Category Archives: Copywriting

Why the Aflac duck dynasty?

Why is the Aflac duck still around? A pretty good guess would be that the silly looking bird has worked at bringing in business.

But why has it worked? Another good guess is that a team of writers and visual arts people got together and came up with something from out of left field that turned out to be a stroke of genius.

It’s not hard to imagine how it happened. During a creative meeting, someone said, “Aflac.” Someone else said, “You sound like a duck.” Chances are that was it, for a while. The meeting continued, ideas flying, but nothing clicked. Everybody went out for a beer.

Then, in the middle of the night or maybe in the shower the next morning, one of those creatives heard (yes, actually heard), “Duck. Aflac.” He or she remembered the waddling ridiculousness of those white domesticated pond ducks in the park and thought, “Duck. Aflac. Perfect.”

This is how it happens. Lots of back and forth. Plenty of banter. A good many lousy ideas thrown out. Some pretty good ideas thrown in the hamper. Then, for reasons no one has satisfactorily explained, it all comes together.

The person who brings it all together can be a writer or a designer or an account executive or the janitor who overheard the creative meeting. Somehow, something hits home. Sure, it isn’t always this neat, but often, it is.

This is the essence of teamwork. It’s a creative process, whether it’s done on a basketball court or in a conference room or in a bar. It’s a mystery. Sometimes, it’s a miracle. Always, it’s a joy. Even if it didn’t really happen that way for Aflac.

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Filed under Advertising, Copywriting, TV Copyrighting

Writing for the search engines doesn’t have to mean writing badly

It seems copywriters are now writing more for search engines than for clients and their customers. Keywords are king.

There’s no point complaining about it. Up and coming copywriters undoubtedly embrace the situation. After all, they’ve never known anything else. And that’s fine. Change can be changed, if at all, only with great difficulty, and then change wins anyway.

If there’s a problem with reliance on having a certain number of keywords placed in certain strategic locations, it is that the process can lead to bad writing. It’s not only keywords being placed awkwardly because they have to be there; it’s that the rest of the writing comes second to keyword placement. Sometimes, it seems, keywords take precedence over everything: grammar, syntax, usage, proofreading, editing and so on.

Even terrible writers can place keywords. Unfortunately, awful writers don’t always seem to realize how awful they are, and they don’t ask for proofing and editing help. They just make sure the keywords are where they need to be in the right numbers and toss their trash on the Web.

Part of the problem might be that heavy reliance on keywords has reduced the value of good writing. In the eyes of companies who want their presence felt in the search engine rankings, nothing else matters. They’re willing to pay, although not much, for quantity over quality.

A reliance on quantity might be why an article that should take hours of research, writing, editing and proofing under normal circumstances pays $10 to $20 to the writer. He or she has to churn out one or two of the things an hour just to make a decent living.

There goes quality because there are plenty of people out there who will take the deal.

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Filed under Advertising, Copywriting, Odds & Ends

Holidays and sports can bring out the worst in copywriters

Yet one more holiday season is gone. We’re headed into the slowly lengthening but still cold light of January. It’s a good time to reflect – beyond the demands of gift and party giving and before the rising sap of spring.

The memories of the season just past still linger, and among them are thousands upon thousands of ads and commercials attempting to demonstrate how some product or service is a perfect demonstration of or accompaniment to the holiday spirit. No matter how strained the metaphor, advertisers have tried to show how their legal prowess, shoes, tires or razor blades are what Christmas is all about.

Of course, this kind of overreach isn’t limited to the Christmas season. Anyone who has watched a football or baseball game knows what it’s like to be bombarded by commercials loaded with sports lingo: “Don’t get sacked by high prices”; “Superstud Condoms: a home run every time.” And every holiday, including Labor Day and the Fourth of July suffers from the same sad wordplay.

It’s tiresome.

All this isn’t to say that ads and commercials with a holiday or sports theme can’t be clever and fun. They can, but it takes a little imagination, usually more than what’s necessary to come up with a pun or some graphics featuring firecrackers, reindeer or footballs.

I’m trying to think of an example. I’m sure there is one.

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Filed under Advertising, Copywriting

When change comes, words show their value

It snowed here in Kansas City last night, the first dusting of the season. The skiff remains in thin patches even after noon because the little storm came in on the leading edge of arctic air, dropping the temperature into the low 20s.

For better or worse, things can change so quickly. Shirt-sleeve weather suddenly changes to parka weather. Hoses go into storage, and snow shovels come out. From deep in chests and drawers, gloves and stocking caps appear, and the freedom of lightly clothed summer disappears.

