Blinking Advertising

I've just finished reading a book called Blink by the brilliant Malcolm Gladwell and I was thinking of how what he says could be useful or relevant to advertising. Basically, Blink is about those moments when you see something and your brain works out, in a split second, whether you like it or hate, if it's real or fake, if you should shoot or hold your fire, if it's a good ad or bad ad. That split second is called a 'blink'.

To a certain extent we are born with the skills to make decisions in an instant without even thinking about it (or without knowing we have thought about it). But Gladwell says we can train our brain to control these 'blinks', making our initial judgment more accurate, or being able to assess whether our initial judgment is an accurate one.

The best way to get better at this is to be experienced and knowledgeable in the subject of the decision. So for advertising that would be something we do every day. We come up with an idea, we hear our partners idea, and we can usually tell instantly if that idea is good, bad or great. It's often said that the hardest part of being a creative is the ability to know when you have a truly great idea. As a junior I find this difficult. My creative director doesn't. And I'm sure the senior teams are good at it too.

Blink doesn't just stop with your own work. When you see an ad that makes you stop and fills you with envy – that's when your mind instantly knows the ad is brilliant. For me, that recently happened when I saw this:

And also, many years ago, the Volkswagen psychiatrist ad with the mechanic under the chaise longue (couldn't find an image). A classic that I can only dream of matching.

I also think this pre-programmed knowledge and experience comes into use when judging awards. That's why they choose creative directors to be judges and not young hot shots. They have the ability to look at an ad and 'blink' – they know if it's worthy of an award. They see thousands of entries each day, so this instant decision making is very handy.

This skill can again be used for book crits. Most people don't have time to sit with teams for hours, so to a certain degree they have to use the part of the brain that makes instant decisions. When you flip through a portfolio, as soon as the page turns you know whether the ad is great or not. And it can save the critics a lot of time.

Maybe this answers why some creatives are better than others. Or why some creative directors are more successful than others. Or maybe, just maybe, I've managed to make advertising a whole lot more serious and boring! But what we can take away from Blink, in terms of advertising, is that the more you know about the subject the better you will be at judging work in a very short space of time, whether that's yours or someone elses.

Negative Advertising

Negativity in advertising doesn't work. That's the general view in advertising. At least when it comes to criticising your rivals. I agree this makes you look weak and desperate but are there times when negative advertising can make you look positive?

A great example to start this debate was the elections in America this year. I must confess, I'm no expert on the election and the day-to-day happenings, but the overall feeling I got from the debates I saw was that McCain always pointed out faults with Obama (most of them untrue) and Obama never retaliated. Who came out looking more composed, intelligent and president-like? Obama of course! But he wasn't all about compliments himself.

Check out this ad for McCain's campaign. I believe this was a killer blow to McCain's already faltering attempt at presidency, and do you know why? You guessed it. Negativity.

But then we see Obama's counter to McCain's bullshit.

He's negative towards McCain but it's so cleverly done that he still seems to come off on a positive note. But then, maybe that's because he's exposing a lie.

Customers want success, sunshine and happiness. Ads should point them in the direction of these things – not the opposite. I don't want to know what your competitor can't do for me. I want to know what YOU CAN do for me. Maybe the only time this doesn't happen, and negative methods are used, is when a product can't do anything better or different; when a USP is impossible to find. McCain was just another Bush – Obama was black and ran his campaign on change. Is that why McCain resorted to negativity?

Puccino's satisfies my creative palate

I was out and about with my parents this weekend, helping them buy a new computer. It was no easy task. My dad pretending he knew what he was talking about and my mum not having a clue, but getting angrier by the second at my dad for making words up like wiggahertz.

Anyway, the highlight of the day (apart from the sales assistant's face when my dad said wiggahertz) was the brief lunch we had in between shops.

My mum recommended a cafe that she'd visited before, claiming it was an independent, family run joint with a really friendly feel to it. But how wrong she was. It's true a family ran it. That was obvious by the great service and the suspiciously similar looking brother/sister waiter combo. But it wasn't independent. It was Puccino's - the UK's largest coffee bar franchise.

For my mum, and I suspect thousands of others around the UK, to think it was independent is a beautiful thing for franchise companies like Puccino's. It gives them an edge over corporate rivals like Starbucks, and could be part of the reason for their diminishing sales.

I believe this independent feel and family run atmosphere is created somewhat by the brilliant branding Puccino cafes have created. You can see from the images below that they're all about fun. They are not pretentious. They don't try too hard. And the product is actually good. The kind of brand I like, and would love to write for.

If you can't see the bottom image, the sign reads "Shut Happens".

A.I.D.A. - E.A.S.Y. to remember. Hard to execute.

Here's a simple way to remember a basic way of constructing copy, which I find especially useful for DM. Don't get restricted by it, however. It's just guidelines for you to mess around with and create some 'killer' copy:

A - Attention

I - Interest

D - Desire

A - Action


The first thing your ad should do is grab attention. That's its job (well its first one at least).

The headline is key to grabbing attention. One way you could do this is through surprise. Tell the customer something they didn't know. Show them something that would save them money. Or even put their name in the headline. Here's an example of a classic ad headline:

Maybe this sort of headline wouldn't work today, I'm not sure. But it's certainly intriguing and much more interesting than writing, "Learn to play the piano and impress your friends".

The main point here, though, is to make sure that when the customer looks at your ad or picks up their letter on their doormat, they see something that catches their eye.


Once you have their attention, you have the equally hard task of keeping them interested.

The customer hasn't got time to read your ad, or at least they won't spend time reading it. So the one thing I would recommend to do is put the benefit up front. But before that, and here's where the interest comes in, you could tell them about their 'problems' that are related to your product. If it's in the headline, elaborate a little. Tell the customer what you can do for them and if they are in your target audience, they'll be interested.

