Buy this, it’s perfect

by Tom Albrighton 24 January 2012 Copywriting, Tone of voice

This post from Copybot (Holly Brockwell) got me thinking the other day. It’s entitled ‘The problem with copywriting, exemplified’, and it discusses the hazards of writing about a product or service you haven’t used, or seen, or even been told that much about.

The post discusses Chelsea lip gloss, made by Chanel, which is described by its maker as follows:

This brilliant pink lipgloss delivers the ultimate pop of colour, along with subtle shimmer and a high-shine glow. Part of the limited-edition Knightsbridge Collection, its striking hue is named for a thriving artistic and cultural area of London.

Photo by buzzybee

In Holly’s memorable phrase, the gloss is, in reality, ‘weaker than Anthony Worrall Thompson’s resolve in the Tesco cheese aisle’. She ascribes the discrepancy between copy and product to the writer being given little or no information from which to work.

It’s a point well worth making, but what’s most striking for me is the fact that the copy devolves to exaggeration by default – something that happens in many situations, regardless of source material, product, audience or brand. (And I do it myself.)

Here’s a few definitions of some words used in the Chanel description (from Collins):

brilliant adj. 1. shining with light; sparkling. 2. (of a colour) reflecting a considerable amount of light; vivid. 3. outstanding; exceptional… 4. splendid; magnificent…

ultimate adj. 2. the highest or most significant…

glow n. 3. brilliance of colour

striking adj. 1. attracting attention; fine; impressive… 2. conspicuous; noticeable

On one level, these show that the writer did a pretty good job, in the sense that the words chosen have just the right connotations for the concepts they’re trying to convey. But on another level, they describe an idealised version of the product, rather than the physical reality. Why do we write this way?

Why we exaggerate

The main reason, I suppose, is just to put the product in the best possible light: to communicate the benefits in the most powerful way. But this is clearly a question of degree: you can stretch credibility too far.

Another reason is the need to sustain aspirational brand values in descriptive writing. At the level of concepts and slogans, we can aim for something elegant and thought-provoking that dramatises a benefit without having to say that much (show, don’t tell). Slogans like ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and ‘Just do it’ are pure surface, explaining nothing. But when the context or format obliges us to go deeper, problems arise. Describing the physical reality of the product while staying true to the values projected by the headline or brand can lead directly to exaggeration. We can see this very clearly in the Chanel example.

Thirdly, there’s simple force of habit. Copywriters remove or recast negative ideas, elide or gloss over weak points and bend the truth to make the argument as watertight as possible. It’s simply what we do; having acquired the necessary skills, we become unconsciously competent and polish up the message almost without thinking.

And because it’s what copywriters do, there’s an element of cultural or peer pressure; a sort of verbal arms race. When everyone else is exaggerating, we have to exaggerate too, or our message might not prevail. If our lip-gloss shade is ‘bright’, and a competitor’s is ‘brilliant’, who’s going to close that sale?

The effect of exaggeration

I think it’s fair to say that, for most people, outlandish exaggeration is simply the accepted language of commerce. It’s just how adverts talk. We’d be alarmed to hear such words from a real person, but we’ve become completely accustomed to hearing them from brands.

As a result, we’ve become inured to their effect. The currency of marketing communication has been hyperinflated, with marketers shoveling on the hyperbole and audiences ignoring it, seeing through it or perhaps actively rejecting it. Exaggeration is the monosodium glutamate of content, habituating the reader to ever-stronger flavours while also making everything taste the same.

As a sidenote, it’s interesting to consider the implications of this for social-media marketing. While one brand channel (Twitter, Facebook) is saying ‘be my friend’, another one (TV, press) is screaming dementedly in the customer’s earhole about how great the product is. Is that really the best basis for engagement?

In some cases, however, I personally believe that exaggeration is more effective than we might like to admit. I’m thinking about zappy ads for toys aimed at children, scaremongering ads about germs aimed at homemakers or exciting ads for alcoholic drinks aimed at young adults. When the audience is particularly receptive or susceptible, I think the exaggerated idea is, at least partly, taken at face value. It might not lead to a purchase – the child sees the ad and pesters the parent, who says ‘no’ – but it still has an effect. When we hear or read language, we have to respond, even if only in thought.

The Innocent way

Seen in this light, exaggeration is irrelevant or ineffective at best, cynically manipulative at worst. So what else might work?

Well, there’s certainly scope for fresher language – words that are still vivid and forceful, but more precisely attuned to the actual nature of the product and/or less familiar in their effect.

For example, take the word ‘exciting’. It gets pinned to a vast range of products and services, very few of which are, in fact, very exciting. As a result, it has lost all its power in the commercial context. If we want to evoke excitement, we need to find a new way to say it. Other usual suspects include ‘great’, ‘delicious’ and, in B2B, ‘innovative’.

Some brands, such as Innocent, seek to make their words fresh again by taking the road less followed and shaking up the usage. Here’s what they might have done with the Chelsea prod desc:

Cheerful Chelsea is as thrilling as the district that shares her name and pinker than an embarrassed flamingo. Take her along to any party where only the shiniest, most shimmery shades are welcome. Part of the limited-edition Knightsbridge Collection.

It’s still exaggerated – more so, probably – but at least it’s unexpected, and the use of wackywriting takes the edge off the hyperbole. The only problem with this is that it’s pretty labour-intensive, and may simply be too costly if you’ve got 500 product descriptions to create. (Many Innocent-style brands, including Innocent, write a lot of their own copy – killing two birds with one stone by saving costs and keeping a tight grip on their tone.)

The plain way

What about just toning down the writing? If we pull right back from exaggeration, what is the effect?

Chelsea is named after an area of London. It’s pink and shiny, with a sort of sparkle effect.

If exaggeration is monododium glutamate, this is plain boiled rice. In its effect, it’s weirdly point-blank and conversational, pulling you up short by being so totally different from what you expect. It also gives you the feeling of being addressed by a real person instead of a manic shrieking automaton.

However, the price of honesty is eccentricity, as a result of which it may completely miss the target. Exaggeration is so widely used that it’s almost an established style that readers have come to expect – if we take a very unexpected tone, they might be disorientated and just bail out.

Cognitive dissonance

This recent piece by Nick Usborne points out the futility of trying to change the reader’s mind. If you attempt to communicate an idea that is not in tune with your reader’s beliefs, the result is cognitive dissonance – a jarring discrepancy between what the reader already knows and what you are trying to tell them. ‘As you write your copy,’ notes Nick, ‘Your reader needs to be nodding his or her head.’

He’s right, of course. The way to sell is to identify those who are most likely to buy and focus on showing them compelling benefits – to ‘persuade the reader to do something they are already inclined to do,’ as Nick puts it.

When we resort to exaggeration, I think we are showing that we have given up on this goal. Instead of setting out a reasonable case for a purchase, we’ve resorted to turning up the volume in an attempt to browbeat the reader into buying. In a way, exaggeration denotes a loss of faith in the product, or our ability to sell it, or both. That’s why, when it comes to persuasion, less may well be more.

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