Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad: You’re Not Stupid. You’re Just Ignorant.

When I get an email from pro copywriter Dean Rieck, I’m always happy. He’s a nice guy. I’m happier when he attaches a guest post – he’s a great writer full of good stuff to share. I’m happiest when he says nice things like, “It’s fun to write for your readers – I feel like I can let loose in a way I don’t in other places.” Check out how Dean let loose for you guys in this one!

One of the worst mistakes copywriters make is to assume their job is about writing.

It’s not.

Now I know that sounds a bit odd. After all, the word “writing” is in the word “copywriting.” So it’s understandable why you might misunderstand.

But writing and copywriting are two very different things.

When you write a novel or a poem, readers wants great words. They enjoy the rhythm, the imagery, the wordplay. People expect this kind of writing to deliver a certain art and beauty.

When you write websites, ads, white papers, or other business materials, readers simply want information. They don’t care about the artistry. They aren’t looking for beauty. They just want to find out how to solve a problem or meet a need.

This isn’t to say that copywriting can’t be well-crafted. It should be. But it should be crafted in such a way that the words disappear and the meaning shows through. I like to think of good copywriting as if it’s a toy store window: clean, polished, and invisible, providing a clear view of the wondrous goodies inside.

So when copywriters forget that their job is to convey meaning, to connect with needs, to influence and persuade, they focus on the words alone and create, well … crap.

When you do this, it’s not that you’re stupid. It’s just that you’re ignorant.

Ignorant of the purpose of your copy. Ignorant of the meaning of your product or service. And ignorant of the perceptions of your readers. In other words, even beautifully-crafted copy can go bad when you pay too much attention to how you say something and ignore the meaning of what you’re saying.

To illustrate just how incredibly bad copy can go when meaning is ignored, here are some astonishing examples from the world of advertising:

  • Coors decided to use its slogan, “Turn it loose,” in Spanish advertisements. Unfortunately, it translated as “Suffer from diarrhea.” Beer sales went down the crapper.
  • Clairol introduced a new curling iron called the “Mist Stick.” But when they brought the product to the German market, they discovered that “mist” is slang for manure. Apparently, few German consumers had use for a “manure stick.”
  • When the Pope announced a visit to the U.S., an American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for Spanish-speaking residents. The shirt was supposed to read “Vi al Papa” (I saw the Pope) but instead read “Vi la papa” (I saw the potato). I like potatoes as much as the next guy, but I don’t wear shirts bragging about it.
  • Pepsi’s slogan used to be “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation.” It proved successful right up to the time when it entered the Chinese market, where it took a nasty left turn. In Chinese, the slogan meant, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Yikes!
  • When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they decided to use the same packaging as they used in the US, with a beautiful, smiling baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa illiteracy is high, so companies put pictures on the product labels to show what’s inside. “Baby food” took on a startling new meaning.
  • Frank Perdue revolutionized the chicken industry. However, his slogan, “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken,” proved even more revolutionary when translated into Spanish as, “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.” Uh. I have no further comment on that.
  • In China, Coca-Cola mystified the entire population when it announced “Ke-kou-ke-la,” meaning, “Bite the wax tadpole” or, depending on the dialect, “female horse stuffed with wax.” Perhaps that makes sense if you’re high.
  • When Parker Pen began selling ballpoint pens in Mexico, the ads were supposed to read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” But a poor choice of words resulted in a benefit statement that proudly proclaimed, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” So that’s why people use pocket protectors!

I know, I know. These are all extreme examples. However, they show what happens when you’re crafting copy for an audience about which you’re ignorant.

How do you avoid this?

Reach into the world other people live in. For example, if you’re a liberal and you’re writing web copy for a conservative website, you have to abandon your own views and immerse yourself in the world view of people who think differently.

Empathize with the feelings and beliefs of your readers. They say you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. So become a shoe thief. Walk, jog, and run in as many shoes as you can. You have to feel what others feel to write copy that connects with them.

Have an interest in everything … and then some. In a recent conversation, a writer told me that he hates projects about things that don’t interest him. How can you be a copywriter if you’re not curious about new things? You should know a little about everything.

Be a quick study. Copywriting is always on a deadline. You have to inhale information and understand it rapidly. You have to be a pregnant woman in the morning and a retired trucker in the afternoon. A senator on Monday, a heart surgeon on Wednesday, and a champion cyclist on Friday.

