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Have We Lost the Ability to Write Comprehensible Copy?

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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.

But when it comes to the current American Express campaign, I suspect that I am not the only one who finds another billboard in the series needlessly tortuous. It reads, "Are You Choosing to Fly on an Airline That Wasn't Your Choice? Or Are You a Cardmember?"

If I strain really, really hard, I can imagine that what the headline writer was hoping to communicate was something along the lines of "Are You Choosing a Credit Card that Forces You to Choose an Airline You Wouldn't Have Chosen if You'd Chosen a Credit Card that Doesn't Force You to Choose an Airline You Don't Want?"

But wouldn't the rather plain but instantaneously comprehensible "Are You Flying on an Airline That Wasn't Your Choice?" have worked just as well?

Here's another example from another major financial-services organization, TIAA-CREF. The headline on one of its magazine ads reads, "Young, Invincible and Poor Is No Way to Go Through Life." (The copy goes on to state, axiomatically, that "the sooner you start planning for retirement, the better your chances of retiring.")

One hardly knows where to begin with this headline. Evidently, the copywriter was attempting to pay homage to the well-known moment in "Animal House," where the stentorian Dean Wormer admonishes Flounder, "fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." But that line, in addition to being wise advice, makes surface sense. "Young, invincible and poor is no way to go through life" makes no sense whatsoever, because even an alcohol-addled Animal House reprobate would be smart enough to know that, by definition, one cannot go through life and remain "young."

On the other hand, there are some people who, if not literally "invincible," manage to get through life while suffering few if any of the slings and arrows that most of us endure. In other words, a desire to be "invincible," while unrealistic, is not utterly delusional in the same sense that wanting to remain 25 for the next 50 years is.

On the, um, third hand, few people want to go through life constantly scrambling for money and sustenance. So we have, in one remarkable headline, a queasy combination of the impossible, the unlikely, and the undesirable.

Perhaps the copywriter meant to say something like "You Won't Remain Young, Invincible and Poor Forever," which, while obvious and not at all clever, at least makes a relatively clear point.

One more example: A testimonial ad for Anatrim, headlined "Anatrim: the up-to-the-moment and most exciting lose flesh product," quotes a certain Mike Brown from Chicago as saying, "I had weight problems since a boy. You can't even fancy how I abhorred being mocked at school. I hated my stoutness and I abhorred myself. After trying this and that I learned about Anatrim. It literally took me out of this horror! Thanks and thanks to you, guys."

A second testimonial in the same ad, from one Silvia D. in Washington, states, "I hate to acknowledge it but I was an awful food addict. I ate all this garbige and just could not stop. This torment left off when I started taking Anatrim! Holy God, my craving for food abated."

Holy God.

It's worth pointing out at this juncture that this "ad" is actually a piece of email spam, composed, likely as not, in an unfinished basement somewhere in southwestern Croatia—which would explain a guy from Chicago using words like "fancy" and "abhorred"—so it's hardly worth comparing to the American Express and TIAA-CREF ads, which were prepared by big advertising agencies that received healthy compensation in return.

But, while the Anatrim "ad" is laughably bad, at least its headline tells you what the product does—it helps you "lose flesh." The American Express and TIAA-CREF ads merely make you lose respect for the art of advertising.


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Michael Antman is principal of the corporate and marketing communications firm McSweeeney & Antman (www.mcsweeneyantman.com).

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