Thursday, February 3, 2011

Truth in Advertising

I found a journal entry that my son wrote upon the eve of his seventh birthday:

"I can't wate for my party at Chuk E. Chese where a kid can be a kid."

He is one to spout advertising taglines regularly. For a while when those Cymbalta commercials were running, he would ask me, "Mama, are you sad? Cymbalta can help." And then he'd make these big, concerned moon eyes at me.

It was disturbing. But also oddly satisfying. I'm a copywriter so I can't help but admire when words get caught in a consumer's brain and repeated to others. I know it's wrong, because we're talking about my innocent child, but really, all you consumers are my innocent children and I want you swallowing up my copy whole and without censure. And I wouldn't mind if you walked around repeating it as gospel.

Some people say advertisers are liars. They say the same thing about lawyers and I happen to be married to a lawyer. Neither one of us is a liar. I believe what I write. And my husband would be the first to tell you that if you've hired a lawyer who lies, you're going down. If you lie in court and the judge finds out, it's over. And chances are the judge is going to find out, because the lawyer on the other side is doing everything he can to prove you wrong.

I don't know how a copywriter can be a liar and be any good. Some people say fiction is a lie, but I say fiction is a lie you believe. You believe the story while you're writing it. You are so caught up in the dream of it that it is real, it is truth while you're in it. If it weren't, the story wouldn't be any good.

The same goes for copywriting. I have to believe in my product in order to write about it. I get caught up in whatever I'm working on and immerse myself in it. I become its biggest fan. I believe my own hype. I have to.

Now have I ever been asked to write about something I didn't believe in?


Did I write about it?


Because I knew it wouldn't be any good. Most copywriters don't have the luxury of choosing what they write about, true. But so long as it doesn't go against your religious beliefs or core values, chances are you can find something positive and truthful to say. I couldn't sign up for the Pro Death Penalty cause or the Buddhism Is Evil campaign. But I have sold cars and some people might think cars are evil. They consume fossil fuels and people do die in accidents. I'm from Detroit though, and loving cars is in my blood. My geography has made me look longingly at wheels and steel. What can I say? I think consuming some fossil fuel is necessary and people die sitting in chairs.

I've written about grocery stores and golf balls, and I've sold coffee. I've sold chocolate. I've sold sex toys. And I believed in each one as I wrote about it. I believed it was the best damn grocery store, the most athletic golf ball, the most delicious coffee, the smoothest chocolate. I'll leave the sex toys to your imagination.

The point is, I believed. If the person behind the tagline believes it, chances are it'll ring true to you. And if you happen to be seven, it'll be oft-repeated gospel.


  1. I think Don Draper would hump you after reading this post.

  2. I love your son! "Cymbalta can help." lol

  3. Love, love, love this post.

    And I mean that.

    I'll even mean it when I go away from your site.

    And, what's more, I'll still respect you in the morning.

    I'm married to a man who writes, plays, and produces music for advertising. (Lots of times he ends up doing your job: writing copy, too.) For sure, that wasn't exactly the dream when he started out playing guitar.

    But, baby, he sells it now, and he's GREAT at what he does.

    Keep on writing, Babe! I'm a new fan!

  4. Considering some of the ads out there and the ad copy- it makes me wonder what people were/are thinking when they come up with this stuff?

    I am glad to hear that some of you stick to your guns and your beliefs in life. Which I why I gifted you with an award on my blog. I have recently begun reading your blog and I am a fan.

  5. @Eva Gallant: He is a character.

    @Susan in the boonies: Thanks for stopping by and reading. Glad to hear your husband is able to make a living doing something creative!

    @Cut-n-Jump: Well the final product you see is usually the result of many, many hands. Account folks make their suggestions, the client makes their changes, then the legal department weighs in and tells you that you can't say that and then you start all over again. Ha. Thanks for stopping by and I'll be sure and check out your blog now. Thanks!

  6. It's so funny how advertising is really sort of pop culture - the taglines of the 70s and 80s will forever represent some aspect of our childhood. I'm sure Cracky will think the same thing about the stuff he hears.

    I think it would be virtually impossible to try to sell (i.e. write about) something you didn't believe in. I know I couldn't do it. And I'm totally with you on the copywriting thing - I become a fan of whatever I'm selling. I've been known to even verbally promote it to people in my life. That said, I did cringe when I saw the words "from awareness to consideration" on your post! We've been a little too influenced by the "purchase funnel" over here in the world of search marketing...

