By John Gilbert
A few years ago, this sentence was too long for an ad.
Not for just a billboard or a print headline. It was even too long for body copy.
Sometime in the 90s, advertisers realized attention spans were getting shorter. They adjusted by making copy shorter. One-word headlines became common. And then no headlines became common. It makes sense, as attention spans have continued to vanish. In fact, I’ve probably lost some people already.
But something got lost in all the purdy pictures. By cutting words so much, ideas paid a price.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” “Think Small.” “Diamonds Are Forever.” “There is no finish line.” All powerful ideas from decades long past that wouldn’t have worked without the brilliant writing they came with.
But recently, words have been making a comeback. They never really went away of course; they just sort of accepted supporting roles like a wistful John C. Riley, watching as the Ryan Goslings and the Gwyneth Paltrows basked in the spotlight playing the part of the visuals. Now, though, words are co-starring, and even stealing the show. Puma’s “After Hours Athlete.” Johnny Walker’s “Man Who Walked around the World.” “Imported from Detroit” for Chrysler. And of course, “The Most Interesting Man in the World” for Dos Equis.
These are encouraging examples of what writers have been up to lately, and not because they’re merely examples of great TV and great print. And that’s the point. The writing in these campaigns is truly transcendent not just because of the level of craft they display; they do something else that’s just as important. They take advantage of digital media’s vast potential.
All of these campaigns have at the very least a major online component. In Halo 3’s “Believe,” TV was only a small part of the overall experience. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” from Old Spice began with TV but got even better via Twitter. And Nike’s “Write the Future” was all about online content.
Brilliant digital writing
Finally, there’s a campaign that’s a brilliant example of digital writing, even though there aren’t technically any digital executions. Will Ferrell’s Old Milwaukee campaign is just so smart, intentionally limiting the work to TV spots running solely in an ultra-obscure market, then relying on viewers to pull it off their DVRs and post it online—where it spreads like a pandemic. It’s amazing writing, not just because it’s hilarious, but also because it takes full advantage of digital media in an unexpected way. The campaign’s so-called Super Bowl spot, which some guy videotaped off his TV in North Platte, Nebraska, including the last few seconds of a local car dealer’s commercial before Old Mil’s begins, has nearly 1.2 million views on YouTube. It’s a video of a video. The picture is fuzzy, and the sound is terrible. And yet, people can’t share it often enough.
Now step back and listen to the brand voice in each of these campaigns. They’re all different, but they’re all clear, strong, and distinctive. Without them, these campaigns fall apart. You could say words are back. But it’s not like before. It’s better.
I think this writing renaissance comes from new media being both a challenge and an opportunity.
The challenge comes from the need for a high degree of versatility. In addition to print, outdoor and broadcast, writers are engaging people in 140 characters or less, and in short films, blogs, through apps, and in video games. Writers have to be comfortable working with formats that, in some cases, don’t even have names yet. They’re not just holed up with an art director any more, either. They’re collaborating with developers, producers, UX designers and strategists. That’s opening some fascinating conceptual doors.
As for the opportunity, that comes from new media being so much more than just another channel. It enables a brand’s voice to engage in a conversation. Which is immensely powerful, because that’s what voices are for.
We still have to reward the reader for reading, the viewer for viewing, and the follower for following. Digital media provides us with more and better opportunities to do that; every day there are new places to start conversations, and we can finally extend them to traditional media as well. Ideas now matter, not just ads. Dialogue is a must. Today’s brand writers are much more than writers of ad copy. We wouldn’t have it any other way. And besides, I never really liked the term “copywriter.”
John Gilbert works at Neiman as Associate Creative Director and, not surprisingly, writer
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