Always do your homework. Read everything. Ask questions. Take notes. And when you think you know it all, keep digging. As Edmund Burke said, “Fact is to the mind what food is to the body.” (Edmund Burke? Could I have chosen a more arcane reference?)

Be willing to change your copy to meet a goal. You can’t be a diva. Yes, you spend hours or days or weeks writing and rewriting. But if the copy doesn’t do the job, you have to let go. Top writers are ruthless editors and heartless revisionists.

Recover from mistakes and learn from them. We all make them. What separates good writers from great writers is that great writers learn from mistakes and become greater. Other writers make excuses and seek to avoid similar situations.

To help myself with this, I use a copywriting cheat sheet, which is a series of questions to help me start to understand who a client is, what they’re selling, and the people they’re selling to. Depending on your area of specialty, you might want to adapt this sheet to your own needs, adding or deleting questions.

If you’re a copywriter, you’re probably pretty smart – so use those smarts and watch out for being ignorant.

Dean Rieck is one of America’s top copywriters and tries hard to be neither stupid nor ignorant. In fact, he provides copywriting tips for smart copywriters at Pro Copy Tips.

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Great post. I particularly like the point about changing your copy to meet your need. Sometimes I write a post weeks before I post it, but when I re-read it I find its not achieving the goal I want. Sometimes its hard to rewrite your copy, but sometimes it just needs to be done.

  2. Good copy and good translations/adaptations have one common attribute: they have to be *fit for purpose*.

    The hilarious examples you provided are not, IMHO, examples of “how bad copy can go when meaning is ignored”: they are not examples of foreign language copy writing!

    They are, unfortunately, classic examples of what happens when a company seeks to communicate internationally on the cheap. Companies will spend thousands of dollars creating a slogan and branding their products, but then mistakenly believe this catchy phrase can just be translated for pennies a word. A costly mistake – in time, money, and damage to the company’s image and reputation.

    To adapt marketing and advertising copy for use in another language and in another culture demands professional expertise. Foreign language copywriters or professional translators skilled at intercultural communications adapt your key messages to targets whose cultural values and references can differ significantly. These experts should be brought on board at the beginning of the word food chain. Early involvement in the client’s brief alongside the source language advertising team ensures the client’s strategy, objectives and challenges are considered in crafting the right hooks for use abroad.

  3. My favorite tip for copywriting is to first ask myself, what is the end result I want to achieve? Do I want readers to tell their friends? Buy a book? Visit a recommended affiliate link? Choose brand XYZ over brand ABC? etc.etc.etc.

    Based upon that, I’ll slant my copywriting towards gaining that particular goal.

    The opportunities for more frustration than giving Godzilla a massive root canal with a dull rusted butter knife is when one’s client decides, they (or their brother or their mailman or that pixel that’s located approximately 29 points from the far left of a Tandy 100 screen or…) know better…and don’t even give your copy a chance prior to asking for it to be changed.

    ‘course, life is too short to angst over it. Sigh.

    More coffee…..
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..100s of products that offer 100% affiliate commission – how to find them! =-.

  4. Dean,

    I’m laughing out loud because I just wrote a post about missed homework when going international this week (link below). You’ve got a bunch of great examples here that are new to me. As usual, you’ve made your point with style!

    Regards,

    Kelly
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Naming Your Bimbo =-.

  5. Wow, Haha. The examples you gave of the bad translations, although horrible to the company, are hilarious. Gerber selling canned baby in Africa, hm? Are all those examples true? I can’t imagine all those huge companies throwing so much money into an advertising campaign without doing their research.
    .-= Ryan Cowles´s last blog ..Mt. Baldy California – Photography =-.

  6. Rich Thompson says:

    Good article. Good tips. Another reason why copy fails is the because people ask too much of it. This often happens when the project lacks a real strategy. Good copy will reveal that the emperor is has no clothes. And instead of coming up with a real strategy, the client will try push and pull the copy in every direction to cover up the nakedness. But at the end of the day, good copy can only do so much. It can’t work miracles.

  7. Great blog post. I’ve never heard it quite put like that, but certainly understanding your audience is an essential part of Copywriting.

    I’ve had the pleasure of writing for some pretty diverse clients in the past, but you always have to keep in mind that your readership changes from site to site, from subject to subject and, as you point out, from country to country (or even language).

