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Greatest Copy Shot Ever Written Issue № 248

Greatest Copy Shot Ever Written

by Published in Content Strategy, Writing · 27 Comments

The relevance of old-school advertising copy to web writers, developers, and designers is not always fully appreciated. But even on the web, we need great headlines and taglines and all those other clever scraps of text. And even if you’re not doing the writing yourself, it’s always useful to understand exactly why your in-house copywriter has selected that particular sequence of words, that specific linguistic construction. An understanding of what makes a piece of copy really good is one more useful device a web designer or developer can slot into his or her mental tool belt.

So what makes good copy good? Perhaps we can find out by considering what’s made the best of the best…the best.

In the year 2000, some of the stars of creative advertising during the 20th century nominated 115 best slogans, straplines, taglines, and headlines, all of which could broadly be termed “copy shots.” As a resource on which to base a linguistic analysis leading to a mechanism for producing the Greatest Copy Shot Ever Written, this was hard to beat. So I didn’t try to beat it.

I used the 115 lines chosen by these 18 experts as the fuel for my little copy engine, and all the while tried to keep in mind that creativity can’t be simulated with math and logic and formulas. Anyway, the truth is, copy shots aren’t works of genius. Granted, some are clever and some are moving, but when all’s said and done, it doesn’t take Einstein to put down five words in a nice order. But that’s just it: Einstein probably wouldn’t have made a very good copywriter. Nor would David Ogilvy be on anyone’s list of last-minute theoretical physicists. And yet the truth is, there’s a sense even on the inside that “anyone can be a copywriter.”

And it’s true. Nobody’s going to stand up and say that the average six-year-old couldn’t have come up with Got milk? The words “got” and “milk” are a staple part of the diet of most English speakers, and there are only two ways of putting them together, one of which would be meaningless. What people often forget, however, is that there are over a million words in English (some estimate lower, some higher), and countless combinations into which those words can be placed.  It’s a copywriter’s job to find the right ones for any particular brand. Essentially it’s like being an editor: You start with the entire English word-stock. Actually that’s not true; you start with the word-stocks of every language in existence — cf Vorsprung durch technik (Audi), one of the top 115. Scratch that, you start with everything that was ever uttered or could be uttered. Need I say more than, Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is (Alka Seltzer)? OK, so how many words could theoretically exist in any possible universe?

Maybe Einstein would have made a good copywriter.

In reality, anyone can be a copywriter, but the best copywriters actually think about what they’re writing. Not just anybody is willing to do that. Which brings me back on topic. What’s the point in looking at a list of 115 great copy shots if nobody knows why they’re great? So I’m going to use simple linguistics to try to determine why.

The method

Methodology explanations tend to ramble on unnecessarily, and I know exactly why: they’re easy to write. I’m going to break the mold and try to turn my method into a Haiku:

I studied the lines
For tropes, words, mood, completeness
And made conclusions.

The results

Proud! Unfortunately, I can’t turn the results section into a Haiku. And I’m going to have to elaborate on the method here a little bit, since there wasn’t space to mention that I did two separate studies: one for all 115 copy shots, and another for lines since 1985.

How many words?

How many words, on average, do the top copy shots contain? Well one mammoth, and slightly nauseating, example had 13 — You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent (Pepsodent). Another had just one — WotalotIgot (Smarties). As it happens, they averaged out at a rather unsurprising 5.3 words. The post-’85 set came in a little shorter, at 4.9 words. Whereas copy has become shorter over the years, art direction has generally become more prominent. Nowadays the trend is to tell the story with the picture, and add a bit of copy as the icing to complete the cake.

If we take the base sentence template to be subject-verb-object, then that’s a minimum of three words. You don’t always need the object, of course, and, as we’ll see later, it’s not always important to stick to the conventional rules of syntax, but with this base as a working example it looks like the ideal copy shot might go something like modifier-subject-verb-modifier-object. But should the product’s brand name fill one of those spaces?

Brand Name Inc.?

Brand name mentions overall
Brand name mentions post-1985

You’d think that most clients would insist on having their prized brand name made central in all copy shots. After all, it’s the clever copy that gets remembered ahead of everything else. Which is why it’s kind of a shock that 61% of the copy shots in the top 115 made no mention of the brand they were advertising. Today, the figure is only 50%.

