AFTER A PARTICULARLY DETAILED LONG-COPY CRITIQUE session at Portfolio Center, one student turned around to instructor Mimi Bean and said, with a memorable flash of insight, "This is a great thing to learn, but I'm not really going to have to do this, am I?"
Bean, in her other life as a copywriter for BBDO/South, believes in long copy. "You do need both long and short copy," she says. "Otherwise, where's the elegance?"
Yet she teaches clarity before style and admits that a crystal clear concept-every ad's goal-probably doesn't need much copy to support it. Which may be just as well, because people don't read anyway. Bean doesn't say this, but others do.
"Long copy? Basically, it's pretty dead," Phil Hanft announces unceremoniously. Sadly for him; writing the stuff is one of his favorite things. Associate creative director at Fallon McElligott for nearly 11 years and now CD and partner at Sietsema Engel & Partners, Minneapolis, his name surfaces often among peers as a deft handler of prose. Yet he thinks long-copy ads are no longer appropriate, so he confines his craft to short stories, children's books and the first draft of a tome about his FM experiences.
"It just doesn't seem right any more,"he says. "People don't have time. We used to say that long copy was appropriate for major purchases, like cars and refrigerators. But I'm not so sure anymore. You can use collateral for details. Ads are more emotional.
"Spend much time on the Internet?" he asks rhetorically. There one learns not to read but to scan in preparation for the decision to read. For him, that scan-and-go habit, ever more efficient with practice, has carried over to other media.
Hanft isn't alone in his assessment. Luke Sullivan, Fallon McElligott copywriter, does his readership studies at the airport. "Ever watch somebody read a magazine?" he asks. "They usually page from back to front, and if they stop for two seconds, to take in either a visual or a headline, the ad is a resounding success. We don't have a society of readers anymore."
Indeed. Given the postliterate bent of society, the predominantly visual form of most of our mass communications and the so-called decline of the value of the written word, one wonders where-or, for that matter, whether-long copy fits in the advertising palette these days. Attitudes about the role of long copy among creative people are varied; a mix of rational appraisal and emotional attachment (or disdain) seems to influence almost everyone's take on long copy. Opinions are not in short supply; definite conclusions less so.
Copywriter David Fowler, former creative director at Tracy Locke in Dallas (and author of the fondly recalled Nature Co. campaigns from then Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein) who's now freelancing, believes there are some still vibrant applications for long-copy ads: One is where people, such as hobbyists, are very interested in the product in the first place; another is where they are compelled by necessity to make a purchase, often one they don't want to make. "There is no shortage of either of these instances in human life, and based on that the long-copy ad is alive and well," he says. "And that's good, because, as a writer, there's nothing I like better than writing long copy."
"All I know is that I was taught that if you have the unmitigated gall to write something longer than three paragraphs, it had better be interesting, and it had better be funny," says Bob Rice. Erstwhile author of Lexus ads for Team One and now a freelancer, screenwriter and occasional actor, he claims ad folks "overestimate people's willingness and desire to read brilliant long copy," especially for such products as beer. His beer-drinking buddies hardly care about history in verse, he insists, "they just want something to knock back with a few Cheez Doodles."
David Baldwin, now creative director/partner at Leonard Monahan in Providence, was "shocked, really shocked" at how well his long-copy Doc Martens ads (for agency Cole & Weber) persuaded consumers. The unhighlighted toll-free phone number buried in the copy drew thousands of calls a month, so many that the company at first had difficulty handling them. "A direct-response campaign couldn't have done better, and this was an image campaign," he says. "Long copy can be a brand experience. It sets up a tone of voice. It's hard to beat that way."
Not that Baldwin believes many people read copy. "The same number of people will read two lines of copy as will read 400 words. I just don't think people read copy." He hates writing it, too. "I feel like I'm looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. It's like writing a term paper."
In spite of his dire predictions about the future of full-text advertising, Hanft does confess that one of the most enjoyable print experiences he ever had was reading an ad for photographer Fred Vanderpoel. It appeared once, in a 1992 issue of Archive, and contained a whopping 5,000 words. Written by Christopher Woodby, now a San Francisco freelancer, it contained everything from long-copy advertising philosophy to a treatise on awards to a tired old barnyard joke (still funny) about an account executive. It's a long-lunch-at-your-desk sort of piece, and Hanft read every word.
As did others. "It's the best thing we ever did," says Vanderpoel. Along with much trackable business, his ad drew a dozen letters (he kept them) and 50 phone calls in the first month, with calls still coming in a remarkable three years later. Woodby says the ad drew more responses than all the others Vanderpoel has ever done combined. (It also contained an offer for a free dinner, but evidently that wasn't the lure; no one ever collected.)
