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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