Is metacopy better copy?

by Tom Albrighton 6 July 2010 Copywriting reviews, Tone of voice

This morning, I noticed the following text on the back of the Alpen bag (no copyright infringement intended):

A breath of fresh air – brought to you by Alpen…
We know you know this is just another promotion on the back of your bag of cereal, so we’re not going to pretend it’s anything else.
It’s simply a chance to win great prizes…

This is what we might call a metanarrative: a story about a story, or a text whose subject is itself. Instead of promotional text talking about the benefits of the product, or the prizes you can win, the first paragraph here talks about the promotion itself.

Back of Alpen bag, showing promotional text

That metatextual Alpen bag in full

I find metatexts fascinating, partly because I enjoyed studying them as a literature undergrad many years ago. But do they really work as marketing copy? Let’s unpack the pros and cons of this particular example.

On the plus side:

  • It’s unusual. Metacopy is very rare, and this in itself generates interest. Not many cereal packets are written like Borges, Beckett or Baker. And this is, as the Alpen packet observes, a breath of fresh air.
  • It’s exciting. In a world where corporate- or consumer-speak stands in for real human communication, honesty has a frisson of risk. So there’s a certain excitement to seeing metanarrative actually being used. You’re thinking, ‘Did they really say that?’
  • It can build rapport. In metanarrative, the authorial voice shrugs off its bonds, breaking through the boundaries of the text to address the reader directly. This can generate a sense of one-on-one interaction, of talking to a real human. In a marketing context, this could build trust and a sense of identification.

And on the downside:

  • It’s thin. By which I mean that there isn’t a lot of meaning there. The two main ‘takeaways’ from the Alpen copy above are ‘You’re clever’ and ‘We’re not lying’. While that’s an unusual message, it’s arguably not a very compelling one. The reader might well respond, ‘So what?’
  • It’s egotistical. There’s always benefit in flattering the reader, but in this example most of the credit is being given to the advertiser themselves, for being so honest about their promotion. And that’s a turn-off.
  • It’s weak. When you get to the second paragraph in the Alpen example, you discover that behind the pretence, it really is just the same as other competition promotions – which is exactly what the first paragraph said, but it’s still disappointing somehow. All that difference ended up as just more sameness.
  • It’s still marketing. Post-structuralism succeeded structuralism when it became clear that there could be no fixed point ‘outside’ the text from which to determine its ‘real’ or ultimate meaning. In other words, a book about books is still a book. A literary critic is still a writer. ‘Freedom’ from narrative, like moral certainty, is an illusion and all meaning is ultimately relative – or endlessly deferred, as Derrida postulated. In the present context, that means that ‘honest’ marketing messages are still marketing, because the medium is the message. Any text included on a cereal packet – even a Zen koan – is intrinsically commercial; this is a place where we expect (and get) material transaction, not friendship or truth.
  • It’s cynical. Following on from that point, marketers should always, always remember that people aren’t stupid. They’re not going to buy into your message just because you said it in an unusual way. To expect them to is profoundly cynical and manipulative, so don’t kid yourself. (The only exception is if you manage to generate a positive emotional response, as opposed to a wry intellectual smirk.) Perhaps there’s greater honesty in selling with genre and cliché – giving the readers what they want, know or expect – than putting on a pose of originality for purely self-centred reasons.

On the whole, I think the cons outweigh the pros. And yet, I think there are circumstances when metacopywriting can work. Predictably, they’re the times when the metanarrative can allude to some benefit for the reader, or a problem of theirs that could be solved.

This example is taken from Ian Moore’s excellent book Does Your Marketing Sell? It was used to promote a new insurance product introduced by Royal & Sun Alliance to brokers, who sell insurance on its behalf. At the time it was used, insurance brokers were having to put up with fluctuating service levels from insurers, as a result of internal upheaval following big structural changes in the insurance market. Rather than gloss over that background, it made a virtue of the fact that R&SA wasn’t perfect:

Announcing the launch of yet another household product that’s not quite right for your customers (and seven reasons you should sell it)

The body text went on to appeal to brokers to help R&SA develop and improve the product.

In my opinion, this is a more successful metatext because it engages the emotions, rather than just playing games with meaning. It talks directly to a problem that the readership had. And the body made good on the promise of the headline, using it as the jumping-off point for a set of real benefits, honestly presented and maintaining the metatextual authorial voice established by the headline. Alpen, by contrast, stoked up the fire of expectation with its metanarrative, but threw cold water on it by bookending it with cliché.

So in summary, meta isn’t always better. This most radical of copywriting strategies works best when it’s allied with the two most traditional – focusing on the customer and communicating benefits.

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