Any assignment can produce great writing — if we let it
I found inspiration buried deep inside a blister pack.
Lord knows, we’re living in a world surrounded by writing — both online and off. Some of it is creative, some of it is clever, yet a lot of it is dull and perfunctory. The explosion in content has seen a surge in reading material with virtually no clear demarcation lines between the good, the bad, and the merely average.
So imagine my surprise when I walked into Lowe’s and picked up a surge protector for no other reason that it would fit my needs and my wall outlet. Then I got home and opened up the package. As I went to check a minor point about installing it — I noticed the instruction sheet.
(Here’s a shameless plug for this plug — The 360 Electrical Revolve® Surge Protector)
The small fold-out sheet was interesting. It was engaging. And it was even quite funny. In addition to basic instructions and legal warnings, it was chock full of small witticisms and conversational fun. All of which, in my many years of copywriting experience, is exactly the kind of writing many unimaginative clients and account executives would find superfluous and eliminate at first glance.
Currently, there are multi-million dollar ad campaigns running worldwide that are nowhere near as interesting as this surge protector instruction sheet.
Is there a reason why? I think so.
Little by little, a lack of imagination has infected the advertising and marketing industries. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Folks are all too quick to trot out Howard Gossage’s old quote, “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it's an ad.” But they fixate on the first sentence alone, and decide people won’t read any copy of any length. Consequently, there’s little effort to make most pieces of copy interesting. It’s a fait accompli that’s enabled us as well as consumers to lower our standards and expectations.
But great writing, especially in the most unexpected of places, deserves praise and encouragement. So I decided to post a photo of the instruction sheet on Twitter with some praise for the 360 Electrical copywriter (Technical writer? UX writer?) who wrote it. To my surprise, that tweet was quickly liked and retweeted by marketing people around the world.
Perhaps there ought to be a new evaluation standard for copywriting no matter where it appears. We tend to ask the typical questions when reviewing work: “Is it on brief?” “Did we cover off all the points we need?” “Does it match our objectives?” “How will we measure success?” They’re questions focused on our internal needs, or those of our clients.
We don’t tend to ask: “Is this as engaging as it could be?” “How can we make this more fun?” “Would I want to read this if I were the customer?”
I’ve always believed you can have fun and make any piece of copy interesting. In my first job, once did it with an ad that was literally 2x3 inches in the back of a Rand McNally road atlas (pre-GPS, of course.)
But it’s easy to forget that anything can be made better. It happens — when clients dictate copy, or eliminate all the fun bits upon review. When deadlines get in the way of a little breathing room to think on it some more. Or when we just assume that no one’s looking for engaging reading in items like, say, an instruction sheet for a $15 surge protector.
So count me as a little more inspired than I was. I kept that instruction sheet in the hopes that I next time I think an assignment sounds inconsequential, maybe I’ll have second thoughts. And that’ll lead to a second draft. Which will lead to writing people want to read all the way through.
I hope you’ll join me in publicly praising creative work when it’s deserved. We can all use a regular jolt of inspiration, no matter where it comes from.
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.
Visit his copywriting website, see his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.
And please, buy his book for 99 cents.