Some years ago I taught Communications 201 at Boston University. It was a plum job, as adjunct jobs go, because our students longed to be in the business of writing. They understood, as many students of creative writing do not, that both art and audience mattered.
The adjuncts of 201 were poets, novelists, movie critics and the occasional journalist. We taught five genres: screenplay, memoir, feature story, editorial and the print ad.
The ad? I had always disdained copywriters as cheap shills. This era was pre-Mad Men. Compare:
I’m lovin’ it.
My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.*
Those sentences are not in the same universe. Mickey D’s I’m lovin’ it, takes you exactly nowhere. Aimee Bender’s My lover is experiencing reverse evolution, conjures. Who is this lover? Is the reverse evolution metaphorical? (As it turns out, yes and no. He devolves at the rate of about a million years a day. When the story opens, he is a sea turtle.)
I was tempted to rest my case. However, in the spirit of due diligence—and not wanting to be unmasked as a fraud by my smart, funny students—I set about educating myself on the rules of the genre.
Since the invention of the printing press, ads had specialized in hokum and bluster.
Or they were deadly dull. Like hammers to the head.
And they were often busy, crammed with images and text. And a girl. Always a girl.
The VW Beetle ad campaign of 1960 was a game-changer. And ahead of its time. If most car ads were akin to a Victorian parlor, exhaustively chronicling the size of the engine and the cabin, the VW ads had the extreme clarity of Mies van der Rohe buildings. Or a Raymond Carver sentence. Every element counted.
The knock on VWs was that in an era of jet-proportioned cars (and ad copy to match), the VW was, small. Read emasculated. So what did ad man William Bernbach do? He made a virtue of small. And he did it using the classic four-act structure.
Act I: The Problem
Think Small, reads the headline in a font stripped of little scrollys. It’s a full page ad, and Volkswagon paid full page ad rates, but the real estate is largely devoted not to car but white space, which, perversely, focuses your eye on the car.
The copy begins where the audience is—dismissive, a little bored but playful: Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty any more. A couple of dozen college kids don’t try to squeeze inside it. The guy at the gas station doesn’t ask where the gas goes. Nobody even stares at our shape.Typically, copywriters extolled the virtues of the product—an eye-rolling experience for any reader. The Beetle ad acknowledged the product’s clown factor. It aligned with the audience’s worldliness—nothing is all fabulous. Which built the narrator’s credibility.
Write to your audience’s intelligence.
Act II: Development
Then the copy makes a small turn: In fact, some people who drive our little flivver don’t even think 32 miles to the gallon is going any great guns. “Flivver” partakes of the dismissive, but it’s also so retro a word that it’s hip, and 32 miles to the gallon when most cars got half that, now “small” holds some appeal.
Once you have cut excess and aligned with the audience’s smarts and built credibility, now the reader happily goes for the, um, ride.
Act III: Turning Point
Here Bernbach makes the full turn. He goes for the kill. Or using 5 pints of oil instead of five quarts.Or never needing anti-freeze. The copy goes on in this vein, enumerating all the ways “small” saves you money.
Deliver the story. Nothing more, nothing less.
Act IV: Denouement
And for the denouement: Think it over, which circles neatly back to the headline, Think small. “Small,” in a few short lines, has gone from a term of derision to a hallmark of smart.
Deliver the payoff.
In the context of Mad Men, the VW ad doesn’t look so radical. That’s because fictional head creative Don Draper’s campaigns have the benefit of being invented 45 years after “Think Small.” Draper channels Bernbach with his Hilton Hotel campaign. To convey the brand as American comfort in the most foreign of worlds Draper uses 15 words: “How do you say hamburger in Farsi? ‘Hilton.’ Hilton–it’s the same in every language.” (Writers, for a little masochistic fun, watch the creatives in agony as Don discards draft after draft, before he arrives at the “It’s the same in every language” campaign–only to have client Connie Hilton shoot it down. Mad Men, Episode 309.)
I confess that when I revise my work, I hold lots of writers in my head as gold standards—including Bernbach and Draper. I aim to apply the same rigor to every element of the story—title, voice, character, setting, scene, sub-plot, word-choice—so that everything services the protagonist’s quest.
This discipline can be taken to an extreme. Currently, some of the most effective ads are all but devoid of words.
Penguin’s 2013 audiobook ad uses just one.
If one read only advertisements, one could despair over the fate of the written language.
But that’s why I read fiction.
*”The Rememberer” from Aimee Bender’s The Girl with the Flammable Skirt.