Moodiness

Sentence mood overall
Sentence mood overall
Sentence mood post-1985
Sentence mood post-1985

Linguists and savvy laymen use the term “mood” to refer to the…well, the mood of a sentence. Very generally, the declarative mood is usually associated with statements. Similarly, the imperative mood translates to commands, and the interrogative to questions. This isn’t always the case, but for the purposes of the current study, it works fine. It turned out that, overall, a hefty proportion of the copy shots were declarative (48%) and most of the rest were imperative (22%) or grammatically ambiguous (24%). A very small percentage were classed as interrogative (6%).

The same sort of trend occurred in the post-’85 examples: 52% declarative, 16% imperative, 16% ambiguous. Interrogatives appear, if we only consider the percentages, to have had a bit of a resurgence in recent years (16%), but the truth is that the figures for all but the declaratives in this band were too small to be taken seriously. There were three imps, three ints, and three ambigs…es.

So are the best ads declarative? Not necessarily. Most utterances people make are declarative. More significant here are the overall scores for imperative and ambiguous phrases. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that 22% of ordinary written language is not imperative. In fact, let’s do a little test to prove it. Up to but not including this paragraph we’ve got about 1,200 words, and lots of clauses. Now I’m not about to analyse every single sentence here, because that would take a very, very long time, and it’d be very, very boring. But I will analyse a whole paragraph at random. You’ll have to trust me when I say I’ve just rolled a virtual 12-sided die, and seven came up (I was hoping for a four). In paragraph seven of this article, all the clauses are declarative.

So why have the copy shots been overrun by imps?

Well that’s obvious, really: What are the admen (and adwomen) trying to do? They’re trying to sell you something. What do you do when you want someone to buy (or do) something? You tell them to do it. And it doesn’t always have to seem like you’re giving an order. Orders can appear to benefit the entity being ordered — Have it your way (Burger King), or can even be made to appear to be coming from that entity — Calgon, take me away (Calgon). Covert persuasion? Again, perhaps not. There’s a possibility that imperatives are what the copywriter turns to when there’s nothing good to say about a product. Over-generalisation, of course, but it seems logical that if there’s a great selling point to talk about, you’ll need to talk about it in the declarative mood.

Also interesting were the ambiguous sentences. These definitely occur more in copy shots than in conventional written language. The “rules” of grammar, and especially of spelling, are, in the copywriter’s mind, there to be flouted. When you’ve got to make an impression quickly, doing something a bit weird is probably the best way to grab some attention. Back at the start of the 20th century there was a lot of non-standard, almost phonetic spelling — M’m! M’m! Good! (Campbell’s Soup). Nowadays there’s less of this, though grammatical non-standardness, and consequently mood-lessness, continues. Free enterprise with every copy (The Economist) doesn’t look weird, but it hasn’t got a verb and thus can’t be assigned a mood. Incidentally, it turns out that only 55% of copy shots overall could be assigned a mood. That’s low. Your average newspaper will have a far higher percentage. 55% is verging on normal speech. Post-’85, the situation is essentially the same (56% grammatically standard), but more on non-standard stuff later.

Grammatical completeness overall
Grammatical completeness overall
Grammatical completeness post-1985
Grammatical completeness post-1985

Standard bearers?

Overall standardness
Overall standardness
Post-1985 standardness
Post-1985 standardness

In fact, more on non-standard stuff now. It shows when you don’t plan, doesn’t it? Anyway, admissions of laziness aside, this is important. The above comments on standardness focused on grammatical completeness alone. Now we’re going to look at lexical completeness. For example: these copy shots are grammatically incomplete:

  • My goodness, my Guinness! (Guinness)
  • Capitalist tool (Forbes)

These don’t contain any verbs, so they’d also be sentences for which no mood can be determined. Lexical non-standardness is much more interesting:

  • Beanz meanz Heinz (Heinz)
  • Lipsmackinthirstquenchinacetastinmotivatingoodbuzzin cooltalkinhighwalkinfastlivinevergivincoolfizzin’ Pepsi (Pepsi)

The Heinz example contains two spelling oddities, and the Pepsi example contains one great big spelling oddity.

Overall, 17% of copy shots are in some way lexically deviant (25% are grammatically deviant, but we’ve already seen how boring that is). Again, this is big; it’s a weird spelling almost 2wice in every ten whirds. It’s all about what I like to call the “Look at me!” factor. Some say we’re exposed to around 3,000 ads every day. So tell me, which of these is more likely to stop you as you surf randomly through the web?

