In journalism school, I was taught to write very simply–tell the story; get it done. That doesn’t mean write uncreatively, as there are plenty of ways to present the facts in a way that is compelling to a reader. What it means is don’t try to dress up your language; don’t try to sound impressive. Don’t use big words for the sake of using big words. Ask yourself “so what?” after you write something–why are you telling the reader what you’re telling them? Why should they care? In some ways, this is more difficult than it sounds.
This same philosophy needs to be more universally applied to marketing copy. I can’t enumerate how many times I’ve read marketing copy that makes no sense. In some cases, it can be difficult to identify a subject and a verb in these flowery constructs! I have to read the sentence or paragraph over and over and over again to begin to get a hint of what the writer was trying to say. I understand why this happens, and to me it’s a mark of inexperience–a copywriter trying to prove himself. He’s trying to sell his product and thinks that if he strings a series of bombastic adjectives together he’ll make his point in an impressive way and that he, in turn, will be impressive. I encounter this type of copy on a daily basis and it’s hollow–it doesn’t move me because most of the time I can’t understand it (and I have a large vocabulary!). If the copy isn’t connecting to me–a writer, a PR/marketing professional–it certainly isn’t going to make an emotional connection to John Q Public and, thus, they aren’t going to buy much of what’s being sold.
I keep a copy of an excellent and witty column by Michael Skapinker published in the Financial Times in 2003 about this very topic. I’m citing this column specifically, because it featured a hilarious example of this type of copy, though it comes in the form of a quote by Edgar Bronfman, who was about to become Warner Music’s chairman when the column was published: “We are going to need to see a rebalancing of the appetite for music through channels that are not currently commerce enabled. We see this growth coming.” WHAT? What does this mean? Can anyone say?
Onto some actual marketing copy. This isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but I found it this morning and it’s what inspired this blog. I was surfing the Web site of one of my favorite stores this morning, Sephora, and was reading a description of a Dior mascara I haven’t tried, the DiorShow Extase Mascara. (I’m going to break for a moment and say that there is no better mascara than the original DiorShow, I’m not kidding. In fact, if you’re female, you should stop reading this right now, go buy a tube, and come back to this post later.) Everything was going fine until this sentence: “The spherical-shaped Black Pearl Pigments create a 3D volume effect and the exclusive Metamorphosis Powders expand in size by up to 50% after application.”
The whole sentence sounds kind of ridiculous–does anyone else get the impression that this stuff came down from Krypton in the same pod as Superman?–but it was the “3D volume effect” that really got me. What is a “3D volume effect” exactly? My lashes, last time I checked (which was when I applied DiorShow this morning…go get some!), were already 3D. I’m touching them right now, just to be sure, and, yep, they’re still 3D. So, is this stuff claiming to make my already 3D lashes more 3D? Or does it presume that I don’t realize my lashes are 3D and is trying to trick me into thinking they’ll become 3D when I use this mascara? Or is it really only providing 2D volume, but it has the effect of 3D volume? In which case, do I really want it? I’ll tell you what I want: mascara that provides a 4D volume effect.
The point here is that this sentence isn’t clear. The description, as you can read for yourself, would have been fine minus this sentence (I’m not going to touch that bit about the brush being inspired by tiered dresses). So, the writer should have found a way to describe this “3D volume effect” in plain English or just cut it entirely. Sure, in plain English the mascara might not have sounded like something that would morph my lashes into such a state that one bat of the eyes at old Clark Kent would have him down faster than kryptonite, but at least I’d have understood what this product really does.
I’m reminded of an old rule I learned in journalism school: if somebody died, you write that they died, not that they passed away. The euphemism is unnecessary–it’s merely dressing up something that happened for no good reason. Save the extra words for where you really need them. Save the extra words to answer the “so what” question. And take some time to choose words that have real meaning to your audience; words that will resonate with them…not words they have to look up in the dictionary. String these simple words into simple sentences that a reader only has to read once to understand. That’s how you will win work and sell products. You’ll be surprised by how effective simplicity can be. And by how awesome DiorShow mascara is.