    Effective writers are defined by their ability to change their tone, mode of address and language to adjust to any readership – as well as improving conversions of course.

    A great spin on the subject and an interesting read.

    Many thanks

  8. Here’s another example of unclear copywriting. I was cleaning out the garage a while back and ran across a box of Christmas lights. On the side of the box there was a warning that read, “For indoor or outdoor use ONLY.”

  9. Incognito says:

    These aren’t examples of bad copywriting, they are examples of bad localization and failure to appreciate the idioms of language.

    They don’t “show what happens when you’re crafting copy for an audience about which you’re ignorant.” In all likelihood, the writer that came up with these slogans, which in and of itself a distinct offshoot of true copywriting IMHO, wrote them for English-speaking North American audiences. They are effective, well thought out and are examples of knowing your demographic and appealing to them as such.

    If you know good copywriting, then you know you appeal to your core demographic in the language they speak and the idioms they understand. This isn’t a failure on the part of the copywriter, they are a failure of the company and/or marketing firm to understand that (gasp) not everyone speaks English or understands phrases common to North American society.

    And the Pope one, jeeze. Not bad writing. Typos. They happen. Again, NOT the fault of the copywriter. It doesn’t “illustrate just how incredibly bad copy can go when meaning is ignored.” It was a printing mistake.

    Patricia above hit the nail on the head. “They are, unfortunately, classic examples of what happens when a company seeks to communicate internationally on the cheap. Companies will spend thousands of dollars creating a slogan and branding their products, but then mistakenly believe this catchy phrase can just be translated for pennies a word.”

    Exactly.

    It’s like the old, trite, and overplayed notion that when Chevy marketed the Nova in Latin countries it bombed because no-va means “no go” when in reality “nova” idiomatically expresses “new” in both English and Romance language-based societies.

    Don’t go for the cheap laugh. There are some helpful tips later in the article, but the non sequiturs that lead into them have no bearing whatsoever, especially if you work in an agency environment or as part of a larger company. If you are the cottage industry copywriter and you are going to create copy to market a product in Mexico, and you go to Babelfish for a translation, well, you deserve all derision you get when your marketing backfires.

    Furthermore, I agree that being a quick study is important, but when the agency that owns a slogan I create for them for use in specific markets “translates” it into Chinese without taking into account local flavors of meaning, I guess I can take a little comfort in the fact that at least I am not stupid.

    Just ignorant.

    /rant

  10. What they meant was, NOT for use in outer space.

    Maybe. ;)
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Clerks, Zack and Miri Creator Writes the Best Rant Ever =-.

  11. I really appreciate the line about “have an interest in everything…” That is so true, especially in direct marketing.

    A great trick is to mix up your reading material from time to time as well. If you always read non-fiction, pick up some fiction. If you always read Businessweek, pick up Better Homes and Gardens or something.

    It’s not just your product that you have to be crazy about when copywriting. You also have to be crazy about what your customer is crazy about.

    You need to get inside their head so that your marketing message is something that makes them all itchy inside, just wanting to find out more about your product.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Small Business Branding- Too Many Eggs in One Basket? =-.

  12. This is GREAT! Thank you for a very informative and entertaining article! I can just imagine the reaction in Africa – the baby food fiasco. The bright side of this is that some companies realize that there is a potential problem, and seek to prevent such “goofs”. I recently applied to a company that has sites over most of the civilized world, and one of the questions I answered was that I could speak both English (U.S.) and English (United Kingdom). I am not ignorant — I hope! :)

  13. Dean,
    That’s a FANTASTIC “cheat sheet” that you link to! Leaving this comment here in the hopes it will inspire more click-throughs, because it really is a great reference and hopefully a lot of people will follow the link to check it out.

    I loves me some checklists!
    .-= Matt Burgess´s last blog ..Things that were delicious this week… 26 March, 2010 =-.

  14. I’ve never laughed so hard at a blog post. I loved it!

    I worked on a commercial campaign for Avon that Salma Hayek was in, she ended up convincing the ad team to bring in a new copywriter for the Spanish translation. And she was right. Apparently the English copy was very sophisticated and intriguing, while the Spanish just fell flat.
    .-= susan´s last blog ..Taking Control of Your Writing Career =-.

  15. I agree, the problem in those examples isn’t the copywriter, it’s the company that ignored the subtleties of translating slogans from English into other languages.