  • Australians do not care for anything else
  • Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for anything else (Castlemaine XXXX)

How about these two?

  • A newspaper, but not a boring one
  • A newspaper, not a snoozepaper (The Mail on Sunday)

Or…

  • Pepsi is really nice
  • Lipsmackinthirstquenchinacetastinmotivatingoodbuzzin cooltalkinhighwalkinfastlivinevergivincoolfizzin’ Pepsi (Pepsi)

There’s a school of thought that says people want to read simple, straight-to-the-point, clear, concise copy shots. There’s another school of thought that says people want to be shocked, excited and entertained by copy. Which do you think is right? Better still, how many of the top 115 copy lines do you think are simple, straight-to-the-point, clear and concise? How many are shocking, exciting, and entertaining?

Out of this comes one conclusion: to be an average copywriter, write copy shots that are simple and concise. To be a great copywriter, write the most inanely complicated, pointless, irreverential drivel you possibly can, as long as it’s relevant. Unfortunately, it’s about as difficult to make a line both pointless and relevant as it is to find a client who’d willingly trust you enough to go with it anyway. But we can try.

Rhetoric and other accidental heroes

Confused by that header? It turns out human beings are big fans of lying to themselves. When we write, there are certain ways we can put words together, or certain ways we can leave words out, or combine words, or whatever, which sound nicer than other ways. It’s nicer to write “shocked, excited and entertained” than “shocked, excited, entertained and amazed.” Lists of three sound and look better than lists of four. It’s not clever to write a list of three instead of four, it’s natural (though floutable). Same with the copy shots. Rhetoric is often a nice little way of doing something a bit different, so it crops up in the shots quite regularly. But I doubt even one of the copywriters responsible actually sat down and said, “Do you know what? I reckon the best way to advertise Smash is to rhyme it with ‘mash’! It’ll sell millions!”

It just happened like that. But it can’t hurt to know which devices are most prevalent amongst the top 100, can it? So here’s the final bit of the analysis:

The truth is, only 16% of the top 115 didn’t contain any rhetoric whatsoever. On the other hand, there wasn’t really any one device which stood out as prevalent amongst all the rest. The devices identified overall, in order of popularity, are given below:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
Rhetorical Devices
DeviceNumber of Instances
DeviceNumber of Instances
No device27
Alliteration15
Metaphor15
Rhyme15
Repetition13
Colloquialism12
Parallelism10
Rhetorical question9
Anthropomorphism8
Polysemy8
Wordplay8
Coinage7
Assonance6
Rhythm5
Onomatopoeia4
Humour3
Hyperbole2
List of three2
Comparison1
Literary reference (allusion)1

Anybody who knows a little bit about literature might have noticed that not all of the above are normally classed as rhetorical devices, but I’m using a relatively loose definition of “rhetorical device” for the sake of this study. Anyway, a similar pattern emerged in the post-’85 lines:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Rhetorical Devices Post-’85
DeviceNumber of Instances
DeviceNumber of Instances
No device8
Metaphor3
Rhetorical question3
Rhyme3
Wordplay3
Coinage2
Colloquialism2
Repetition2
Assonance1
Parallelism1
Polysemy1

If we now take these more recently used devices and get rid of those today considered too quaint or too annoying (rhyme, colloquialism, assonance), we’re left with the following viable devices:

  • Metaphor
  • Rhetorical question
  • Wordplay
  • Coinage
  • Repetition
  • Parallelism
  • Polysemy

Wordplay is very general, and should probably be lumped in with polysemy, which is the name I’ve used for the deliberate double meaning conveyed in some copy shots thanks to one word having multiple interpretations — the best example of this is perhaps Go to work on an egg (Egg Marketing Board). Or rather, polysemy should be seen as a sub-type of wordplay. In any case, it’s one of the best ways of getting a viewer to really think about your ad. It also looks clever, and people love telling their friends about clever things they’ve seen. It makes them look clever for having noticed.

Metaphor’s always a winner, and it usually ties in with polysemy, or anthropomorphism (assigning human characteristics to non-human or inanimate entities). It’s all about creating an alternate universe for the viewer, but not all of it is blatant. The conventional, central notion of what a metaphor is, for most people, is probably represented by this shot: Put a tiger in your tank (Esso). But what about these?

