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The Death Of A Copywriter?

Posted on October 18, 2007 and read 4,562 times

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Self-realization

This summer, I was lucky enough to do a stint in Japan for a few weeks as an English copywriter. While there, the first thing I noticed was how confusing some of the Japanese copy-based ads were. Being (more or less) fluent in Japanese, I thought maybe I was just a little ‘rusty’ and went on with my stay. Either way, it was a great experience and hope to do it again. More on this later.

Now I’m back in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on home turf, and was able to secure a full-time copywriting position.

As I went about my career, I began to notice something. Our audience in Toronto and Vancouver seem to respond better to visually driven ads than copy driven ads (for the same client). Talk about a big blow to my self-esteem. Is my copywriting really that bad?

So naturally, being scared for my job, I decided to look into this further. What causes people to respond to visual ads better than copy ads in Vancouver, Toronto, and some other major cities?

Surprisingly, it was my mom that gave me the answer by accident.

Eureka!

One weekend, I was visiting my parents when my mom stumbled upon my portfolio. As she was looking through it, she pointed out the ones she liked versus the ones she didn’t like. Sure enough, she liked the visual ones over the copy based ones. So I asked her what exactly turned her off about the copy based ones. At first she said she didn’t understand them. Wonderful, even my mom thinks my copywriting stinks! But then she went further to ask me to translate the copy into Japanese.

(The ad was for a chicken pox vaccine for kids and used a literary device in the headline (repetition to be exact). It read, “Vacation days should be vacation days,” with a picture of a sick child in bed.)

So instead of translating it directly, I gave her the ‘dumbed down’ headline (no offense mom). “If your kids get the shot, they won’t get chicken pox, thus there’s no need to use your vacation days to take care of your kids.” When I gave her this (very long) headline, right away she said, “Ohhh, how nice!” Thanks mom!

This is where I had my moment of enlightenment. First off, my parents being ‘New Canadians’ only learned formal English back in Japan before they came to Canada. Secondly, because they only learned formal English, they have no concept of ‘figures of speech’ or ‘literary devices’ like repetitions, puns, or parallelism. In short, it’s one thing to be fluent in a language, but another to understand all ‘figures of speech’ or ‘literary devices’.

Remember my trip to Japan? It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t understand the Japanese literary devices! I had accidentally put myself in the shoes of a New Canadian, only I was in Japan struggling with their ads! No wonder I liked the visually driven ads better

So you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. Well like my parents, big cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York, L.A., are full of ‘New Canadians/Americans’. Thus, literary devices in ads will have minimal effect on these people even if they have a good command of the English language. People may have trouble ‘reading’ the benefit, but will always have an easier time ‘seeing’ the benefit.

The death of a copywriter?

So I think we can all agree that a picture is worth a thousand words (regardless of language). In a highly diverse society, it seems that visually driven ads just make sense (no pun intended). It allows you to resonate with your whole target regardless of a person’s English abilities.

So what does this mean for the copywriter? Is this the end? Hardly. There are many other things copywriters do than write headlines. I would even argue copywriters are the driving force behind many campaigns (but that’s for another day). Please see Suzanne Pope’s article on copywriting (she was my copywriting professor).

The main point is, for ads shown in a multicultural society like Toronto, you may get better ‘bang for your buck’ with a visually driven ad (if you have the choice). But it all depends on the product/service/client too. All in all, you really have to ‘know’ your audience.

Just so you know I just want to make it clear that this is a FYI article, which as no scientific merit (laugh!). I do not claim to be a professional in the advertising field (yet). I merely wanted to share my thought and experiences with everyone so you can go out and test your own theories. Let me know how it goes! Long live Copywriters!


Rainer Takahashi
Copywriter
Push Advertising Incorporated





  • http://www.leslieforman.com Leslie Forman

    I am a new copywriter, writing in English in Beijing, for people all over the world, and this advice really resonates with me. My Chinese colleagues translate everything I do into Chinese (both in their heads and out loud) and I also translate things into Spanish and Portuguese to make sure it makes sense when I am putting myself into those frames of mind too.

    Thanks for this reminder that simplicity can trump style when trying to communcate across cultures.


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