A Copywriting Minefield

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see how people not trained as copywriters view marketing.

Here’s what happened. My wife Linda and I were in a group of 32 people taking part in a leadership training program in our rural county. The group represents some of the best-educated, most socially aware, and deeply committed people in the county. So I can safely say these were sharp, intelligent people.

Saturday afternoon was a mini-session on marketing. The trainers started the session with a fun activity where I got a good look into how other people view marketing and what really works.

We were asked to share examples of what we thought represented effective advertising. Almost everybody had similar comments that went something like this …

“I loved this one commercial. It was really funny. It had a mouse that climbed a clock and then (so on) … But I don’t remember what the product was.”

Great, funny, memorable ads and commercials. Except the most important element wasn’t memorable at all: the product. Funny, clever, and cute may catch attention and raise a smile. But it will never sell your product.

Clever never works …

I’m a word man. I love words and wordplay. So, when I apprenticed myself with a Master Copywriter, I would sprinkle cleverness throughout the copy he had me write.

He’d return the copy with comments on my cleverness in red ink that said: “Very clever. Clever never works.” I resented those comments. I was sure my fondness for wordplay would grab the reader’s attention, make him smile, and persuade him to buy.

I’d tell Linda, “If only he’d give me a chance …”

It wasn’t until several years later when I was critiquing other copywriters’ copy that I fully understood what my mentor had been saying. Anytime I came across a pun, a joke, or a bit of wordplay, it slowed me down.

And often, I didn’t “get it” — at least at first. I had to take time away from the main message of the letter to figure out what the copywriter was trying to say.

Not a good thing when you have a shaky hold on your prospect’s time and attention in the first place.

Why humor is a copywriting minefield …

First, and most important, humor and cleverness in copywriting derail your prospect’s attention. If it’s a really good joke or clever wordplay, you’ve diverted his attention away from your core message.

If it isn’t that clever (and it seldom is), your prospect’s going to waste time figuring it out. Waste time! You cannot afford that.

Second, humor is culturally-bound. As a copywriter, you often write for a broad range of cultures. And I’m not just talking about cultures from different countries. The culture of California is different from that of New York is different from that of Tupelo, Mississippi.

What’s funny for one culture isn’t necessarily funny for another. That brings us to our third reason to avoid cleverness.

Someone tells a joke to a large group. Typically, not everybody laughs at first. Laughter may spread, but often someone stands stony-faced. The humor has offended him. Because humor and cleverness affect different cultures and people in varied ways, you risk offending someone when you use them in your copy.

That might be okay if you’re onstage at a comedy club. It’s never good to offend your prospect!

Finally, being clever wastes valuable space in your promotion. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a half-page space ad or a 24-page magalog. The space that wordplay, cleverness, or humor takes up in your copy can be better used getting your core message across.

If you want to capture your prospect’s imagination, do it by understanding his needs, his hopes, his desires, and his fears.

Understand what keeps him awake at night and what puts a smile on his face. Talk to him personally about those key parts of his life. Tell how you’re going to improve his life.

Give him hope … not humor.

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Published: July 2, 2012

1 Response to “A Copywriting Minefield”

  1. Thank you for contributing this article. I really appreciated reading it.

    Correct: cultures are relative. What is funny by the standards of one culture may be deeply offensive to the denizens of another culture.

    "Time is money" for Americans. By contrast, time flows in Saudi Arabia.

    The approach toward time is different, so you have to be willing to be flexible and adaptable.

    Instead of clinching the deal, Saudi Arabians may value personal relationships more, so getting to know you may be a priority for them.

    If you are in a hurry to get things done and catch the red-eye back home, you may just lose the deal and a golden opportunity may fall by the wayside.

    Archan Mehta

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