  • You’re in good hands with Allstate (Allstate)
  • Reach out and touch someone (AT&T)

You don’t have the same sort of obvious non-literalness here, but, with a little bit of careful study, it becomes clear that neither of the above can be taken literally either. Are you really “in good hands,” with Allstate? I mean really? Are you standing in a big pair of morally superior hands?

AT&T could have gotten a lot of people into a lot of trouble if they’d intended copy shot number two to be taken literally. A lot of trouble.

I submit that a copy shot playing on some kind of a metaphor is yet another way to increase the interestingness of that shot, and consequently to increase how much attention people pay to it.

We all know what rhetorical questions are, and inevitably any questions asked in copy shots are rhetorical, as no answer can possibly be expected. So there’s not much to say about this sort of device other than that it suggests that the reader might consider answering, and thus spending a little bit of time paying attention.

The device I really like is coinage. I’ve always been a big fan of anybody daring enough to just make up a word and not allude to the fact that they’ve done so. Especially in as public a place as a TV ad, or a poster, or the internet. You’ve got words like snoozepaper, Uncola, WotalotIgot. You’ve got Tango and Thomas Cook used as verbs. And you’ve got the Pepsi one, which I don’t want to have to write out again.

But that’s all you’ve got.

Which is really quite surprising. It’s perhaps a bit of a risk to go with an invented word, but they’re very memorable. And they catch on. It’s easier for people to remember and pass on a single word, or sound, than five or six words. This sort of thing has worked recently for Lynx.

And so we come to repetition and parallelism. The difference I’ve drawn between the two is an intricate one. Parallelism can be defined as a balanced type of repetition including a large chunk of repeated words, whereas repetition is simply the reiteration of an individual word. It’s also important to note that parallelism needn’t involve chunks of words only, and that a similar chunk of syntax would also count (as in the first example below). To illustrate:

Parallelism:

  • You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world (WINS Radio)
  • The future’s bright. The future’s Orange (Orange)

Repetition:

  • Be all you can be (U.S. Army)
  • No FT, no comment (Financial Times)

Of course, by definition all copy shots classed as involving parallelism must also involve repetition, though the reverse does not hold. What’s the effect of all this? Well first of all it lends a nice symmetry to a copy shot, and symmetrical sentences are easier to remember than asymmetrical sentences. That’s always useful in advertising. But apart from that, it just looks really nice. You’ll notice that the parallelism examples are generally longer than the repetition examples too. We might be able to draw another difference between the two devices along these lines: if you want to write a short, symmetrical copy shot, go for repetition. For longer lines, go for parallelism.

Quite apart from being memorable, symmetrical lines of copy are also very straightforward; direct. They’re ideal for hard-hitting shots (which is why they’ve been used by the U.S. Army and the FT—both serious, uncompromising, and dominant forces), and for making a quick impression without asking too much of an audience. It’s easy to see how parallelism and repetition might not be the best way to advertise, for example, We’re colourful; you’re gripped (Teletubbies), but that they’re hard to beat for the Army.

So is there a device for every client? Every message? Not, perhaps, as neatly as has been the case for parallelism and repetition, but it’s certainly the case that each device has a certain sort of feeling to it, and that this should be suited to the intended message. So what, if anything, are these feelings?

  • Repetition/parallelism—aggressive, straight-to-the-point, memorable, symmetrical
  • Metaphor/wordplay/polysemy—clever, mysterious, potentially irritating
  • Coinage—playful, obscure, silly, original
  • Rhetorical question—personal, inclusive, informal, potentially too marketing-ish

Of course, there will be deviations. The fluffiest, friendliest, most forgettable copy shot ever written could work on a parallelism device, but, as with all definitions, these will just have to do.

Final thoughts

There’s undoubtedly a sort of consistency amongst the top copy shots, but there’s also a definite difference between those written prior to 1985 and those written after. Coming up with a reason for this change hasn’t been the purpose of this essay, and, in fact, there wasn’t any real change anyway, only a gradual progression from the vapid, conservative jauntiness of ads past to the self-aware, occasionally aloof, understatedness of today’s ads. So what’s the logical next step?

There isn’t one.

We say that, these days, people are more aware of what marketing personnel are trying to do, and it is as a reaction against this, that the advertising industry has to become more and more clever. But given that the underlying structure of successful copy shots has changed so little, it’s fairly clear that people aren’t really more savvy today than they were in the 1940s.

