Gather round, let me tell you a story.
Recently, I dipped my toe into targeted ads on Twitter. I ran an ad that featured a snappy headline, a call-to-action and a photo of my header image.
It brought about a decent surge of traffic and the visitors seemed to stop to have a nose around. There were still tweaks to be done (both on my site and on the ad) if it was really going to be worth the investment, but it was off to a good start. I was pretty happy with it.
And then I got this tweet:
You see, I included an image of my strapline with the tweet (that disgustingly incorrect strapline up at the top of the page👆).
I was pretty happy when I came up with that too.
It makes me laugh, and it was my hope that clients and potential clients would see the humour in a professional copywriter making such an obvious, deliberate mistake.
Alas, that wasn’t the case. At least, not here.
As with every piece of feedback, I called into question everything I thought I knew and questioned every instinct I’d ever had.
‘Is the humour only obvious if you know me personally?’
‘Is it too subtle?’
‘Is this another instance of being the only person to find me funny?’
‘Do potential clients now think I’m an idiot?’
‘Will I ever get another job again?’
‘Have I completely misjudged it?’
‘Is it actually just a bit shit?’
‘Should I have gone with ‘I do words good’ instead? (But isn’t that spelling the joke out?)’
And then I remembered reading the story of an old cigarette advert from the fifties. Back in the old Madison Avenue days, William Etsy & Co ran an ad for Winston Cigarettes that used the slogan ‘Winston tastes good like a cigarette should’.
Here is a clip of The Flintstones (a children’s TV show, don’t forget) using the slogan to shill Winston Cigarettes, replete with casual sexism. Ahhhh, the fifties.
As I’m sure you’re aware, using ‘like’ as a conjuction is a heinous, mortal sin (it should read ‘Winston tastes good as a cigarette should’).
In fact, rumour has it that just as Moses left Mount Sinai, God was like ‘Oh shit, I forgot that last Commandment about acceptable conjunctions. Moses? Moses?! Mooooooooses!’ But it was too late, Moses was out of earshot and the 11th Commandment was lost forever.
As a result of this egregious use of the English language, Walter Cronkite felt morally obligated to refuse to read the jingle aloud on his show.
Ogden Nash felt compelled to write a poem about it in The New Yorker:
Like the hart panteth for the water brooks I pant for a revival
of Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It”.
I can see tense draftees relax and purr
When the sergeant barks, “Like you were.”
–And don’t try to tell me that our well has been defiled by immigration;
Like goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation.
(For the record, if you hate my strapline, feel free to express your disdain in an old school diss poem a la Ogden Nash.)
In fact, when Miriam Webster stated that Winston’s use of ‘like’ as a conjunction was just an example of the natural progression of language, The Chicago Daily News called it symptomatic of a ‘general decay in values’.
All perfectly reasonable responses to a grammatical ‘mistake’, of course.
The result? (Those of you that would like to see capital punishment for grammatical errors, look away.)
William Etsy & Co issued an apology for a perfectly acceptable use of language and then sat back and watched as Winston Cigarettes overtook Pall Mall as the number one brand of cigarettes in the US.
Of course, most of that was the result of all of the fuss and free publicity that the so-called error brought about.
But I think that there’s a little bit of that success can be chalked up to the fact that the obvious and deliberate error made it memorable. (Their next slogan played on this: ‘What do you want? Good grammar or good taste?’)
Want another example?
Apple’s Think Different slogan is also grammatically incorrect. It’s also incredibly memorable. It’s a great example of copywriting with personality.
Just to hammer home my point: what’s Microsoft’s slogan?
(If you can stomach pretty awful copy, you can find the answers here. TLDR: One of the slogans was ‘It just works.’ Giving ‘I write pretty well’ a run for its money, that. )
Brace yourself, here comes a slightly pompous, writerly, I-studied-English-Literature section:
When done correctly, short-form copywriting is closer to poetry than it is prose.
As Samuel Taylor Colleridge said:
Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.
And, as Jack Barclay says:
‘Content: words in their best order. Copy: The best words in the best order.’ ©™®
Don’t get me wrong, the rules of prose are great for any type of long-form copy.
And the rules of prose are especially great when you have the time and space to build to the point.
But for short, snappy copy the rules of prose don’t apply. (Well, they can, but it doesn’t make for great copy. See: ‘I write pretty well.’)
Great copy – really, truly great copy – bears all the hallmarks of poetry. It has cadence, rhythm and word economy. It grasps at ethereal concepts, evokes universal emotions, and drives you towards a precognitive, gut feeling. It breaks rules.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying ‘I write pretty good’ is great copy.
And I’m certainly not saying that it’s poetry.
But it has a certain je ne sais quoi about it.
I like it. I like the way it sounds when I say it aloud. It makes me laugh. (Well, it’s more a sensible chuckle):
It ain’t a beauty, but hey, it’s alright.
And so, I made the decision to keep it. For now.
My thinking? At least it’s a darn sight more memorable than any collection of three compound-adjective nothingisms I could come up with. (‘I write customer-focused, results-driven and yawn-inducing copy.’)
Copywriting with personality or safe, vanilla copy?
But then I read an article by Kern Lewis about how good grammar implies good taste and competence. He says:
As a business person with limited budgets, you will not get the chance to respond to disgruntled prospects as the Winston people did, so you have to be more careful.
In other words, if it’s going to put some clients off, why bother? Surely inoffensive, vanilla copy is better than Marmite copy?
Hmmmm. Good point, Kern. (Kern is quality name for somebody who works with words, by the way.)
The beast of self-doubt rears its ugly head again.
‘Psssst. Jack. You know that slogan of yours? Isn’t it actually just a little bit shit?’
And suddenly, I’m back to I don’t know.
It might lose me clients. Hell, if I went to a professional’s website and saw an obvious mistake, I’m not sure I’d stick around.
But then, if I got the joke and found it funny, I’d probably remember that person. I’d probably even want to work with them.
Who knows? For now, I’m sticking with it.
Who dares wins, right?
(I’ll update in a few months with an answer. Unless I delete this website in shame as I walk to the Job Centre…)
Update: I changed my mind. I made the decision to migrate my site and redesign it, and that (not as funny now I think about it again) header has gone. However, I stand by the stuff about copy and about taking risks and being different, so I’ll leave this post up.
Side note: If any of this twaddle about language and linguistic pendantry was interesting to you, set aside an hour of your time and check out this video. It features Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker discussing the role of language and how, most of the time, all of the pedantic grammar rules we learnt at school are either complete crap (or OK to break in the right circumstances).