"Copied Writing" & the Semblance of Sense

[March 14, 2012] 

In the day-to-day life of an agency copywriter, a request for full-scale revision is a common occurrence. You’re either editing a round of your own work, rewriting existing copy, or starting “from scratch,” i.e., creating a new version of a different block of existing copy.

Since so much of our process revolves around revising an existing revision, I sometimes wonder if all advertising and promotional copy could be traced back to a primeval Guild of Wordsmiths.

OK, that’s unlikely.

But I don’t now how else to account for our current situation, in which marketers obsess over codified blocks of copy—instead of crafting a coherent message to consumers. In fact, many marketers insist that all copy should derive from phrases contained in a single master document. A shape-shifting trickster, this document takes many guises. You may know it as:

• Messaging Architecture Map
• Key Learnings Ladder
• Branded Communications Guideline
Suzy Homemaker Consumer Copy Oven
(Bakes Real Headlines!)

Whatever its name, the document fosters an aura of peaceful submission to a tidy creative process. “Look,” coos a typical brand manager, eyes half-shut, “I know where every line of copy comes from.” Now, in the context of such bliss, it seems a shame to burst the bubble of self-satisfaction, especially when preserving it is the surest path to AOR status.

Trouble is, this is one of many instances in life when rocking the boat is the only way to get the dinghy ashore.

Messaging through the looking glass.
Looked at rationally, the source of these messaging templates should be enough to discredit the practice. For we’re being asked to accept a messaging strategy tested in a focus group, on a statistically insignificant number of people. What’s more, these people are selected using screening methods that wouldn’t pass muster in a third world manufacturing plant. Anyone who doubts this has never been on the other side of the glass.

Objectivity? Science? Look through the glass and point to one person who isn’t there solely for the 75 bucks—or secretly hoping the focus group session is a covert audition for American Idol.

But even if I agreed that focus group testing is a meaningful predictor of future results, the most damaging impact of this process is the mechanical way the suspect findings are interpreted. Once the 20-pound Power Point deck is delivered, the process degenerates into a frantic game of Tetris, as we tap away furiously to make mismatched, irregular chunks of raw data fit into a semblance of sense.

Questions of quality control aside, my issue with this process goes deeper. Sure, on the surface, such a process might seem to have merit—since it posits a direct correlation between what some consumers say and what all consumers want to hear. But, as I see it, anyone who subscribes to the “Tetris model” has forgotten how language works.

Beyond “word processing.”
Contrary to popular belief, words are not mere conveyors of discrete meaning. Heard in context, they also carry cultural baggage. Take, for example, the isolated statistic that the median marriage age is now 27.5 for men and 25.6 for women. Based on that data, would you even think of reciting your marriage eligibility profile to a 27-year-old man or 25-year-old woman you just met?

Or would you, come to think of it, try to seduce them first?

By the same token, you must introduce yourself to consumers with more than an empty recitation of end-user benefits and reasons-to-believe—no matter what their source. Why? Because mechanical messaging fails to acknowledge the three phases of consumer communication:

1. Get your customer’s attention
2. Reward your customer’s attention
3. Motivate your customer to action

Regrettably, many people only acknowledge Phase 3. That goes a long way to explaining why, if a focus group attendee says a product is fast and easy to use, you can set your clocks by how fast the headlines “It’s So Easy!” and “It’s So Fast!” will appear on a wave of promotional materials. Worse, I can site multiple instances in my own experience where someone has proposed “The Fastest, Easiest______ Just Got Faster and Easier with the Fast and Easy Program from _____” as the basis for a hard-sell campaign.

I wish I could say I was kidding.

Yet today the belief persists that consumers are no smarter than the dog in the classic Gary Larsen cartoon—able to comprehend only the buzziest of marketing buzzwords, manufactured like chewy treats and sprinkled liberally into their dishes at meal time. I’m afraid the only message that creative process sends is one of cynical resignation to ineffective communication.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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