So why do we think people are more savvy, then? I think the answer’s in the rhetoric analysis. The specific rhetorical devices used by the admen of the 1950s differ from those used today. Back then, rhyme and onomatopoeia were used far more, and would have been just as cutting-edge and intelligent as a clever metaphor today. Can we really kid ourselves into thinking that even the coolest, most self-aware, most beautifully written and produced headers and taglines of our time won’t look ridiculous to our children’s children?

And everything else? Standardness? Grammar? Brand names? The analysis suggests that standard language is less and less popular for copywriters, and it seems logical that this trend will continue to a point at which it becomes unfeasible—and then perhaps revert, dramatically.

The Greatest Copy Shot Ever Written

This analysis is all well and good, but I did promise you the Greatest Copy Shot Ever Written.

The trouble with a promise like that is that greatness is context-bound. Imagine The quicker picker upper as a line advertising the employee of the month at the Street Cleaning Association, instead of Bounty. It’d be too literal, and because of that the clunkiness of “picker upper” suddenly becomes clear and it just looks bad. What I’m going to do is determine which of the top 115 copy shots comes closest to being a central example of advertising greatness, based on this analysis. Here’s the breakdown, according to the overall results rather than the post-’85 results:

All great copy shots should:

  1. Be five words in length.
  2. Not mention the brand name.
  3. Be declarative.
  4. Be grammatically complete.
  5. Be otherwise standard.
  6. Contain alliteration, metaphor, or rhyme.

Of course, the order in which I consider the above criteria will influence the outcome, another reason why the result here cannot be seen as definitive. On the other hand, nobody else (as far as I know), has attempted to come up with a linguistically determined Greatest Copy Shot, so this is at least a start.

So which of the 115 copy shots adheres to this definition closest? Which, based on objective linguistic analysis, is the best of the best? Well implementation of the first criterion cuts the sample down to just 19 potentials:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         
Criteria 1: Five Word Length
Copy ShotClient
Copy ShotClient
Don’t leave home without itAmerican Express
Reach out and touch someoneAT&T
A little dab’ll do yaBrylcreem
Please don’t squeeze the CharminCharmin
Does she or doesn’t she?Clairol
Free enterprise with every copyThe Economist
Cats like Felix like FelixFelix
Say no to no sayGreater London Council
Guinness is good for youGuinness
Nothing runs like a DeereJohn Deere
We all adore a Kia-OraKia-Ora
Betcha can’t eat just oneLay’s
A newspaper, not a snoozepaperThe Mail on Sunday
Good to the last dropMaxwell House
When it rains, it pours!Morton Salt
If it’s on, it’s inRadio Times
Which twin has the Toni?Toni
Be all you can beUS Army
What we want is Watney’sWatney’s

Cut out those which contain a brand name, and you’re down to a final 12:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
Criteria 2: No Brand Name
Copy ShotClient
Copy ShotClient
Don’t leave home without itAmerican Express
Reach out and touch someoneAT&T
A little dab’ll do yaBrylcreem
Does she or doesn’t she?Clairol
Free enterprise with every copyThe Economist
Say no to no sayGreater London Council
Betcha can’t eat just oneLay’s
A newspaper, not a snoozepaperThe Mail on Sunday
Good to the last dropMaxwell House
When it rains, it pours!Morton Salt
If it’s on, it’s inRadio Times
Be all you can beUS Army

Criteria number 3 gets rid of most of these, and leaves us with a final, prestigious four:

                                                                                                                                     
Criteria 3: Declarative
Copy ShotClient
Copy ShotClient
A little dab’ll do yaBrylcreem
Betcha can’t eat just oneLay’s
When it rains, it pours!Morton Salt
If it’s on, it’s inRadio Times

These are all grammatically complete (I subscribe to the view that “Betcha” carries with it an innate suggestion of agency. In other words, when you see “Betcha,” you read “I betcha,” which is grammatically fine). The Lay’s line and the Brylcreem line are, however, lexically non-standard, which brings us down to just two, final shots:

                                                                                             
Criteria 4 & 5: Grammatically Complete And Lexically Standard
Copy ShotClient
Copy ShotClient
When it rains, it pours!Morton Salt
If it’s on, it’s inRadio Times

Only one of these contains one of the three most successful rhetorical devices: The line If it’s on, it’s in, for the Radio Times, contains a metaphor. “It” cannot truly be “on” anything under the central understanding of the preposition; thus the line is metaphorical.

And so we have our winner. The greatest copy shot ever written, courtesy of MCBD, based on the findings of this analysis, is If it’s on, it’s in.

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