Vanderpoel belongs to the David Ogilvy school of advertising (although Ogilvy may keep the length prize, with a 6,540-word ad for Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Beane, "What everybody ought to know about this stock and bond business," which drew 10,000 responses). Ogilvy claimed that long copy sells more than short copy, particularly when readers are asked to spend lots of money on the product. "Only amateurs use short copy," he once wrote.
Neil French, O&M's regional Asian CD and outspoken sage from Singapore, agrees wholeheartedly. "Ogilvy's argument is still a fact, and if people haven't caught on yet, they never will," French avers. "The reason long copy is so rarely used in American ads is that American writers a) can't write, or b) can't be bothered to write. It's far easier to knock out a 'clever' headline, and leave the rest to the art director, who can leave it to the photographer, eh?"
Long-copy writing has definitely gotten weaker, perhaps because it takes too long, agrees Kerry Casey, who peruses long-copy ads posted in the men's room at Carmichael Lynch. "Good long copy can take a couple of weeks to write," he says. "We're not giving it all the time and attention it needs."
Further, Casey believes that, contrary to popular opinion, reading is making a comeback, due in part to forced word consumption on the Internet. He cites a recent New York Times report claiming that Americans are reading more than they were two years ago. His agency is taking the study seriously; its perpetually award-winning Rapala fishing lure ads are returning this year to their loquacious how-to format for the first time in five years.
His boss, CL president Jack Supple, who judged the print entries at Cannes this year, shares his optimism. Supple cites six years of a Polaris snowmobile long-copy ad campaign in which even the headlines are long: "With a maniacal laugh, she mashed the throttle to the grip and disappeared. It was just like old times," is one of them. That ad, along with others, sent readership scores soaring. It took the No. 1 spot in a recent study; 97 percent of those polled reported seeing it, and 76 percent reported reading it. Two other Polaris ads copped the No. 2 and 3 slots.
Supple saw some-not many-long-copy ads at Cannes, but even the ones he noticed relied on a strong visual; a TBWA/Amsterdam air bag ad for Mercedes-Benz, which won a Silver Lion (there were no Gold Lions awarded to print ads this year), featured a prominent photo of a boy riding a bicycle perched behind a mom with a generous behind. Today's advertising style still tends to be headlines and the visual posterization of an idea, with the persuasion of copy a secondary consideration, he says. "When I first started, words were important. The whole thing was more important." Although Supple doesn't think writing is dead, he does believe the pendulum is stuck on the visual side, but only for the moment. "People are reading and writing like banshees on the Internet," he points out. But people don't read ad copy, you're still whining. "Bullshit," French says. "They won't read bad copy. And why should they? They don't even glance at bad ads, either, but we still perpetuate the damn things."
Whether or not an ad gets read, of course, has more to do with enticement (imaginative visual, provocative headline) and packaging (enough white space, readable fonts, flow) than product or content, notes Starch readership research provided by the Magazine Publishers of America, but it is worth noting that the 750 ads studied ranged from five to 250 words.
Many creatives will mention the importance of a block of long copy as a visual element. Even if no one reads it, the fact that someone thought the product was important enough to deserve that many words must mean it's pretty good, right? Long copy also works well when it is not only the communication vehicle but also the strategy, claims Joe Alexander, who writes Healthtex ads for The Martin Agency. First-time mothers, research found, are information sponges, willing to read anything and everything about babies; hence, long copy gave Healthtex a way to bond with its bond-minded audience, to have an intimate conversation and establish an unmistakable tone of voice. "It also conveys leadership in the category," Alexander says. Ironically, Healthtex, convinced that the tone had been successfully established, lately has explored shortening the copy. Obviously an enlightened client, this; too many make the mistake of using long copy as a garbage can for all possible product benefits, major and minor. But Alexander argues that longer copy is still valid because there is always a new round of new mothers who need to be introduced to the company.
Paul Silverman, author of Mullen Advertising's Timberland ads, claims long copy is a cyclical thing, as fast-changing as fashion. "I just don't think that long copy is dead," he says. "I see a fair amount of it. A lot of these things depend on what appears to be 'out' and what appears to be 'in.' What appears to be out has a very good chance of being the next thing that's in.
"It also depends on the power of the way in which it's used," he adds. "Certainly it carries an impact in terms of consumer persuasion, and it sure can win awards, too."
