06
Dec
14

What is Copywriting?

I wish I could say this was a trivial question. But the more you ask around, the less likely you are to find a unified opinion about what the task entails. Over time, you’ll discover that, like snowflakes, no two definitions of the term are quite the same. As I see it, this diversity of opinion grows out of a single misperception:

The absurd idea that copywriting is fundamentally about words.

That this misperception persists despite the untold aggravation it causes on every project just shows how deep a delusion it is.

In reality, copywriting is about ideas. It’s the development of a message platform and a structure for delivering it—around which, eventually, words will flow to give it shape and establish an appropriate brand voice.

In real reality, however, all a copywriter hears about, day in and day out, is “the approved copy,” to be adhered to at all costs. Never mind that said copy fits nowhere into a larger brand architecture. Never mind that it’s often two or three steps removed from the current visual vocabulary, itself imported from who-knows-what external source.

“Just pick it up,” one hears.
But this phrase is loaded. It actually means that, as long as the sacrosanct text is in the copywriter’s hands, it cannot be altered. After all these years, I’m just grateful no one has come up with a shock collar to ensure I don’t deviate. On the other hand, the sacrosanct text is open to editing by everyone else involved in the project, from the junior AE to the client’s spouse who “used to be a copywriter.”

Needless to say, at this point in the creative process (or should I say the cut-and-paste process) the copywriter’s role is so far out of whack, there’s pretty much no more reason for him or her to show up for work. Seriously. You can get a typist to handle this kind of thing.

Unless you’re looking for someone to step back from the whirlwind of opinions (and, where writing is concerned, everybody has one), and advise the team about the effectiveness of the copy, its likelihood to get results, you don’t need a copywriter at all.

Strategy-by-numbers.
Making matters worse in this regard, is the introduction of mid-level strategists to agency life over the last 20 years or so. With few exceptions, the role of the average advertising strategist is to scan raw data from market research and demand it be inserted at every juncture—unaltered, verbatim, inviolate. Not the sense of the market research results, mind you, but the literal text.

“[Word or Phrase X] didn’t test well,” goes the obsessive mantra, or its complement “[Word or Phrase X] tested really well.”

So, no matter how uncomfortably said word or phrase squeezes itself into the rest of the piece you’re developing, it’s inescapable. The problem gets doubly compounded in digital work, where an SEO specialist will demand the brand name appear in every single sentence, preferably right at the beginning.
That’s on top of occurring in every navigation tab, every text link and every page header.

The result is the current state of advertising copy: Blunt, ugly, overwrought, cluttered and soulless. These, amigo, are the wages of the fundamentalist ideology that has taken over every aspect of the business. The idea that, as a company made up of human beings, a brand might want to communicate in human language to its customers is now, I’m astonished to report, a radical idea.

Going hand in hand with the mechanical nature of today’s copy is the belief, held exclusively by marketers, that the average consumer is an illiterate moron. Sit in a conference room as a reasonable person and you’ll find it difficult to concentrate on the comments you receive. You’ll be too distracted by keeping your eyes in their sockets at the repeated claim that a simple, declarative sentence is “confusing,” or that everyday words known to eight-year-olds have acquired connotations powerful enough to dissuade buyers or even offend them.

In the midst of this word-wrangling something vital is lost: The contribution copywriters can and should make to every project, no matter how small. It’s the watchful eye of someone experienced enough to evaluate the total takeaway your Web site, brochure, print ad, mailer, banner, etc. delivers to consumers. No, not the tagline: the sum total of each particular communication, expressed not in words, but in ideas.

Can’t trust your copywriter to do that? You’ve hired the wrong person. But you knew that. Because, in the end, the most the average ad agency or brand manager wants from a copywriter is the ability to type.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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