Say it with Words: Why the Right words count in Advertising

Nobody reads words anymore. How many times have you heard that? From clients to art directors who look at text like the wicked witch from the West. But, you need to factor in three basic truths. We somehow have a lot less time these days. Our attention span is even shorter. And copywriters sometimes simply don’t have the discipline to keep copy short and direct.

That said, words matter. Words tell your brand’s story. They fortify the connection between your brand and the consumer. And lastly, they tell your customers what they need to know.

Photo by Levent Simsek on

Remember the story of the blind man and the copywriter. An old man was sitting at a busy street during peak time, begging for money with a tin cup. He had a cardboard sign that said, “Blind- Please help.” But people passed by and he wasn’t getting any money. A copywriter saw his sign, walked up to him, turned the cardboard sheet over, and re-wrote the sign. Things changed almost immediately. People began dropping in money, and soon the cup was overflowing. The old man was baffled and finally asked a stranger what was written on the sign. The sign said, “It’s a beautiful day. You can see it. I can’t. “

Lines may seem dispensable. But as the story illustrates, they have the power to change consumer behavior. Copy and slogans in particular are infamously tough to write. The challenge is to convey the most about the product with the least number of words. The skill is in the economy, making every word count.

Take the case of Nike : Wieden + Kennedy was roped in to execute Nike’s very first television campaign. They were looking for a tagline that would target people interested in all kinds of sport.

Dan Wieden, the founder, found inspiration from the most implausible of circumstances. “Let’s do it” were the final words uttered by murderer Gary Gilmore to the firing squad before he was executed. Both Nike and the agency were not happy with it initially, but athletes and even casual wearers were deeply engaged and inspired. Nike then incorporated it as part of its global branding. As a statement, “Just do it” represents the sports brand perfectly. It is forceful, powerful and as lean and mean as the athletes that appear in its ads.

Apple’s “Think Different” marked a change in many ways for Apple. When Steve Jobs, returned to the company in 1996, the company was in trouble and there were rumors that it was on its last legs. While Jobs was waiting to release a new stream of products, he also wanted a campaign that would remind people why the brand was still great.

Though the genesis of the slogan remains questionable, it is widely regarded that Craig Tanimoto, an art director at TBWAChiat Day came up with the line, “Think Different” as an antithesis to IBM’s “ThinkIBM.” Thus, some taglines are to be looked at in relativity, instead of independently and provoke emotional rather than rational decisions.

Think Different played a significant role in unifying customers, staff and stakeholders when the company was going through a very tough time. It restated the aspirational value of the brand. More importantly, it showed that Apple had its mojo back with Jobs back in control.

When choosing to craft copy or slogans, language also matters immensely. What is the language that people think in? The association between language and emotions should also be considered. French is the language of love. Italian is the language of music. Adapting a tagline in a foreign language may seem like suicide but it worked famously for Audi, when the brand launched a UK ad campaign in the early 80s.

The words “Vorsprung Durch Technik” were chosen by John Hegarty, BBH founder and creative director. He had seen it on an old piece of publicity when he took a tour of the Audi factory in Germany. The idea was to hammer Audi’s heritage as a German brand, with an association of precision and engineering. In spite of contradictory opinions thrown up by research, the slogan was successful almost immediately. People came in to dealers asking to see ‘that vorsprung.’ When Boris Becker was losing Wimbledon, the media would say ‘Boris needs a bit more vorsprung.’ So it became a part of the language people were using.

The interesting thing is that people never knew exactly what it meant. They tried guessing. According to Hegarty, there isn’t actually a word for ‘vorsprung’ in English. Its literal meaning is ‘leaping ahead with technology.’ People sort of got ‘vorsprung’ which sounded like spring and it was easy to guess that ‘technik’ was technology. What mattered was it was German, which people regarded as a hugely positive quality for a car brand.

There are many different mediums to a campaign : print, television, outdoor, electronic. But what is the common thread that runs through it all? You can wax eloquent about style, consistency in colors, fonts, layouts and backgrounds. But this appeals to only one sense : the visual sense. But what people truly relate to is the emotional sense. And that can be achieved only by using the right words.

If your brand or your client’s brand hasn’t found its voice yet, it could be because its words are still muffled pieces of ambiguity. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Choose yours wisely.

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