Waitrose’s recipe for poor copywriting

by Tom Albrighton 20 September 2010 Copywriting reviews

Waitrose. It’s the guilty secret of the liberal middle classes. It’s not that you want to stroll the aisles alongside the Barbour-jacketed horseriding set. You’re urban. Radical. Forward-thinking. Edgy. And that’s why, normally, you get your mung beans at the organic outlet round the corner, perhaps picking up a flyer about a local Ibsen production on the way out. But the ready meals in Waitrose are so carefully considered, the puddings so indulgent, the little snacks so delectably moreish. It’s just, well, so nice.

If only the copywriting were as tasty as the couscous.

Tarted up

Here’s the description from the packaging of Waitrose’s Duchy Originals lemon tart:

A vibrant pairing of zingy Sicilian lemon juice and cream come together in a beautifully balanced tart.

We have the Romans to thank for bringing lemons to Europe and the West Country for its dreamy, rich cream and milk.

Technical points first. In the first sentence, ‘pairing’ is the subject, and it’s singular, so it should be ‘comes together’, although I’m not sure whether a pairing really can come together. It’s already together. Without the ‘vibrant pairing’ part, the lemon juice and the cream could have come together, but no. (This isn’t a difficult error to pick up – Microsoft Word will highlight it as such as you type.)

Now usage. Can a pairing of lemon juice and cream really be ‘vibrant’? Not literally, but we do speak of vibrant colours, so maybe this is OK. For me, though, it feels like the language of lounge-decorating making an unwelcome foray into the kitchen.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether a tart can be ‘beautifully balanced’ – it makes me think of a strumpet on a tightrope. I’ve certainly got a problem with ‘dreamy’ being applied to dairy products – what exactly is dreamy cream, anyway? (On second thoughts, don’t answer that.)

In my opinion, saying ‘we have the Romans to thank’ implies blame rather than gratitude. For example, I would say we had the Romans ‘to thank’ for introducing that pernicious weed, ground elder, to the UK. Apparently they used to eat it. Perhaps with lemon juice?

Finally, it is true that the Romans brought lemons to Europe. In fact, the Wikipedia page on lemons says so, above the fold. Good old Wikipedia – patron saint of uninspired copywriters everywhere.

Milking it

Now check out the copy from the organic milk in the same line:

Our organic milk is produced from cows which graze clover rich pastures in Devon, Dorset and Somerset

The sub-clause describes the subject rather than defining it, so ‘which’ should be ‘that’. Read this post if you’re unclear on the distinction between that and which. (Again, Word will pick up this one for you.)

In my book, ‘clover rich’ needs a hyphen. Increasingly, people like to omit the hyphen in this sort of situation, but I really don’t know why. You should always use a hyphen if one is necessary to clarify the sense, which it clearly is here. When you reach ‘clover’, you think the cows graze on it, but it’s actually part of an adjectival compound describing ‘pasture’, which is what the cows actually graze. Why trip the reader up?

Finally, I would prefer ‘comes from’ or ‘is made by’ to ‘is produced from’, especially in a context where we’re trying to establish a sense of nostalgic rural authenticity over industrial mass production. And the simpler, shorter or Anglo-Saxon word should always be preferred, ceteris paribus – er, all else being the same, I mean.

I have no illusions about my place in the copywriting food chain. I know I’ll never be asked to write product copy for Waitrose, toiling away up here in the provinces. But at least my workaday, mediocre copy is free from elementary errors and sloppy word choice. I feel it’s the least I can do.

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  • “We have the Romans to thank for bringing lemons to Europe and the West Country for its dreamy, rich cream and milk.”

    Sounds to me like the Romans brought lemons to Europe, and to the West Country (a different part of Europe?) because they’re a source of dreamy, rich cream and milk.

    Am I wilfully misinterpreting, or should there be a comma dropped in there?
    .-= Andy Nattan´s last blog ..Google Instant is the Death of… =-.

  • You’re absolutely right Andy, it does need a comma. I was so distracted by the dreamy cream that I missed that one.

    It’s also slightly uneasy the way a group (Romans) and a region (West Country) are yoked together as ‘things to thank’.

