As language evolves, can our industry keep up?
I once worked at a place where the creatives spent more time creating “mood boards” for concepts than actually fleshing out new ideas. You’ve seen them, I bet: nicely arranged 11x17 printouts full of little visual nuggets, the product of an afternoon spent trawling the web for inspiration.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using design styles, font examples, illustrations, or photography samples to get across a proposed visual direction. However, I can’t think of many writers who walk into a concepting session with only a few borrowed styles of writing in mind.
In all aspects of marketing, we’re deemphasizing the words in favor of the visuals. So what’s the role of the verbal language in today’s advertising? Does what we say matter less than what we show? As consumer attention spans get shorter, can we still communicate effectively?
It’s hard not to see the quick rise of Pinterest as a sign that visual stimulation makes more of an impact in today’s world than anything else. Pinterest is the world’s ultimate mood board. You don’t have to spend much time or effort creating a Pinterest board of your own, which is part of what makes it so addictive.
But there was a time when the words mattered more. I’m currently reading a biography of Howard Gossage, the 1960s San Francisco adman. He wrote ads that were, by today’s standards, ridiculously long. They had vague headlines and took forever to get to the point.
Today’s writing needs to be faster and more direct. As a consequence, anything extraneous gets cut, which sometimes includes the verbal muscle along with the fat. Slowly, I’m getting used to this directness. Yet in the wrong hands, marketing language gets trite and powerless.
One of the more common laments we hear from creative people is that “anyone can write.” That’s because these days, clients tend to be more reflexive about rewriting marketing copy. I’ve seen multiple levels of marketing directors and make dozens of changes and tweaks to one piece of work, resulting in grammatically incorrect and illogical gibberish. Since they can all type, they can write. Right?
There’s a bigger issue, though. As a society, we’re dealing with changing language — not because we want to, but that’s the way culture evolves. Texting, Twitter, quick emails, and status updates have forced us to become more efficient with our words. But more significantly, they've given everyone permission to cut corners with grammar. Words get abbreviated. Sentences get truncated. R U with me?
Advertising used to spend more time being clever. Now we need to spend more time being clear. I used to give these columns clever titles until I was told to make them more straightforward. The reason? People would get a clearer idea of the topic if they only saw the title on a Twitter link or in an email.
That’s the conundrum for our industry: the quicker and sloppier society gets with language, the more precise we have to be. We know more precisely than ever that the right words impact sales. If you’re writing for e-commerce, mobile, or SEO, or if you’re working on some utility-focused website or app, you’ve seen that even mundane phrases like “click here” get tested and altered to achieve the best results.
As a writer, it’s my obligation to mind the words I write for my clients. But I also have to be aware of the overall effect a piece of communication has. Our audience can respond to any aspect of what we do, or none at all.
There’s an explosion in writing today — good, bad, and ugly. As communications professionals, we know the impact words have and need to be protective of them. In an increasingly fast paced, visually oriented world, it takes extra effort to ensure our audience understands exactly what we mean.
OMG, I’m a little worried about it. R U?
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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