  7. You are, indeed, a positive person. So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Were you a green copywriter full of ideals or did work rebuild your brain into becoming the bright side of life person you are today (perhaps the ultimate reward of having a creative job)? No matter the answer, you are the sugar in my tea. Great post!

    Also, EmKDee read my mind...

  8. alrighty then. (i can't believe i just quoted trey from satc)

    i'm from the government - we're here to help you. (i have to believe that too)

  9. Oink: Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

    Mel Heth: I saw another post on that blog that read, "Fuck yeah I'll join the conversation!" and had the same reaction. LOLZ.

    Christina's World: Nature vs. nuture? I don't know if I'm a positive person so much as a survivor. I just found being positive necessary to my survival. So I guess being a survivor in life came first, and it followed into my work.

    Char: I don't ascribe diabolical plans to institutions so I'm going to agree with you.

  10. Hi Mandy,
    Thank you.
    You and your words
    are like sunshine.

  11. @Oink: Let your fingers do the walking.

  12. I think everybody should get to work in a place that mirrors their personal values as much as possible. I've turned down business because I knew the client wouldn't fit and/or I didn't believe in the products. It's nice not to have to sell out. As we try to get people to buy stuff they may not want or need. :)

  13. But you'd be a fool not to buy what I'm selling!

  14. You make the world beautiful and desirable (for only 3 easy payments of $9.99)!

    I've often pondered the line between advertisement whoring and a real need to get information out about a worthy item. I can see you being Good Copywriter of the East.

  15. Nice post.

    Advertising isn't exactly a lie, but it isn't exactly the truth. either.

    It's the art of creating want; where what isn't said is as important as what is.

  16. I think it's true that you can only write what you really believe.

    Love your son. :-)


  17. "If the person behind the tagline believes it, chances are it'll ring true to you."

    However, does that also imply that just because you believe in something, it might not always be necessarily the truth?

    Nice post Mandy

  18. Brilliant line " I believe in it while I'm writing it".

    There's a truthful person.
    Would you say that copywriters never bend the truth? Just a tiny bit?

    You've sold me your blog. But I will take everything with a pinch of salt.

  19. I think that every profession has its good and bad apples. Lawyers and advertisers seem to get a bit harsher treatment than most professions. Ethics questions come up everywhere, doesn't mean there aren't honest people out there doing good work.

  20. Married to a lawyer? That explains everything.

  21. Sounds very close to the fabled Costanza axiom on Seinfeld: "It's not a lie, if you believe it."

  22. See Kate Run: Yes. You can't miss this low LOW price. Offer ends February 15, 2011. No purchase necessary.

    La Piazza: A buddhist in the desire business.

    Pearl: Thanks! Me too.

    The Last Santa: I believe a lot of things other people believe are not the truth.

    Friko: I have an entire legal department that will not allow me to bend the truth. Hell, sometimes I'm told, "Can you verify that this is truly 'Awesome?'"

    Christopher: Solid point. Can't judge the whole barrel by your experience with one apple, or a friend's experience with one apple 20 years ago.

    Obox: It does?

  23. What you didn't say is if you eat the pizza at Chuk E. Chese.

  24. How awesome would it be if Windex hired you?!!

  25. Late to the party 'cause I was out buying shit I don't want...but dammit, I NEED it.

    And as long as he sticks to Cymbalta and avoids Cialis. (wtf is with the two bathtubs?? a recipe for a bad sprain, that)

  26. There's a lot of power in finding the one truest thing you can say about a product, and writing about that. I've had to write for things I don't fully support, but there's always something true—some person or group that benefits, or some product characteristic that's good and true. One of those old ad guys (maybe Don Draper) said copywriting is "the truth, well told" but I think we're beyond that. People see straight through BS. You're rght, Mandy, to be a good copywriter, you have to be true.

  27. Just found your blog from Yo Mama's Blog, very well written and entertaining. You have some very wise -- and entertaining -- insights. Great post!

  28. this is hilarious. my five-year old regularly quotes commercials (not b/c he is ever allowed to watch tv of course). he told me the other day i was an "award winning mom for a consecutive 19 years". i'm sure this was from a commercial. especially since i've only been a mom five years. and not one award to my name. yet.