Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Writing Advertising Copy
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Advertising copy is a crusty little animal. Without the bouncy doglike curiosity of fiction, the sinewy catlike independence of non-fiction, or the jagged chameleon of personal memoirs, advertising copy has its own personality.The theory of “any press is good press” says that advertising copy must be memorable even if the reader doesn’t remember the product. You have to be able to identify your existing audience and reel in prospective audience. Identifying your audience means you also have to be able to place your ad where your clients will see it. If your target is, say, middle-aged men working in IT departments, you wouldn’t place your ad in a knitting magazine, right? But you also need to be able to think outside the box. You want to attract new people to your spiffy product or service, so you’ve got to find that little self-published bi-annual publication, the non-mainstream conferences, and the well-read blogs. This might involve chatting people up at the mainstream conferences or surfing the net, or it might just involve reading everything ever written on your topic, even if it was some high school kid’s term paper. Okay, so now that you know where you want to advertise, you need to create campaigns that are specific to these venues. If the magazines you target are all serious, high-end, glossies and the other ads are serious four-color works of art, your ad probably shouldn’t be cartoonish, overly verbal, or bland. If the venue is playful, humorous, and surprising, your ad shouldn’t be serious, classic, and highly verbal. If your chosen publisher is academic, verbal, and comprehensive, your ad shouldn’t be smart-alecky, glib, or rude. That’s not to say that a serious arty magazine couldn’t use a little academia or fun, that a witty site couldn’t use a little high-class focus, or that that conference brochure shouldn’t make people smile, but to break the rules successfully, you need to know both the audience and the nature of the publishing entity. If you were posting sales on Purple People Plotters at the local Electronic Gallery, you probably only have a few words to say your piece. You need to name the product and its current price at the very least. Better is to name the “regular” price and the sale price along with the product name. (Did you know that “regular” means that the price will return to the named sum after the sale and that “original” means that it won’t? That might just be a California legalese, but it’s worth noting if you’re comparison shopping or advertising.) Best yet is to name a feature or two that will compel buyers to pick up your product and plop it down by the cash register. Let’s look at a few miniature bits of copy to go with a nice picture.Purple People Plotter version 3; fast, low bandwidth, backward compatible with version 2. Reg. $1400, sale $999. Purple People Plotters, only 12 available, essential for R & D. Sale, $999.Purple People Plotters, small foot-print, low toner usage, small-business-friendly. Sale price too low to publish. Call for price and availability.All three of these examples offer the name of the product and some essential information. The first provides details that a purchasing manager needs, but not much detail for the techies who might use it. The second limits the buyers to a specific group and encourages a rush to the store, and the last one addresses limited office space and budgets. The last one might also be deliberately deceptive in that the product might not actually be on sale, or maybe only one or two are and the rest are at full price. Once they get you on the phone, they can sell you any number of useful things as well—or instead of—the highly desirable Purple People Plotter. Punctuation in advertising should follow the usual rules, but the publication itself might have its own style. A retailer I did some work for wanted a dollar sign in front of full amounts and none if there was change involved ($10 versus 9.99). They also never put a period after the price even if it ended a sentence, and used em-dashes in body text and en-dashes in headings. None of these things comply with Chicago or AP styles—they followed that company’s own style. Paying attention to the publication’s style will make you popular with their editors if you’re not providing camera ready (unalterable) ads, but won’t make a whit of difference if your ads are packaged and ready to go. Try to stay true to your company’s style if you can. Consistency is everything (right after outlining).Take a minute and think about ads that really stuck in your head. “Got milk?” is one that sticks in mine. It’s succinct, the images were funny, they used both popular icons in awkward situations and everyday everyman experiences, and it’s very clear what the product was. But that ad didn’t have to tell prospective buyers where to get the product—it had the luxury of being ubiquitously offered at any store that sells groceries, in fast foot joints and posh restaurants, and in vending machines. The trick in imitating this one is adding the information that will get your gizmo into everyone’s head like that. Let’s look at Microsoft for a minute. They seem to be everywhere, and even non-users can name products in their line (Word and Windows jump out at most people, I’d guess.) Their trick is to make sure that they stay innovative, keep their ads appearing on all media, and that they address bad press with self-deprecation and honesty. Remember that big lawsuit back in the early nineties about the Windows user interface brought on by Apple? Anybody remember how that was resolved? Yup, they changed their advertising style almost immediately to be less techno-nerdy, they promptly invested publicly in Apple stock, and they preached community over technology (they’re still doing that with their television ads).Your product is likely to be less universal than milk and not as audience-specific as ASP.NET. Your challenge is to name ALL the flavors of audience and target each of them specifically. If you do the exercise of naming all of them and trying to target them and the media they’re most likely to read, you might find some trends, some language, or some images that will serve you across several potential buyer types. That’s the real trick of marketing mavens: to find a few ads that serve all audiences in all media. Keep your focus narrow and your mind open, and you’ll be all right.