Another way to keep interest might be by telling a story, or using interesting typography, or, god forbid, putting an image in there. Whatever you do, make it interesting!


Once you've got the interest of your audience, you'll need to create desire if you want to get results. Your customer can recognise that they have a need. Your job is to turn that need into a desire for your product.

A great way to do this is to show them
how their problems can be solved by having your product. You could demonstrate this with a case study from a 'real' customer, creating a sense of authenticity and trust.

Desire and Interest work together, so you'll need to do both these things in as little as one paragraph on occasions.


This is often where ads seem to fall on their face. They do a great job selling the product and creating a desire for the customer but fail to be clear and direct about how the customer should act.

If you're not up front about what you want the customer to do, they wont do it. Simple as that. Tell them "To receive these fantastic offers, call us today on 0800 800 852, or visit us at". It's amazing how many ads don't make this clear enough.

Writing for Digital Media

What is Digital Media??

Internet - Banners, microsites etc
Handsets - Text messages, Bluetooth communication
Interactive TV - Pressing the red button
Bluetooth Posters - e.g. at bus stops
TransVision Digital Screens - The one's you see in tube stations

Why is it different to traditional media?

The main thing that digital media and traditional media have in common is that words sell. The more words you can get away with the better (usually). But one difference you should always take into consideration is the fact that people read 25% slower online. This is an interesting fact, especially when some online ads are timed (banners). People tend to scan a lot more, so having the ability to be succinct, conversational and enthusiastic gives you more chance of success.

Ways to keep readers engaged

As I said before, be succinct, conversational and enthusiastic. You can do this by bending the rules of grammar if need be. Like starting sentences with and, but and because.

Also, try to keep your sentences short. And apply subheads when necessary to suit the style of the 'scanners' who will be reading your ad.

People love to know what you can give them, and the easiest way for you to do this is by using the words 'you' and 'your' loads. An example could be - 'A service to make your business more profitable'. If I had a business, I would certainly be intrigued.

One way to leave your readers uninterested is the use of puns. Avoid them like you would a naked Margaret Thatcher. Don't try to be clever (puns are not clever). The reader should digest your copy without even noticing. They shouldn't have to think too hard, because if they do, they won't.

You should be interesting, stylish and, the hardest of all, original. If you are writing for a client with guidelines, then being original is made even more difficult (but still possible). But if you find the freedom we all deserve in writing, then don' t be afraid to create your own tone of voice. I guess this is only possible when you write for a young company searching for the identity to make them a successful brand. A great example of this would be Innocent drinks. They created a fun, natural, feel-good tone to their brand, which has subsequently been a huge success.

A great example from Innocent of how creating a tone of voice
can help make a brand successful.

Much more to come on this subject...


To me, headlines are the most important part of a Direct Response/Mail ad. If the ad features a main visual then I guess that and the headline would share responsibility.

If we compare to a sales person, the headline could be seen as the moment they first make contact with a customer. The main difference is that a sales person cannot be ignored. They can be waved away, shouted at, or even worse, spend ages with someone they can never sell to. But they cannot be ignored.

An ad can be ignored. If the headline (or image, or both) is of no interest to the reader, then they'll throw the letter out, turn the page, or stare at something else while waiting for the bus. They'll never read the body copy, which is the same as a sales person never getting to their main selling points. Therefore, the headline needs to be honed to attract the target audience and the target audience only. Figure out why they would want your product and then tell them. Don't have a mysterious headline that you think is intriguing because, although that may attract loads more readers, it will not tell your target audience that you have what they want. Here's a quote for you:

"Headlines on ads are like headlines on news items. Nobody reads a whole newspaper"
Claude C. Hopkins

What I think he means is this; when you're on the bus/train/tube to work and you have the Metro in hand, flicking through the pages, what stories do you read? I know that when I read it I only scan the headlines until I find one that interests me. Then I read the full article. Customers will act in a similar way. Make your headlines the best they can possibly be.

Introduction to copy...

I truly believe that anyone can write good long copy. There's no need to have an extensive vocabulary or a degree in English. Simple words suffice. Simple words feel more natural to a customer.

The ability to write like Dickens is redundant in today's world of advertising. You should be more like The Sun than the The Daily Telegraph. There are times when 'proper' English is appropriate. Brands such as The Economist, perhaps, or a financial company like Delloite. But 99% of the time, customers will be more responsive to everyday, maybe even colloquial language.

Each brand will have a different language or a different tone of voice (I will talk more about this in a later post). Our job, as a copywriter, is to use that voice and choose the words that fit best with the brand and more importantly the customers. Communicate with customers as quickly and succinctly as possible and the results will look after themselves.

I should probably say that I work mainly on long copy for Direct Marketing (DM) and digital, but I have written across many different forms of advertising in my short time as a copywriter. But what I write about in this blog will usually refer to long copy in a DM format.

If you're just starting out as a copywriter I recommend going to a small agency that specialises in DM. This way you get to learn the rules passed down from generations of advertising greats. Then when a moment of genius hits you, you can break those rules and hopefully create some 'killer' copy.

Another tip if you're at university or in-between placements is getting some work as a salesman! This doesn't have to be a door to door nightmare but could simply be at your nearest mobile phone store or on a market stool selling fruit in Albert Square! I chose the mobile phone option while at university. I worked in a store where you get useful insights into the language ordinary people respond to, as well as learning creative ways to sell products. Basically, I learnt how to make a shit phone sound awesome! And this has been priceless in helping me develop quicker as a copywriter.