When I tell my relatives I’m a freelance copywriter, they imagine me wearing Dickensian frills and staring magnificently into space while waving a quill pen in the air. Or just coming up with puns all day. Or something.
Other people tell me it must be great to dream up clever lines from dawn till dusk.
Truth is, none of this could be further from the truth.
Average reading age
Any idea what the average reading age in the UK is? No? It’s nine. Yes, you read that right. NINE.
The Sun shoots even lower. At one time, the first sentence of its style guide stated explicitly: ‘You are writing for a reading age of six’.
Now, if we ignore blogs and the like, there are broadly two types of copywriting: brand advertising and direct response. The former has always been short and clever; the latter, longer and more scientific.
But the IQ of the target audience makes me question the validity of much brand advertising, which big names still believe works. This in itself is highly questionable. Because brand advertising can’t accurately be measured.
Let’s consider the 2016-19 campaign by Nationwide (the building society). The brainchild of ad agency VCCP, the TV ads used the tagline:
‘Building society, nationwide’.
The implication here is that the company is somehow contributing to a bigger, more-elevated society. The smart wordplay comes from using ‘building’ as a verb rather than as part of a compound noun.
But how many of the generalist TV audience do you suppose actually got that? Chances are, most of them would look at the words and conclude that Nationwide was simply stating what it is and that it operates nationally.
Clever or clear
As a copywriter, I look at the choice between being clever and being clear, and I’ll take clear every time. In fact, I have a hard time creating any headline that doesn’t offer either a massive benefit or hit upon a customer pain point.
Because that’s what works.
Of course, copywriters should always consider their target audience. When that audience comprises Oxbridge graduates, you get more of a creative free pass. Hence The Economist ads…
‘I never read The Economist’. Management Trainee, age 42.
‘Great minds like a think’.
But this is highly niche stuff. The TV ads that go out during the break on Corrie simply aren’t in this ballpark.
The truth is that successful messages don’t leap freeform from the brains of genius copywriters. They’ve been known for decades. They’ve come about through research, rehashing ancient formulae and exhaustive split-testing.
Those messages are almost always embedded in direct response. Because that’s where you can apply those formulae, and that’s where you can run reliable metrics.
I’m not saying that all brand advertising’s bunk. Some of it’s useful in generating awareness, creating positive associations and driving emotional responses. But all that’s largely based on hope.
As copywriters, we should always debate which medium will work best for the task in hand. But there’s one question that should always be ahead of that on the list.
Who are we really writing for?