    By the way, if whoever wrote this packaging is reading, please accept my apologies…

  • Very entertaining and painfully true post. Although I almost didn’t leave a comment, fearful of a grammatical assault on my words…

    And who knows (yes I know I am not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction, but I am being dramatic), perhaps Waitrose will read the post and realise how much they need you (and me!)

  • I’d like personally to thank the Romans for bringing us lemons. Anyone have an address?

    It really is poor. The print looks very small – almost like cosmetic text, where they want a product to appear to have words on even though there is nothing to really say about it. A bit like those Chinese T-shirts with nonsense English on to give the impression of a foreign language. Only it’s Waitrose, and it’s in our language. Somebody should be ashamed of writing such crap.

  • This is just brilliant. I loved it. Like Sam T, am fearful of solipsisms, but will plough on regardless.
    It’s not just that the bulk of the text is so nauseatingly cosy, but that it is erroneous, too, which so appals. (that so appals???)
    You’ll see that I’m still a gnat’s chuff away from quite getting “which” and “that” – makes the distinction between “few” and “less” seem a very blunt instrument. Am sure I that and which with bumptious abandon and careless accuracy.
    .-= Milla´s last blog ..a little learning =-.

  • by which I mean, “Am sure THAT I “that” and “which” …..”
    Can’t think what happened. Am normally a terrible stickler for my Latin that – (ut).
    .-= Milla´s last blog ..a little learning =-.

  • Ha, superb 🙂

    I mentioned the puzzling use of ‘vibrant’ in my last blog post, too – it seems weirdly popular at the moment.
    .-= Rowena´s last blog ..What do you mean =-.

  • Excellent analysis, Tom.
    Sounds like the Waitrose packaging department should leave those pastures for a day and visit you in your province.
    Having said that, I do love the idea of every part of the UK being considered part of Europe except the West Country. Passports at Bristol?
    .-= Tim Rich´s last blog ..Sweetly mixed =-.

  • Russell Cavanagh

    … following on from our Twitter “drag” … munchies! (or sun chime) …


  • Jane Penson

    Lovely mixture of grammatical accuracy (but not pedantry of course) and fun. I laughed out loud – thank you for that. We are twitter followers.

  • ABC, I couldn’t help but notice the quip about being in the provinces’. It does feel like that sometimes up here in Norfolk, but rest assured being a “yokel” doesn’t exclude being on the cutting edge of retail.

    At this very moment in the next door office, my better half, is conceiving, implementing and delivering which wonderful foods, and not just any foods, will be appearing on the high streets an Tv screens throughout the nation.

    There is an eery feeling of going back to school when writing this comment. I hope I pass the grade.



  • Pingback: Never knowingly undersold | Never knowingly understood | John Lewis | ABC Copywriting blog()

  • But apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, public health and lemons, what have the Romans ever done for us?

    …sorry, I know this is an old post but I couldn’t resist.

  • Saul

    Excellent article. I would add, in the second example, a comma after the “and” before “Somerset”. Let’s separate those items.

  • Saul

    … or even before the “and”.

  • This is incredibly sloppy from Waitrose, a brand supposed to stand for being a cut above the rest!

    But why do you say that the “…Anglo-Saxon word should always be preferred?” I think if we went by that, we’d lose an awful lot of very rich vocabulary that English has gained over the centuries. Would you put the Anglo-Saxon rule above euphony or achieving the precise nuance of meaning?

  • daniel clarke

    doubt most Waitrose customers would notice – wont stop ’em selling loads of tarts 🙂

  • Well I don’t know about you, but I quite fancy a lemon tart now. If they’d tidied up the first para and left it at that I’d be happy enough. It’s only a pie and a bit of fun.

  • Does food packaging like this really need copy at all? I wouldn’t dream of reading anything like that on the packaging when buying – it’s just what is it, does it look good, buy/leave. Simple.

    ‘Organic Lemon and Cream Tart’ would have been enough for me.

  • 1971Thistle

    I am intrigued as to why they eschew the hyphen for ‘clover fed’ but eschew are happy to use it in ‘semi-skimmed’.

    Filly agree about the ‘produced from’; sounds terminal for those cows. Even ‘produced by’ would be an improvement.