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Have We Lost the Ability to Write Comprehensible Copy?

by Michael Antman  |  
June 19, 2007

Everyone has heard the common complaint that America is becoming less literate, but the onus for this alleged circumstance is nearly always placed on the reader (or, rather, non-reader) instead of where it often belongs: the writer.

Many professional writers seem to have lost the ability to write clear, comprehensible copy that instantly communicates its point. That's especially worrisome in advertising, which depends on quick communication for its effectiveness.

Here's an illustration: The new American Express advertising campaign features an ad that asks the following interconnected questions: Are you wishing airline blackouts only came from your sleeping mask? Or are you a cardmember?

Let's look at this remarkable piece of copy closely.

To comprehend it...

  • One must first realize that some airline passengers (perhaps 5%, based on personal observation) use sleeping masks on long-distance flights.

  • Next, one must accept that sleeping masks can cause not merely a "blackout" but an "airline blackout" of one's vision.

  • Next, one must make the connection between this rather abstract "airline blackout" and the travel-date blackouts imposed by many frequent-flyer and travel-reward programs.

  • Next, one must accept that one form of airline blackout is desirable and the other, the one that American Express presumably never imposes on its card members, is not.

  • And, finally, one must make the connection that having this highly specific "wish" (which no one has ever actually had) is a sign that one is not an American Express cardmember—and, conversely, that becoming an American Express cardmember will mean one will never have this nonexistent wish ever again.

Sure, it's all more or less comprehensible when it's explained this way. But good advertising must communicate its message in a matter of mere seconds. At the train station where I saw this billboard, I didn't see a single commuter glance at the copy for more than a split second while racing for the 5:48, and I suspect that if any commuters actually did spend any time on the copy, they would have given up on it long before its point was communicated.

Now it's entirely possible that I'm being dense. After all, at the same train station a number of years ago I encountered a safety message that read, "Ever Meet Anyone Hit by a Train? Didn't Think So."

I remember thinking, "Well, that's an odd safety message—saying that it's not very common for people to be hit by trains," until a friend pointed out that the point of the message was that people hit by trains tend to die. It also didn't help my comprehension that I had, in fact, once known someone who'd been hit by a train and survived. Still, the fault in that case of incomprehension clearly resided with me, not with the copywriter.

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Michael Antman is principal of the corporate and marketing communications firm McSweeeney & Antman (

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