But whatever the season, however much more difficult one time of year can be than another, somehow people manage to make it through – as long as they have the right tools at hand.

It’s easy to forget that the written word is a tool that adapts to any season. After all, it’s such an everyday thing, always there in one form or another. Frankly, it’s so commonplace that its value can be easily overlooked.

Any practitioner of public relations or any other form of marketing should know how important the written word is in good times and bad. However, the difference between someone who knows this fact and someone who knows how to use it to a business’s advantage boils down to training, experience and, yes, talent.

Words do make a difference. Whether they help forge the right difference at the right time and in the right place takes more than the ability to hold a pen, type on a keyboard or form a coherent sentence. It requires intelligence, insight, foresight, planning and skill.

Every business needs someone who knows how, where and when to use words deliberately to further the organization’s progress. Choosing that person should be among management’s top priorities.

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Tread with care in the grammar war zone

Being a grammar scold is dangerous business. Pointing out other people’s flubs can make the scold a target of even more aggressive purists.

There’s also the problem of definitions. “Grammar” is a technical term having more to do with being understood as opposed to “usage,” a clumsy moniker that has to do with the use of words and punctuation. Usually, grammar scolds say they’re correcting (or objecting to) someone’s grammar when they’re really referring to usage.

For example, “You ain’t got no class” can, arguably, be called grammatical in that the person reading or hearing the sentence can decipher what it means, even though it’s a usage nightmare, at least in what’s called “standard” English.

On the other hand, “The find do chimp job the to” isn’t grammatical because it’s difficult or impossible to figure out what it means. It might say, “Find the chimp to do the job,” but, then again, maybe not.

Recently, a newspaper columnist for The Kansas City Star made the mistake, while criticizing someone else’s grammar/usage, of identifying an adverb as an adjective. The other grammar scolds came out of the woodwork, and he had to devote another column to apologizing. This situation encourages a few questions for the scolds, such as, “Just how many cats do you have?” and “How long has it been since you stepped out of your house?” and “Have you considered the possibility of life beyond the crossword puzzle?”

Tempests in a thimble like the one just described recall to mind what Winston Churchill thought about the ridiculous pseudo-rule that bans ending a sentence with a preposition. It is, the old statesman is reputed to have said, something “up with which I will not put.”

Winston’s phrase is grammatical, and the usage is correct, but the pomposity of it makes it a slappable offense to the English-hearing human ear. (Yes, there is no such word as “slappable.” Live with it). Yet the preposition battle is still being fought wherever grammar scolds are found. There are other recurring skirmishes, equally silly, that will be dealt with in later posts.

Does all this attention to other people’s use of language make this a grammar scold’s blog? Heaven forfend.

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Filed under Advertising, Copywriting, Odds & Ends

Why businesses need copywriters

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It might seem disingenuous for a copywriter to write about why copywriters are necessary to business, but bear with me a moment.

First, let’s define our term. By copywriter, I mean anyone who makes a living supporting businesses – both for-profit and not-for-profit – by developing the written content of print advertisements, videos, radio commercials, audio programs, on-line advertising, blogs, direct mail, etc. People who write short stories, novels, plays, fictional and documentary films and most other forms that fall into a more “artistic” category are not copywriters, nor are journalists. The lines aren’t always clear, but the separation is helpful. Sometimes, people do copywriting to make a living as they pursue their artistic projects.

In short, in most cases, businesses hire copywriters only to promote their business, not to develop a written product the businesses can sell.

So why do businesses need someone who has successfully worn the copywriter hat? I’ll approach the answer somewhat circuitously.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing the uniqueness of writing among the skills people develop. We came to the conclusion that writing stands alone in that many people who can’t do it well think they can do it well – or at least well enough to get by in promotional materials. To them, the writing needed to make a brochure, website, industrial video or any other promotional item work is nothing like the design skills necessary to make the item pretty. One is “information”; the other is something they can’t do themselves or hire someone to do merely because they don’t have the time to do it.

At the risk of burying the lead (or lede, if you prefer), businesses need copywriters because, just like good design, good writing helps sell. A well-designed paragraph can have as much punch as an eye-grabbing visual. A strong headline can draw potential customers as effectively as a stunning graphic. It takes both strong writing and powerful design to get the best results. This point applies to every communication that combines written and visual elements.

The upshot: If a business needs someone to design an ad or brochure or shoot a video (good videographers have strong design skills), chances are it also needs a good copywriter. It is unwise and unhelpful to short-change the words.

Addendum: Copywriters and designers work best when they work together and their skills are given equal weight.

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