Long copy is not dead: the evolution of copywriting since 1900

Long copy advertising

What do this blog entry and an Egyptian hieroglyph have in common? Lots of things and nothing, all at once. Well, that’s what several advertisers would tell you. According to many, advertising copy dates back to 200 B.C., back when trusted scholars carved words in stone. However, although advertising has existed for ages, it’s in the 20th century that it really got refined. How did it evolve through time and what room is left in it for ad copy, in an era where the reader’s attention span is smaller than that of a goldfish? In an effort to better understand the past to help us build the future, here is a brief history of advertising copy, from the last century to ours.

Sell, Sell, Sell

During a time when newspaper are the most prevalent form of mass media, advertising copywriters resemble salespeople who put down on paper all the advantages and qualities a product has, albeit not always truthfully. This is before marketing becomes a science, and thus before the consumer-centric approach is introduced. Copywriters get fancy and poetic; they cover their writings with adjectives, close their eyes and cross their fingers.

In 1923, the idea according to which advertising can be considered a science gains momentum, mainly following the publishing of Claude C. Hopkins’s Scientific Advertising. “Advertising, once a gamble, has thus become, under able direction, one of the safest business ventures.” Hopkins is one of the first advertisers to grasp that advertising can be measured and perfected.

Concept Is King

We have to wait three whole decades before advertising truly gets refined execution-wise. In 1950, the now famous unique selling proposition (USP) is introduced by Rosser Reeves. Advertising copywriters stop simply enumerating attributes in one long blurb covering the whole page. They understand that it might be a good idea to bank on only one of the product’s or service’s merits to strike consumers’ imagination.

Slowly but surely, the practice is evolving. In 1960, Doyle Dane Bernbach introduces an idea: the binary team, a duo composed of a copywriter and an art director. Advertising copy’s bottom line isn’t merely to sell anymore; it must convey an idea, a mood, provoke feelings and inspire values, with the fewest words possible. For many, those were the days. Copywriters are viewed as kings, innovators, proper creatives.

Long Live Strategy

Starting in 1970, there is a worldwide devaluation of wealth indicators and advertising is one of the first fields to suffer from it. Incidentally, this time is also marked by the rise of mass media and the quick proliferation of market research. At that point, what marketers want is results. Advertising must address a target audience, without forgetting to take into account its precise sociocultural setting. That’s when branding really takes off and becomes the next big thing, according to the Content Marketing Institute. The reign of copywriters draws to an end. “Advertising is entering an era where strategy is king,” say Al Ries and Jack Trout, authors of Positioning.

The birth of mainstream Internet can be traced back to around 1993. Up until the beginning of the 2000s, advertising keeps evolving and the amount of information sources is growing steadily. The importance of catching the user’s interest in a fraction of a second slowly becomes one of advertising’s main focuses. In that context, advertising copy takes a backseat. The trends of the day favour vivid and provocative design punctuated with a few evocative words:

  • Just do it (Nike)
  • Think different (Apple)
  • We try harder (Avis)

Pardon the interruption, but…

The famed advertiser Howard Gossage used to say, “People don’t read ads, they read things that interest them.” Intrinsically, advertising has always had an intrusive character and a very frustrating tendency to interrupt people. Some might say it’s never been very polite. Over time, readers, TV viewers, listeners and Internet users become somewhat immune to ads’ inconvenient traits. Turning the page, changing the channel, clicking “X” or “skip”, all these bypassing strategies become more and more refined. At a time when everything migrates towards the Web and when 27% of Internet users are equipped with an ad blocker, something clearly has to be done.

The Content Era

What if commercial copy could be interesting enough to be enjoyed as a normal, pleasant read? That’s the idea behind content marketing. Incidentally, even if this form of marketing has exploded lately, it wasn’t born yesterday: the first ever Michelin Guide was published in 1900 and the first Jell-O recipe book, in 1904. Dear Howard Gossage, people do read advertising copy, as long as it’s interesting. It’s now our mission to find the right angle to make it so.

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