Copywriting? Who cares?

It’s not at all surprising that I’d say this, but copywriting can be a beautiful thing. When it works, it works damn well. It’s often credited with giving a brand a “voice”. After all, it speaks directly to a customer.

But copywriting can’t fly on its own. It works best by engaging customers’ emotions and expressing a compelling message. But no matter how pretty a sentence is, if it doesn’t make a reader care, it fails.

Look at novelists. They don’t just type out things they observe. They present stories and images so their audience cares about them. This isn’t accomplished by dryly listing the events of a story like a news reporter. It’s done by understanding and playing on the emotional touch points of the audience.

A frequently uttered “rule” of copywriting is that you’ve got to sell the benefits, not the features. And while that’s certainly true, writers need to keep in mind that they still have to sell benefits people actually care about.

Let’s look at a campaign that didn’t focus on benefits at all: the Australian Government’s “Every Cigarette Is Doing You Damage” campaign, dedicated to reducing the prevalence of smoking. It focused on the downsides of doing an activity in an effort to stop people from doing it.

Australians will remember the grisly images. There was controversy about the campaign from the get-go, and the reliance on graphic imagery. Yet, teenage smoking dropped like a stone and youth smoking is at an all-time low in Australia. In 1984, 30% of 16- and 17-year-olds smoked. In 2014, that dropped to 10% (source).

The graphic nature of the campaign seems almost crude, but like a well-crafted horror movie, it was fine-tuned to hit smokers where it hurt. The campaign ran ads focusing on what was happening at the very moment people smoked; it never mentioned the risks of eventual problems like heart disease or lung cancer.

Why? They knew youth smokers didn’t care about what might happen one day when they were decades older. But by describing what was happening right there and then, suddenly the risk was more real. People cared enough to stop smoking. Hence, one of the most memorial lines of ad copy in public health, “Every Cigarette Is Doing You Damage”.

At the end of the day, that’s a copywriter’s job. Not to sound smart, not to come up with puns. But to make the audience care.


Published 11th February, 2018