Words are powerful; they can make us feel things, they can make us do things, and sometimes they can even change the world.
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series
Copywriting done well enchants the reader, plays with the emotions, adds value and makes people want things, it’s like waving a magic wand for advertising. In the 80s people were generally cynical about advertising, there were just too many cases of creatives making people see what wasn’t there, they turned pumpkins into golden carriages once too often.
However, when copywriting is done well and done ethically, it can be a powerful marketing tool. And to help writers conjure the drama without the deceit, they have a few tricks up their sleeves.
Any showman worth his salt will start with a puff of smoke and some razzle dazzle to catch the eye, whereas great ad copy grabs the reader’s attention with a bold, surprising or intriguing headline. The strong opener is especially important in today’s world, where attention spans are short. Unless you capture the reader’s attention within a few seconds, they will leave; as the king of advertising knew well:
On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents of your dollar.David Ogilvy on advertising
The best ad copy conveys a single commanding idea in as few words as possible. It makes bold statements, it is sharp, witty and simple, but most importantly, it shares the highlights or features right away, because not everyone will hang around to read the small print.
American author Luke Sullivan, explained how it’s done in Hey Whipple squeeze this: ‘You must dramatise the benefit of the product or service. Dramatise it in a unique, provocative, compelling and memorable way, and at the centre of what you come up with must be a promise, the customer must always get something out of the deal.’ In the case of NotCo’s NotMilk ads they get a unique product and they get to feel virtuous.
The illusion of choice
‘Pick a card, any card.’ It’s a hackneyed expression, but one designed to give the audience member the impression that they’re in control. A copywriter can also give the reader the illusion of choice. They might guide the reader to the desired solution, often by suggesting the very opposite action, or by allowing, through their choices, for the reader to feel morally or intellectually superior.
Take the often quoted joke turned dental practitioner’s poster where a patient asks: ‘Do I have to floss between all my teeth? The dentist replies: ‘No, just the ones you want to keep.’ It makes you pause and it makes you think, which helps embed the message. What’s more, it promotes action in an engaging and humorous way, leaving the patient feeling they’ve been the one to determine what’s right for them. Nobody feels preached at, which is great, because consumers hate being preached at.
Sleight of hand
Sleight of hand is sneaky; it distracts us from noticing the palmed coin. We’re misdirected, and see only what we’re meant to see. Advertising has long used diversionary tactics to draw focus away from a brand’s sticky points, instead shining the spotlight on areas where the brand excels. Take red bull. It tastes awful but people still buy it because ‘it gives you wings’, in other words, people buy in to the benefits.
But readers won’t forgive a brand that is obviously trying to mislead them. It’s better to address a problem head-on than to rely on smoke and mirrors and get caught out.
The Advertising Standards Authority takes a firm stance on misleading consumers. Stating that advertisers must not hide material information or present it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Some copywriters play with this by making a big deal about their Terms and Conditions, either by poking fun at industry fibs or by using them to highlight the very thing people might expect to be covered up. Stella Artois’ ‘Reassuringly expensive’ slogan did just that, and propelled the struggling Belgian Beer brand to a market leading position.
Getting staff to have their annual flu jab is a challenge for many NHS organisations. But Kenyon’s award-winning campaign played with the typical platitudes nurses might use themselves when delivering platitudes to patients.
Bonnie Tyler’s web team realised they had a problem with a broken link. They distracted from their mistakes, not by hiding them, but by owning them, turning a potentially poor user-experience into a moment of wit and humour.
To be a master of persuasion, you must suspend disbelief. A performer anticipates any possible objections and counters them before doubts begin to surface – effectively showing the empty top hat.
If you know your audience and their fears, you can address their issues and provide solutions or head off the doubts with endorsement. Famous faces and influencers enhance credibility, as do quotes, testimonials, case studies and social success. Proof of industry-leading credentials can however be a bit dull, so make your copy clever, amusing or assertive.
Good writers are aware of the assumptions people make, and use them to their advantage by giving copy an unexpected twist.
Another common trick is to get the audience to anticipate what will happen next, by repeating the same action or copy, then just as the audience knows what’s coming, you surprise them.
Writers often work with patterns, employing rhyming or rhythmic copy, utilising memorable sound bites to help a brand message stick. That’s because the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. Which is why the most irritating and repetitive ads still succeed in driving engagement. Take Go.compare; their ads have made them one of the UK’s biggest comparison websites, and one of the most hated advertisers.
This trick makes two objects appear to change places in a magical manner. Copy can also be flipped, switching well known phrases or situations in a way that resonates with the audience. It can even turn a perceived negative into a positive.
Finally, for the magic words, or power words. They are the most persuasive words used in marketing and are the key to conversion. Even Apple embraces power words such as ‘Exclusive’, ‘Powerful’ and even ‘Free’ when the situation calls for it. Power words trigger a psychological or emotional response.
They promise, excite, instil a sense of urgency or the fear of missing out. These words inspire, suggest a sense of ease, and pique curiosity. They are words that elevate and words that motivate, and the most powerful word of them all is ‘You,’ because it’s personal.
Every word must earn its place, but words which express the truest thing about a brand or customer experience always resonate.
Luke Sullivan once said: ‘Good copywriters can think visually and good art directors can write.’ At Michon, we agree, and know from experience that together they can make magic through original thinking and a bit of word wizardry.
Do you need help connecting with your audience? Get in touch – we’d love to help with your copywriting and tone of voice needs. Alternatively, for the latest marketing and branding news, take a look at our Articles page.