    I have a friend who spends hours slaving over translations (from English to Spanish), making sure she gets both the words and the cultural references right. Her clients sometimes override her (because they’re ignorant).

    I do have to say, though, that my mom had a Chevy Nova… and it didn’t go!

  16. Hi agent x – sounds like the mystery ingredient in a soap powder. LOL
    I enjoyed reading this article… and I learned something.

    People don’t read boring things so you have to make the words interesting or you will never get your message across.
    Yoy say “This isn’t to say that copywriting can’t be well-crafted. It should be” so I think that we agree.

    Humour can be a great way to get people to read and enjoy themselves and whilst they are having a good time… learn something.

    I’ll be back to read some more.
    .-= Keith Davis´s last blog ..A helping hand… =-.

  17. The ability to empathize with the audience is one of the most critical traits in a copywriter, I think. Too many people ask themselves, “what would I think or do?” without trying to adopt the target’s POV. I frequently run into this with clients – it just doesn’t occur to them that their thoughts and reactions may not be representative of the intended reader’s.

    Of course, the other side of that coin is making sure your empathy is actually that and not a collection of stereotypes. We’ve all seen the massive marketing fail that is “make it come in pink!” when women are targeted. I see a lot of copy that is clearly trying to appeal to a certain demographic, but lacks the depth or cleverness to really be incisive.
    .-= Valerie Alexander´s last blog ..Making Them Pay II: FBI Edition =-.

  18. I agree with Icognito that ‘these not examples of bad copywriting, they are examples of bad localization and failure to appreciate the idioms of language.’ The examples did make me laugh however and I’ve forwarded on the article!

  19. Great post. Hmmmm. Sometimes I feel like I “overthink” my audience, though. I’ll have to take a look at that checklist.
    .-= Kerrie´s last blog ..The Pledge =-.

  20. Hiya

    Thanks – great article. Copywriting is about selling at the end of the day – a product, a service, an idea. Salesmanship in print – was that Ogilvy?

    I love your cheat sheet and will definitely use it. Have retweeted as well.

    Thanks again
    Tineke

  21. There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.

    And as you quite clearly show, that also holds true for copywriters!
    .-= tempo dulu´s last blog ..Innospec in Indonesia: a can of worms best kept shut =-.

  22. Spot on men! I was kinda saying the same thing on my post for The Drum magazine right here:

    http://thedrum.co.uk/blogs/larnercaleb/2010/03/22/collect-words-for-arrogance-collect-shoes-for-performance/

    …only perhaps a little more flippantly!

  23. Roberto Azula says:

    Actually, there was nothing mystifying about the Coca-Cola name brand in China…you’re repeating an urban legend, ala the Chevy Nova.

    http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/tadpole.asp

    I know…I’ve lived in China and Taiwan for many years, and the Chinese were suitably impressed Coke’s translation: “Makes Your Mouth Happy!” I’ll drink to that!

    cheers

  24. Fantastic tips! Succinct and oh so true. It is so important to write from the reader’s point of view, no matter what your own beliefs are. And you demonstrated why oh so well. I might have to hang this up in my office.
    .-= Coreen´s last blog ..Burger King: Ditch the King to be a brand king =-.

  25. This is a really helpful article. Thanks for sharing this valuable information!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] read a post on Men with Pens that talked about how to keep the proper focus with copywriting, and there was so much in it that [...]

  2. [...] That Are Actually Good News (StoryFix) 43. The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make (Men With Pens) 44. Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad: You’re Not Stupid. You’re Just Ignorant. (Men With Pens) 45. 8 Incredibly Simple Ways to Get More People to Read Your Content (CopyBlogger) [...]

  3. [...] For some hilarious examples of copywriting gone wrong, especially as it relates across cultures and languages, Dean Rieck provides a few laughs in his post, Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad. [...]

  4. [...] That Are Actually Good News (StoryFix) 43. The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make (Men With Pens) 44. Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad: You’re Not Stupid. You’re Just Ignorant. (Men With Pens) 45. 8 Incredibly Simple Ways to Get More People to Read Your Content (CopyBlogger) [...]

  5. [...] Good copywriting isn't writing well. It's knowing your audience, their needs, and how to write words that sell – without being ignorant. Click here to read .  [...]

  6. [...] Source: Why Good Copywriting Goes Bad: You’re Not Stupid. You’re Just Ignorant. [...]

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