Robert Lauterborn knows all about that. A writer himself, he was director of marketing communications and corporate advertising for International Paper Worldwide during the 10 years that the company's enormously successful and award-winning "How-to" campaign ran. The 16 eminently readable ads, from "How to write a business letter" (by Malcolm Forbes) to "How to write with style" (by Kurt Vonnegut) to "How to read a newspaper" (by Walter Cronkite), were about 1,500 words apiece. The campaign's goal was to retain market share for International Paper while the company raced to upgrade its manufacturing capabilities. As clear as the ads themselves, he says, was the strategy: make our clients believe we are giving something back to the industry by preparing their future customers, so they'll keep us around while we're catching up to our competition in terms of offering new paper stocks.
According to Lauterborn, who now teaches advertising at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, it worked. Not only was the business goal accomplished, but somebody must have been reading those ads. The company received 39 million requests for reprints. And people had to write in for them. The ads contained only an address, no toll-free number.
Lauterborn, who claims the campaign would work equally well today because it was strategically on target, doesn't believe that long copy is a cyclical thing at all. "Every project is brand new," he says. "Most great advertising could run today; only the style would change."
That raises another question: Can writers still write? Yes, says Lauterborn. Advertising still needs people who can manage the language. "I've got some beautiful ones," he beams. "There are still the same number of very talented people out there. But it's like television, with 500 channels instead of three. Maybe we've dipped too deep into the pool."
The writing for his aforementioned IP campaign was not done by copywriters, however. Novelists, including John Irving, Garrison Keillor and James Michener, wrote most of the ads. But the quality control came from Ogilvy & Mather, whose then creative director, Bill Fuess, was the constant on the account (which turned over 40 other people during this stint). The writing had to be good.
Of course, what makes for a good writer can be a somewhat subjective view. "I want to say the best long-copy writers are the ones who are the best with the language," says Mike Hughes of The Martin Agency, no slouch himself when it comes to wordplay. "But even as I say it, it feels untrue. Aren't Ed McCabe and David Abbott the best long-copy writers of the past 25 years? David is clearly a writer's writer; Ed is clearly an advertising writer, which is not the same thing."
At Portfolio Center, Mimi Bean isn't worried about upcoming talent, although she admits that novice copywriters are either really good or really bad at long copy, with few in the mediocre range. What they are, nearly all of them, is sharp, focused and good at concepts. She refers to them as "dogs who can hunt," not the "puppies with their eyes closed" who used to come out of school and spend years in the bullpen working up to full copywriter status. The veterans agree. They report more out-of-the-box thinking from "babies" than they've seen in years, fresher approaches, more original ideas. Copy? They seldom see much, but they don't look for it either (except for Joe Alexander, who says he reads every word in a person's book).
Bob Rice does report fear and loathing among some copywriters when faced with that rare long-copy assignment. "I sometimes find them rocking back and forth in a fetal position, sobbing gently and excreting gas," he says. "They just can't do it."
"I assume they can write," says Baldwin. "I never ask for writing samples, and I would never make a decision not to hire someone if they didn't have them, ever."
"The books today are better than they ever were," Luke Sullivan adds. "If they can write long copy, it's icing on the cake. I look for broad strokes."
Broad strokes may be all that's needed, especially if nobody reads. Neil French fears we're raising a generation of video-dazed zombies who are incapable of inquiry and debate. "Sure, copy-long or short-will be wasted on them," he notes. "Conversation will be wasted on them. Oxygen, too, in my opinion. But that's a future thing."
Fowler believes there are several obstacles to doing long-copy work these days. One is the need for the writer to get to know a lot about the product. A photography buff, he recalls spending countless hours poring over technical manuals to come up with the text for a long-copy campaign he wrote for Nikon while at Ammirati & Puris. "I think some advertising people are fearful about getting outside their offices and their worlds," he says. "You can start to believe you know all you need to know about something from the brief you're handed."
Another roadblock can be the mere thought of doing it in the first place. "You have to push to do long copy; you have to push the client and sometimes the agency," he says. "You have to gird your
self to sell it. The same questions that we're raising here-who's going to read this?-are going to come up. You have to have your case made before you go in." He notes that the Nature Co. campaign he wrote was initially intended to be radio; it wasn't until he started getting into the complexity of the store's offerings that he realized the campaign could really benefit from long-copy print.
For now, most creatives are unwilling to hang the crepe over long copy's door. They are more inclined to side with Christopher Woodby, who quotes the Socrates of San Francisco, Howard Gossage: "People will read anything that interests them, and sometimes it's an ad."
"I sometimes find them ROCKING back and forth in a FETAL position, sobbing GENTLY and excreting GAS."