Watch your language. Or you’ll lose it.

Written by

Andrew Millar


March 11, 2007

I admit, advertising has always had an English of its own. We do break all manner of rules taught in school. Or at least we break the rules that used to be taught in school.

We use short sentences. Like this. To make a point. We start sentences with ‘and’. Which, by the way, in correct usage is perfectly legitimate and I’m happy to have the debate with anyone willing to take up the point. And we start sentences with ‘because’.

Why? Because we can. (And I like to use one word sentences. And one sentence paragraphs!)

Our excuse is that copy is closer to transcribed speech than written journalism. Good advertising should sound like it is coming from someone standing next to you in a bus. It’s well reasoned argument and persuasion delivered as though it was one side of a conversation.

But my fear is that this form of communication is disappearing. I believe our profession is losing this craft.

Now before we begin this discussion let me just eliminate all of those shouty, ranty commercials that break the spellbinding magic of CSI:(insert geographic name here) or whatever you are watching. Forget them – that’s not marketing. That’s just filling space.

I’m talking about the kind of communication that makes it into Communication Arts or D&AD and so on. Honoured advertising that is well focused and crafted.

My point is that we appear to have lost the ability to write long copy. Has long copy moved out of fashion? Or has commoditisation led to brands having nothing to say? Or don’t we have time to write it anymore? Have people stopped reading?

To explore this idea further, take as an example a writer’s folio that came across my end of the bench the other day.

The work was visually impressive. However, excluding addresses and phone numbers there were no more than 8 words in it from beginning to end. Total.

Now I am not discounting this sort of ‘analogous image communication’. Award books are full of very persuasive examples. But my point is that that was all there was. It was 16 pieces of full bleed image and small logo in the bottom right hand corner.

He was brilliant at writing photos. But could he string words together? I had no way of knowing.

Even Award School doesn’t teach writing anymore. Real writing. It is like learning to use one golf club from the bag and expecting to swing into a position on the pro circuit on graduation.

What’s happened to using ‘words’ to communicate?

In the misguided hope of bringing it back , here are 4 things you can do if you are an Advertising Writer wanting to access the rest of the clubs in your bag…

1) Read the speeches of Theodore C Sorensen. Sorensen wrote for John F Kennedy and apart from ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ these speeches made the world a better place today than it would have been without him. Kennedy was the last great American leader to sell the notion that what was good for the world was good for America. And he didn’t use a key graphic to do it.

2) Read… – actually read – the copy part of the original Volkswagen press “Think Small’ campaign. Not just the ‘Think small’ ad. Read the lot. It is beautifully crafted, persuasive and breaks every grammatical rule in the schoolbook. But it talks to you.

3) Make a very strong coffee, sit and point you browser at Read every word. Then read it again. And again. He uses words like illustrations and photos like essays. The art direction is impeccable, but the long copy is irresistible. It is delicious stuff.

And finally…

4) Join me in stamping out invidious TXT language. The original intention of this blog was to start a movement towards banning this ‘manglish’. I hate it because there is no art in it. Words, which have the power to convey great meaning, are beaten into a submissive role in order to jam them down some narrow bandwidth. Where’s the humour? Where’s the emotion? Where’s the personality?

Can you imagine Kennedy texting Khrushchev:

“tAk yor miSyls out of Cuba. I dun wnt d wrld 2 b dstroiD n a nuclear wR.”

The Russians would think they were not dealing with a compassionate and educated statesman but someone too lazy to treat a conversation with the reverence it deserves. Or at least they’d think Kennedy had a pathological fear of vowels.

But my fear is that it will break out of the SMS environment and become commonplace, destroying all written communication. I can imagine the headline of a press ad in the not too distant future:

onlE avail. 4 a sht tym. y don’t u sign^ 2day?

I began to notice it was creeping into our internal message system at work. I don’t want a cryptogram. Words are too precious to reduce to alphanumeric puzzles.

I was in Singapore when an Advertising Agency ran an ad using Singlish – English using Chinese grammar with a smattering of Malay, Chinese and Indian words – the local slang in other words. The government took a strong position. And have continued to do so, placing their ‘R’ rating equivalent on films that they deem ‘excessive in the use of Singlish’. It is banned from television and press to preserve their language skills.

“Poor English reflects badly on us,” states Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, “and makes us seem less intelligent or competent.”

There is something to be said for benevolent dictatorships.

datz al. 4 nw. thx 4 rEDN.

Andrew Millar
Creative Director.