Tease, Tell, Lead, Compel

One obstacle faced by advertising copywriters is widespread, passionate disagreement about what the job entails. Within the same agency, from team to team, or week to week, copywriters are asked to uphold any number of conflicting standards. That they must also obey a long-standing edict to write “poppy” headlines and “snappy” copy, makes this a challenge worthy of Rumpelstiltskin himself.

Why? Because neither of these adjectives has intrinsic meaning. It’s a case of:

You say promotional,
     And I say interruptive!
You say authentic,
     And I say too soft!

Let’s call the approval process off!

Action words…
Now, assuming they can squeeze a concise definition of these attributes out of their colleagues, copywriters must still reconcile such abstract standards with the task of communicating to a new generation—who see classic 1960s advertising lingo as a dead language.

Besides, copywriting isn’t about adjectives—or fundamentally about words. A copywriter’s job is to instill motivation through a coherent thought process that can be articulated in immediate, emotional terms. As such, it’s a tough, acrobatic feat requiring maximum flexibility. Restrain a copywriter with arbitrary rules of style and you might as well ask a trapeze artist to execute a straddle whip in an evening gown.

In fact, great copy is much more than a string of words leading up to a codified call to action. Great copy is, itself, a call to action and anything conspiring to drown out that call impedes communication with your audience. Instead of focusing on rules, adjectives or magic headline formulas, copywriters need to focus on the answer to a basic question at the start of each project:

how do we get x to do y?

Everything else is a distraction, born of the absurd notion that certain hypnotic phrases have the power to overcome human will—leaving aside the question of whether that’s an ethical pursuit.

But there’s another delusion, snuggled inside that one, that works just as hard against your prospects for success: The idea that the goal of every communication is necessarily to sell something on the spot. While it may make sense from an ROI perspective, this kind of thinking ignores human nature.

 …and the Art of Seduction.
That’s because human nature thrives on seduction—especially when it’s formulated as an affirmation that we’re special, unique and endowed with our own private chip off the block of divine beauty. So unless you’re banking your entire brand strategy on a Crazy-Eddie-style discount marketing scheme, you’ll need to introduce the art of seduction into your practice.

Keep in mind, however, that what qualifies as seduction changes with time and context. In the 1980s, for example, Crazy Eddie’s campaign succeeded despite the odds by having it both ways.

On one level, the announcer’s manic delivery could be read as an engaging parody of a promotional style that sophisticated shoppers abhor and abjure. As such, it flattered more than a few thousand metropolitan egos. On another level, of course, it worked as pure snake-oil marketing. The point is, an approach like that isn’t written, but conceived from one seamless thought process.

You start with a clear picture of what you want consumers to do and, just as important, how you want them to be affected by your presentation. You may want to:

Tease—because you want consumers to grasp your brand value as part of a larger marketing ecosystem. This has made Apple billions.

Tell—to build the case for a new way of accomplishing a goal that may have nothing to do with commerce, as in a political campaign.

Lead—consumers to reshape their perception of a product, say, from “extravagant” to “essential,” an equation anyone who bought an SUV built like a Bradley armored vehicle in the 1990s is familiar with.

Compel—by creating inescapable emotional appeal, especially in, but not limited to, cause marketing.

By identifying a communication strategy based on clear creative goals, you now have a yardstick against which to measure the copy emerging from it.

This approach takes pressure off individual phrases—whether headlines or bullets—to drive the selling message home. It also scrapes away generations of encrusted marketing-speak. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. In 2013, advertising isn’t about selling either the steak or the sizzle, but the positive frame of mind that sharing a steak with friends can bring to everyday life.

Try doing that with a roomful of balloons—or a headline announcing your prices are INSANE. Instead, put your dog-eared Marketing 101 phrase book in a drawer and let your creative team earn trust, loyalty and brand advocacy over the long term, by letting a coherent messaging strategy take precedence over vague generalities about copy style.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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