In an excellent blog I read recently, a spirited argument was put forward for the primacy of the image over the written word in advertising. However, I’d like to counter this with a, hopefully, spirited argument not only in favour of words, but lots of them. I’m talking about long copy. The blog I read was a great read, and rightfully throws scorn on the clichés of “a picture being worth a thousand words” and “actions speaking louder than…” you know the rest. It goes on to argue that images communicate faster than words, and shows some great ads to prove this point. To be honest, copy would have ruined them.
Of course images do communicate faster than words. A great image in advertising is instantly absorbed. But then again, so is a bad image in advertising. Our eyes don’t discriminate, and by the time we’ve squeezed them shut – it’s too late. Reading takes longer. And at any point we can stop, either because the copy is as dull as dishwater, employing clichés like dull as dishwater, or the product or services it’s selling is just of no interest to us – no matter how smart and sassy the writing. But as Howard Luck Gossage, a celebrated American copywriter from the Mad Men era, stated: “People read things that interest them. And sometimes that’s an ad.”
Bill Bernbach famously ushered in the great advertising creative revolution with this ad for Volkswagen.
The image is striking. The ad isn’t populated with a smiling all-American family off on a trip, just this ugly little bug-like looming out at you. And that headline – Lemon. Is this because the car is shaped like a lemon? Or is it because the car will seize up halfway down the road? And then there’s the copy – and there’s a lot of it. But it was copy that got read, and that’s because it peaked people’s interest. Why was the car being called a lemon? What was the deal with this odd looking car? They wanted to know what the story was.
Of course, back in the day, 1959, with limited media, this wasn’t considered long copy. And yet, if the ad came out today I think people would still read it. Nothing has changed. Everything about the ad is still interesting, and people still read things that interest them. It’s also worth noting that Bernbach is credited for bringing the copywriter and art director together to work on problems, come up with ideas – and make things interesting.
Here are some modern long copy ads.
What I love about these long copy ads, is that some of them not only throw down the challenge of taking up a considerable amount of your time to read them, but they actually make reading them a challenge. You need to concentrate.
I think copy in all sorts of comms is as relevant today as ever. Because I think people are reading as much as ever, be it through texts, tweets, posts, blogs or even the comments on Instagram. And now we’ve all discovered what our thumbs are really for, people are probably writing more – albeit on a mobile phone.
With great typography and design, like the early VW ads, copy of all shapes and sizes and lengths is here to stay. And not just to list the features and benefits of a service or product, but to create stories.
At the risk of sabotaging my argument, this is one of my favourite ads. And when it came out I did try to read the copy. Which just goes to show, “People read things that interest them. And sometimes that’s an ad.”