In praise of simple copywriting

by Tom Albrighton 31 July 2009 Copywriting reviews, Tone of voice

The other day I noticed that the cars used by BSM (a leading UK driving school) carry this slogan:

Learn to drive

That’s right – just those three words. It seems almost too simple to be true, but if we unpack it we can see that this little sentence accomplishes four very important functions:

  • It clearly defines the product (driving tuition).
  • It communicates a key benefit of the product (you’ll learn to drive).
  • It sets out a strong call to action, commanding the reader to act (learn to drive!)
  • Through its basic, generic phrasing, it confirms BSM’s market positioning – the market leader, default option or natural choice.

Notice how this slogan respects its readers. Nobly declining to spin or sugarcoat its message, it gives customers some credit as thinkers and choosers, setting out the stall and letting them decide. Its simple, solid language makes counterparts like ‘For the road ahead’ (AA’s corporate tagline) sound pretentious and patronising. (Most effective slogans are simple, but not all simple slogans are effective.)

That magisterial BSM slogan in full

That magisterial BSM slogan in full

But is it really copywriting? After all, it’s ‘just’ a simple, everyday phrase. There’s nothing really there – no technique, no clever choice of words, no sophisticated appeal to the emotions, no carefully judged tone of voice. Was it even deliberately created? Did, perhaps, the designer just insert it as a placeholder until the real slogan was created?

It doesn’t matter. Great ideas are where you find them. ‘Yesterday’ came to Paul McCartney in a dream. And if this phrase did come from a copywriter, it was an exceptionally intelligent, brave and independent one. Someone who wasn’t afraid to put forward the right solution – not the one that made them look clever, sophisticated or hardworking. For their part, BSM deserve praise for setting aside corporate pride and brand insecurity so they could communicate with customers in the most direct way possible.

Achieving this kind of simplicity isn’t simple – nor is it easy, quick or straightforward. Pablo Picasso said, ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’ Often, our first ideas are convoluted and confused as we try too hard to make something special, original or arresting. Then, over time and through many revisions, we discard what isn’t needed to arrive at the essential. When the answer comes, it can seem ridiculously simple. But that’s how we know it’s right.

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