The more you write, the more you’re wrong

By Steve May, copywriter and consultant at Rockatansky.

Day 1 in advertising, and I’m taught the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Steve).

From Day 2, everything I write, every idea I bleed, I filter through this philosophy of the less you write, the stickier it’ll be in consumers’ minds.

Say it then stop.

Pinned that little sentence to my wall at work. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a copywriter.

Magic in advertising lives in the less. The greatest and most memorable ads are always the simplest. Always. But as any creative will tell you, it’s hard to make things look simple.

Punters merely see the summit of our creative climbs. Reaching advertising nirvana is a formidable mountain to conquer. I know, it’s often said that the true reward of life is ‘the journey’ itself. Well, in the ad game (just as in most others), for a consumer, it’s simply about that flag at the top.

As creatives, we live for those moments when strangers’ eyes are on our flags. When, for that germane second in their day, they’re actually looking straight at us, at our work, our struggle, our climb.

You’ve got one shot. One opportooonity. So, we need to get it right the first time, every time.

Which leads me to that most tired but true cliche: first impressions count.

They do. Ask anyone who’s ever met anyone. That first point of contact really is make or break.

Especially in a romantic sense.

She lays eyes on you for the very first time. You at her. Enchantment builds. Hearts skip. Choirs sing.

Then, imagine, instead of delivering a perfectly pitched, reserved and simple ‘Hey’, you say ‘Hi, I’m Steve, my last name is May, the G in my middle name as listed on my credit card stands for Geoffrey, who is my Godfather, my birthday is in December, I like jogging at the gym, love Thai food, but not too spicy, I do enjoy watching Netflix, favourite sitcom is The Office, but not the American Office, the British Office…’.

Easy, tiger. Don’t need your life story (said slowly, stepping back).

Seriously, if someone greeted and spoke to you like this, you’d consider them a nutcase.

So why do brands do it?

Why do many bombard us, thinking extra information, especially in areas where it’s not easily comprehendible nor digestible, makes for a better connection with a customer?

I call it ‘love-me overload’. A trap both for copywriters and clients.

That belief that if I tell you, in explicit detail, everything about me, then surely you’ll find something to love about me (yes, I adore exquisitely written long-copy ads, however I’m focussing this piece on ad mediums that demand quicker comprehension – hang in there, you’ll see what I mean, shortly). I’ll show you my logo – all the way through the ad if it’s a TV spot – my social icons, my phone number, my web address, my location, and my hashtags, along with headline and visuals, all in the one ad…it’s exhausting listing it all.

Thing is, advertising works the same way as relationships. Take it slow and you build a bond. Try too hard and you’ll be handed a fake phone number and listed in the little black book as the psychopathic bunny boiler.

Little bits of information work better. After all, you’re not taught a year’s worth of work in a single class at school. Hell, I wasn’t taught a year’s worth of work in a year’s worth of school. Takes time. Maybe, then, we should approach ads more like relationship counsellors than creatives? More Dr Phil less Mr Bill (Bernbach).

Which brings me to roadside billboards. If anything needs creative counselling, they do.

Below is a picture of a billboard for an insurance company. The billboard is positioned along my current commute (old picture I grabbed from the net, but it’s a good example of what I tend to see, nevertheless). Nothing against the brand. Merely using the execution of the creative as way of illustrating love-me overload.

I count 29 words in the main area, plus the logo. That’s not including the T&Cs copy at the bottom, or the logo of the billboard provider.

The last two sentences I just wrote comprised 27 words.

So, tell me, how is one supposed to read and digest 29 words – not to mention, understand their relationship to the image – while driving at 80kph? Sure, sometimes there’s traffic to slow you a tad, but that’s pure luck. Hell, it takes shorter time to read an ad in a newspaper as it does to read this (oh, and then there’s the size and weight of fonts – don’t get me started).

Too many words. Missed opportunity.

I remember someone telling me a few years back that you’ve got 2 seconds to get your point across on a roadside billboard. You can’t tell me we’ve evolved so dramatically in recent years that we can digest 29+ words in that time?

Perhaps it’s a ‘if we throw enough things at them they’re sure to see SOMETHING’ kind of ad?

Ultimately, it’s just turning roadside billboards into wallpaper and killing the craft and magic of outdoor advertising – which, if you Google ‘great outdoor ads’ you’ll find wonderful examples of well-crafted and simple ones.

I think it’s a shame this roadside magic is eroding. For these billboards have one significant advantage over every other type of advertising medium: drivers aren’t looking at their mobiles; it’s illegal. Whoa. Television advertisers could only dream of such a thing.

Yet we continue to dilute the messaging with way too much messaging. Kills me. And I’m not simply blaming creatives here, either. Clients need to understand this concept as much as we do (they tend to be the biggest culprits). That’s right, we don’t push-back when clients wish to load extra information because we just want it to look pretty…we just want it to work.

Yes. We get it. There’s a trend for websites and hashtags and social icons to be planted on them. But it’s all clutter. Personally, I think most of this stuff is unnecessary on billboards. I’m fairly confident if you’ve created a powerful and rewarding argument through a provoking headline and visual, punters who want to look for you online will get to you easily. They won’t not find you.

Sure, I still see the odd, superb roadside billboard, with a small number of words and maximum impact.

But far too often, it’s brands kissing their opportunity to connect with consumers goodbye.

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