Villing & Company

Why Words Matter in Marketing

Words get a bad rap these days. If I hear one more person say nobody reads copy anymore, I may throw throw a typewriter at someone.

Of course, there has always been an adversarial relationship between writers and art directors. Many (not all) art directors look at text as nothing more than a design element or, worse, a necessary evil. "That headline is too long." "Can we cut about half of that copy?" "OK, if the copy can't be cut, we'll just use a smaller or condensed font. Nobody reads copy anymore anyway."

Now I will acknowledge two fundamental truths. One, as a society, we seem to have less time or a more limited attention span – or both. I will also concede that writers often lack the discipline to keep the copy short and to the point. That's one of the reasons I believe writing for radio or TV is such a great exercise. If you only have 30 or 60 seconds to make a point, you darned well better be efficient in crafting your words.

That said, effective marketing is all about good story telling. And good story telling requires painting a picture with words. Just as an artist needs to carefully select the right colors, the writer needs to choose the right words.

Several examples come to mind.

There was a great video produced in 2011 that featured a blind, homeless man sitting on the sidewalk of a city street. His original sign was just four words. "I'm blind, please help." People generally ignored him. Then a woman rewrote his sign to say, "It's a beautiful day and I can't see it." Over twice as many words but they created a powerful emotional connection with the passersby.

Another example comes from the political world – a place I generally avoid going in this space but it serves a purpose. Did you know that when pollsters asked about healthcare reform, only 37 percent opposed it when it was referred to as the Affordable Care Act? However, when it was called Obamacare, the percentage of those opposed rose to 46 percent.

A more relevant, less controversial example comes from the quick serve food industry. Burger King actually cooks its burgers on a conveyor over a gas flame. Yet the company has always referred to its burgers as "flame-broiled." Not hard to guess why.

With apologies to those who have read it before in my articles, there is a favorite quote of mine which really speaks to the power of words. It comes from Howard Gossage, an ad guy in the 1950's. He famously said, "People don't read advertising. They read what interests them – and sometimes it's an ad."

Although much of what we do has changed in the digital age, I believe Gossage's quote is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Maybe more so.

Filed Under: creative

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