its own central thesis: That its number one goal is to get under consumers’ skin and make them itch to take action. 

Reaching that goal requires a finely tuned structure that can’t be cooked up around a conference table over pasta salad and Coke Zero. In my next post, I’ll take a look at some of the ways structure and message interact—as a stab at outlining a more flexible paradigm for crafting consumer messaging.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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