The demise of copy (and what it might mean)

September 20, 2009

scribeIn Ogilvy on Advertising, which I’ve just finished reading and which I refer to in my last post (it clearly left its mark,) David Ogilvy, who began his career in the advertising business as a copywriter, describes what makes good copy.

Amongst other things, he states that long copy works far better than short copy in print i.e. it sells better; and goes on to show some campaigns which look like double-page newspaper articles which sold products exceptionally well, sometimes for decades. And he’s not just saying it: he’s got the figures to prove it. His explanation? That people like to be  informed; that they don’t appreciate over-stylised advertising but instead want honest and cerebral material that might help them make up their minds.

Compare that to the present day and it’s safe to say that long copy is not king anymore, largely due to how most people consume media. They don’t read their one favourite paper and magazine, but instead skim dozens of sources across all sorts of media. No doubt people are exposed to far more content than ever before, but at the same time, the level of detail most acquire has been dramatically reduced.

What might this thirst for quick and snappy copy (and other types of content, like video) mean in the wider scheme of things? No doubt I think it’s representative of a dramatic fall in the level of depth which most people expect from the communication material they absorb; and I don’t think it’s especially healthy. On some of the issues I work on, I represent sectors or organisations that sell useful and safe products and services and have the experts to prove it. However, they’re losing the battle for the hearts (not minds) of the general public and in turn getting nailed by legislators because a smart NGO campaign based on soundbites has done the rounds. This soundbite then gets picked up by readers who take a sensationalist headline at face value but aren’t going to read the whole article let alone wonder what the other side has to say.

So what now? An exciting time for Brussels-based communicators: the challenge is not simply to create sound content based on fact or to create big splash campaigns, but to skillfully combine the two.

p.s. I’m not a super-libertarian NGO-bashing demagogue. Quite the contrary in fact. I just don’t believe in dishonest communication which preys on people’s unwillingness to investigate issues in depth, whichever side it emanates from.

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One Response to “The demise of copy (and what it might mean)”

  1. Michael Says:

    When Ogilvy was preaching in favour of long copy, the tendency was already towards shorter copy. I’m looking closely at the idea that although the soundbite is very powerful, people still might have hierarchies: will, for example, weekly magazines find a niche fleshing out the week’s news with analysis. Plus it’s a well-known fact that longer product reviews get better response – as long as they are clear. We’re in a period of change; I’d keep all options open for the moment.


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