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.

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