Martin over at The modern word has an interesting post comparing copywriting to poetry.
It's not the first time the comparison has suggested itself to me. In addition to sitting in a candle-lit bedroom listening to The Doors and vomiting forth the usual teen dross, I was, a few years back accepted into an Elite And Serious Literary Course designed to create the Challenging Young Authors of Tomorrow (caps intentional, and everso self-congratulatory. Interestingly, of the twelve of us who made it in, at least four are now in advertising, and two are lawyers. Sad really.)
So for a time I took writing poetry quite seriously (which is not to say I was particularly good at it), and the similarities in the process are quite striking. Few other writers I know will worry over their sentences, their word-choice, their cadences quite as much as poets and copywriters. Few will edit so vigorously.
And a good piece of copy, like a good poem, is the singleminded exposition of a solitary idea.
Why, then, are the outcomes are so different? Copywriting generally ranks as amongst the least engaging and least readable of all genres of text. Here's my take on the reasons:
1. Adjectives - Poets hate 'em, we love 'em (or rather our clients do - "how are they gonna know it's fantastic unless we tell 'em 'fantastic holiday to be won?'"). They use them grudgingly, if at all. When they do they are almost always used in surprising ways, given fresh meaning by their context. Which brings me to my next point...
2. Novel language - In poetry, language generally calls attention to itself. It's hyper aware of the gap between the language and the thought, between the thought and the reality. It's where displays of lingustic firepower reach their most virtuousic.
Most of the time copywriting aims to be the opposite - prose laid flat on the thought and rendered entirely transparent, so that, ideally, you are not even aware of the act of reading. This aesthetic has evolved in deference to...
...3. The audience - I know this is obvious, but poetry speaks to an engaged audience, reading for the sake of reading. If that audience doesn't get it, it doesn't necessarily mean the poetry hasn't done its job; it could just as easily be the audience who's not up to scratch. Copy, at best, speaks to an audience hungry for the information it contains, at worst to one barely interested. And if they don't "get it", it's your fault
4. Open texture - Most modern poetry acknowledges the instability of language. It's knowingly polysemic, inviting you to bring your own experience and own interpretation to the text. We, on the other hand, often labour to shut down alternative readings of our text. Ambiguity is our enemy. (We could learn something from the poets here. Their view of how language works is much more accurate, and working with that could allow us to craft much more resonant copy)
5. Agenda - We have one, most of the time they don't. That's always going to put a reader's critical barricades up, and we'd be fools if we didn't fortify our prose to try and overcome them.