Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
I was more than a little skeptical when I was asked to review this book. I read the title and thought to myself: “Oh no” and “Here we go again.” Someone had written another book describing how all the people on Madison Avenue (or in this case its English equivalent) were stupid and incompetent and that he would reveal all the secrets of advertising that hitherto had been unknown to all but him. Instead, what I found was a very well‐written book about the nuts and bolts of copywriting. The book itself runs under 200 pages, but it is so well written that reading it was not only effortless, but even enjoyable. It is a great book to have when you are waiting and waiting and waiting in the airport lounge at Newark International Airport!
The author is something of a combination of a theater critic, a theologian, a psychologist, and even at times a philosopher. Maslen cites the great masters of the English language, ranging from William Shakespeare and Dr Johnson to David Ogilvy, even throwing in a little Chekhov, too. He describes how knowledge of the seven deadly sins can be extremely useful to a copywriter trying to appeal to the reader. One can only guess what John Milton might have thought of that approach! He even gives us his views on how individuals process information and what motivates them to action, which in this case means getting them to actually read the copy and then act on it. The author never loses sight of the fact that copywriting is ultimately about selling and not (without apparently some regret) about creating a literary or artistic masterpiece.
The book can be divided into three parts. The first ten chapters deal with generalities about human nature and the communication process. Anyone involved in marketing will find this section a worthwhile read. Chapters 11 to 23 deal with specifics about copywriting and will be of use to anyone actually involved in producing an ad. In the last three chapters, the author gives some general advice to copywriters on how to improve their craft.
Maslen's first point is that writing is all about the reader, who will only read something that is of interest. He believes that people buy on emotional grounds first and then rationalize their decisions. Consequently, the copywriter must appeal to the reader's self‐interest, albeit in a subtle way. Maslen's second point is that the copywriter must really understand his reader. Database reports and market research surveys can be very useful. However, there is no substitute for getting out of the office and talking to real people. Maslen believes that a copywriter should get first‐hand information by observing and listening to customers. The copywriter should also talk to salespeople who are particularly knowledgeable about customers and competitors.
After the preliminaries, the copywriter must formulate a plan. Apparently, copywriting is not a matter of sitting back with one's feet on the table and dreaming up the perfect slogan or just brainstorming and throwing crumpled pieces of paper containing rejected ideas into basketball hoops. Maslen abhors vague goals. Instead, he uses the acronym SMART for developing goals. That is to say, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Another key part of that plan is to understand what it is you are actually selling. For example, an expensive fountain pen does not compete with a cheap ballpoint pen. Instead, it competes with other expensive gifts that say: “Congratulations” or “Well done!” Always keep in mind that people seek benefits, not features.
In the latter part of the book, Maslen goes into more details about the actual process of putting ideas into words and sentences and laying them out in such a way as to attract a reader. Even the punctuation can make a difference between a good and a great piece of copy. Finally, Maslen has some advice for a copywriter. Not surprisingly, he believes that one must be a great reader in order to become a great writer, which explains his numerous references to prominent authors. Ironically, Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler assembled the Great Books of the Western World to help businessmen fill the gaps in their education. Better copywriting was probably not one of their objectives, but imagine what the collection have looked like if they had left the campus of the University of Chicago and consulted with the nearby Leo Burnett Agency.
After finishing this book, I wondered if the state of advertising really is that bad, and if so, why? The answer to the first question appears to be: “Yes.” Maslen points out that millions of words and images are spewed out each day through a variety of media without a significant return on investment. As to the second question, the author lays the blame on the people who are putting out all those words without adhering to some basic principles, most of which were known to David Ogilvy, whom the author greatly admires. He might also have mentioned Rosser Reeves, George Gribbin, Jerry Della Femina and other American advertising legends as well, but you get the point. Although technology has changed since the days of The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, basic principles of communications and human nature have not.
As an educator, I feel obligated to ask myself if we in the profession should also share some of the blame for the dismal state of advertising. Are we putting too much emphasis on models and theory and using textbooks that resemble encyclopedias as opposed to having out students try to come up with ideas and putting them down on paper? Do we really need to insist that our students adhere to APA or MLA standards when they submit a term paper? Will term papers really help a student become a better copywriter? Maslen reminds us that the rules of grammar that we learned at school (e.g., never split an infinitive) are merely conventions and should never be allowed to inhibit us from conveying an idea to a reader. For example, the phrase: “To boldly go where no man has gone before” may not be proper English as well as politically incorrect, but it has enabled the USS Enterprise to sail for almost 40 years! While we are assigning blame, we might also ask if the advertising agencies and their clients are also to blame for a lack of creativity that produces boring ads or trying to break through the clutter with too much creativity, which, in turn, produces incomprehensible ads. If the state of advertising is as bad as Maslen claims it is then it might be more than just a case of bad writing.