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This post is a guest contribution from copywriter Roger Horberry and academic Gyles Lingwood, based on a section from their latest book.
It’s sometimes said the world is ‘post words’. If that’s true then copywriting belongs in the past, along with other quaint relics of yesteryear like quilt making, folk dancing and marrying one’s close cousins.
‘Post words’ is an intriguing idea spoiled only by the inconvenient fact it’s utter rubbish. It suggests people no longer read or respect the written word, which clearly isn’t the case. As proof, consider J.K. Rowling’s bulging bank balance, Amazon’s stratospheric Kindle sales, the army of local people fighting to keep neighbourhood libraries open and the social media-enabled multitude whose words have, on occasion, helped changed the world.
‘Ah’, say the naysayers, ‘surely you know we live in a visual culture where a picture is worth a thousand words?’ And that’s fine, but some problems don’t lend themselves to pictorial solutions. Find me an image that absolutely and unambiguously says, ‘Just do it’, or ‘Buy it. Sell it. Love it.’, or ‘Solutions for a small planet’, or ‘Because I’m worth it’, or ‘Impossible is nothing’ or … well, you get the idea. I’m not suggesting words have any primacy over images; my point is both have their place. A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but just try making that very point with a picture alone.
So perhaps people read, but they don’t read copy, do they? Again I must disagree. People will read what copywriters produce for precisely as long as it interests them, informs them or suggests a benefit. As proof, look around at the acres of excellent copy being produced for design, brands, digital, packaging and marketing in general. Someone must be reading and reacting to all those words or no sane organisation would commission and pay for them. Despite what the sceptics may tell you, first-class copy is being produced and consumed with as much enthusiasm as ever.
At this point our brethren in the advertising industry will point out that long copy ads are long dead. And it’s true; adverts featuring hundreds of carefully crafted words are no more. During the 1990s the long-copy ad somehow ceased to be, and the occasional examples we see today tend to be pastiches of past forms.
But here’s the thing: Who says long copy has to go on ads? The marketing mix is broad – long copy is alive and well and living on websites, brochures, packaging and so on. It’s not clear how this rather obvious truth has escaped general detection. In fact I reject the whole long-copy/short-copy debate as largely irrelevant; in the end all that matters is the effect a piece of communication produces, not the number of characters it contains.
Yes attention spans are shorter and yes, there are shiny new forms of media competing for our attention, but let’s not get carried away. People still read, they just do it in more and different ways. With apologies to Mark Twain, rumours of writing’s death – even copywriting’s death – are greatly exaggerated.
This piece is based on a section of Roger’s latest book “Read Me: Ten Lessons on Creating Great Copy”, written with Gyles Lingwood and published by Lawrence King Publishing in Sept 2014. Add it to your wish list now.
Roger Horberry is an award-winning copywriter, author and lecturer. He is the author of three books on copywriting and is a guest lecturer on the Creative Advertising degree at the University of Lincoln. Roger blogs and tweets.
Gyles Lingwood is Principal Lecturer in Advertising & Design at the University of Lincoln. His creative work has won a number of awards including D&AD, British Interactive Media Association and the US Creativity Awards. He tweets as @GylesLingwood. Read Me tweets: @ReadMeLKP.