Tag Archives: web writing

Ad Copywriters: Savages of the English Language

Just about everyone can write. And just about everybody wants to weigh in on advertising and web copy. Most suggested edits are factual, and we receive them with open arms. Other comments are more subjective. They’re weasel words to avoid making a strong claim that isn’t or hasn’t been proven true, i.e. “The best in its class for trucks over 2,000 pounds with calfskin upholstery.”

But the most damaging, by far, are those from the self-righteous grammarians. They shake their fingers and scold about dangling modifiers, coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence, and sentence fragments. The latter being the axis of all evil. These are the so-called lovers of the language who smugly put copywriters on the level of goons who intentionally deprive Bolivian children of their food.

What’s Up with All the Fragments?

The editorial guidelines of most academic publications forbid the use of sentence fragments. But when the cat jumps on them in the middle of the night, they say “What the hell?” In real life, the chairman of the medieval studies sprays fragments just like the rest of us. Even at the annual professor block party.

Language Percolates from the Spoken Word

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” And you’ve probably noticed that print is no longer the dominant medium. And our speech is shaped by texting, Tweets, blog updates, and instantaneous communication to any place on the planet. The suggested length for a sentence in most newspapers is 14 words. Our speech, OMG, is time compressed.

If you’re serious about evaluating ad or web copy, read it out loud. If it sounds right, it probably is.

Language reflects the culture. Class distinctions, racial and sexual biases, are fading. We don’t call women girls, gay people homos, and home designers no longer list the main bedroom as the “owner’s suite.” We no longer swap bon mots in the language of the Bard, either. If we did, we’d be in for a beat down in a back alley.

The Message Matters, So Write Like It

Brush up on the famous grammarians, Strunk and White, and you’ll hear an insistence on using grammar and punctuation to clarify meaning. Clarifying meaning is what we do in marketing. If something in copy does not intensify meaning, we should blast it with a red pen.

Advertising doesn’t drive the English language, South Park does. So apologies to all the unyielding grammarians out there, we don’t work for you. People like people who echo their vibe, language and values. It’s hardwired into our brain. Copywriters work for consumers. And the good can change the tone of copy like a chameleon, and create a voice for a brand.

Good grammar is our tool for achieving clarity, but we’re not enslaved by it.

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The New Copywriting: Be Honest, or Else.

Don’t let up on your disgust with ads just because the election is over. Smoke and mirrors, misdirection and just plain lies abound in our day-to-day marketing.

The inability of advertisers to make coherent arguments to sell their product have made social media and authenticity buzzwords. At least on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn there’s a dab of accountability. Refer the wrong plumber to your pals, and you might get kicked out of the Thursday night poker.

Like political ads, most consumer advertising either says nothing, contorts the truth, or smacks of hyperbole. In a recent commercial, a luxury car deemed itself “The World Standard.” The world standard for what? Does this include the 47 countries in the world that have no knowledge of the brand? And we’re not singling out cars, you can find the same level of pap in ads for everything from hotdogs and laundry detergents to investment bankers and hospitals. Hot air like this is exactly what gets brands in trouble on social media. Like reading on Facebook that your pal’s “World Standard” is leaking transmission fluid like a flop house toilet.

Keeping it Clean and Honest in Print and Social Media

It’s not surprising then that some brands, steeped in conventional ad pap for decades, have problems embracing the newfangled authenticity. In reality, you can easily skip over this minefield if you remember two things: 1) Tell the truth. 2) Remember what you were taught about writing in the fifth grade. If you need a refresher course, pick up a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

The truth and not telling it, or partially telling it will dog your brand forever on the Internet. When you believe something, you have a reason for believing even if it’s just pure faith. Make sure that your company’s marketing claims are backed by reasons and facts. Maybe you can’t squeeze it all in a Tweet, but you can expand on it on the web and in other media.

In web writing, avoid empty hyperbole like the plague. Don’t claim that you’re the world’s best, finest, or only unless you can prove it. If you’re touting “Drive = Love,” like Chrysler, you better have a Viagra dispenser under the dash.

Weasel words are the second cousins of hyperbole. They give the brand wiggle room, usually for legal reasons, and dilute the claim, e.g. arguably the safest car in America. Anytime you see an adjective or an adverb with an “ly” construction, you’ve got a stinker. Words like about, sometimes, most are also good signs a brand is hedging its bets.

So instead of sounding like an ad from a political action committee, stay true to your brand. Stick to declamatory sentences. Start with a topic sentence. Make it believable. And back your claims up with tangible reasons to buy, or to prefer your product or service to a competitor.

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