Is Copy Dead or Just Evolving?

Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I Like Words

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Peter Madden Peter Madden
I recently came across a circa 1950's print advertisement for Budweiser hanging on a wall in a Jersey Shore (Avalon) bar. A colored drawing of two hardy guys enjoying their Buds in a far off cave. Within the design was an encyclopedic-like paragraph that ran the entire length of the ad where there was a mention of Bud using "water that came from stalagmites for purity," etc., etc. A number of multi-syllabic words were threaded throughout the highbrow prose that was an obvious focal point of the ad.

Something about this blew me away. It wasn't a clichéd thought of how advertising has evolved in the past several decades. Of course it has. For me, it was the direction in which advertising, and society, have evolved (or regressed?) and where it puts us today -- heavy design, super-light (with no trans fats!) copy.

Ironic to ask this in a blog, and as a writer at heart it gives me chills to think it, but do you think copy is dead? Are words dying? Or just useless ones?

Do you have time for words?
We have a funny relationship with the written word. Why spend 20 seconds to pick up the phone to find out if your friend is on the way to your meeting place when you can text the same message and receive a confirmation in two minutes? And the written word is at the heart of how business has moved into light-speed territory through that crazy new-fangled mode of communication called electronic mail.

But the written word has become so pervasive in so much of our work life that it's almost annoying to see outside of our day-to-day BlackBerrying -- unless it's within communications vehicles we choose -- carefully -- for ourselves (AdAge blogs, books, magazines)

Who has time for the written word? We use them so much in the creation of our daily lives that they lose relevance in the context of advertising.

Priceless: Ad Copy Evolution
Don't believe me? Check out MasterCard's latest Priceless print ad. The old Priceless ad copy used to read "dog shampoo $10, dog collar $20, having a squeaky-clean dog with a collar on? Priceless." The new MC ad? It's all photos of hiking equipment, backpack, flashlight, with a larger photo of a hiker, and the golden word: Priceless. Yes, this is a great example of an effective ad campaign that has evolved its message, at the same time devolving the copy. But for our frenetic lives, (sadly?), it works.

Presentations: Please Throw Out the Words and Just Give Me the Visuals!
And to reflect on the agency presentations I judged last month in relation to my words are dead/dying theory, you could almost sense the collective relaxation and engagement when an agency a) showed a video of its clips or b) displayed its process in super-graphic, visual form. One agency began with a video to show off its outrageous personality, which you could feel immediately hit home with the review panel. When the same agency brought out the thick binders of ideas, ideas, ideas (using words, words, words) it was like it had summoned a thick haze to overtake the room. You could literally feel the shoulders slump around the table. And to think of the many hours this agency obviously put into these creative ideas, carefully describing them, with commas in all the right places.

Frankly, this freaked out my inner-copywriter.

TV Ads: Stickier than Print?
Maybe it's not words that are dying, just ones that don't have that other level, slap-you-across-the-face impact? I don't want to start a TV vs. print ad debate, but ask yourself: what's funnier and more memorable -- seeing on TV the Geico caveman run out to the posh penthouse deck to exclaim "Tina's here, we're getting back together!" or seeing any Geico caveman print ad? Or for that matter, reading right now - "Tina's here, we're getting back together!"? I just yawned.

So if copy is dying, what to do? The writer in me isn't going out without a fight. The onus is on everyone in every agency that puts a word to paper. Don't lean on the graphics, don't be easily satisfied, and have the guts to know when your work isn't 100% pop-rocks-and-soda-in-your-mouth exciting. Call yourself on less that brilliant writing. Pile up dozens and dozens of torn and balled-up pieces of paper as you hone and sharpen the magic word, the magic phrase, the next Got Milk? In the end, words are clay and you can choose to either make a play-doh worm or Michelangelo's David. And always, always, always surround yourself with people who aren't going to shy away from telling you when your work isn't brilliant, or just OK for that matter. Use the criticism to elevate your writing, as opposed to pouting like Paris in L.A. lockdown (yes, I know I mention her waaaay too much in my posts).

In the end, the greatest, most thoughtful and thought-through combination of words transcends any communication medium. And that will be true even in the year 2050 when we're floating around on linoleum squares and reading each other's thoughts.

As the infamous screenwriter mantra goes, "if it ain't on the page, it aint' on the stage." As in, the copy better be damn entertaining in today's world.

As Cameo once sang (copywriters get your hands in the air): "W-O-R-D...Up!"
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