Claire Beale: Can adland answer the call for great writing?

By Claire Beale, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 22 March 2012 08:00AM

Back in the mid-60s, the publisher of Scientific American wanted to encourage big-spending airlines to advertise in his magazine. So he briefed Howard Gossage to come up with an ad campaign promoting how many of his readers were also frequent air travellers.

Claire Beale: Can adland answer the call for great writing?

Gossage took a typically atypical approach and came up with a press campaign that invited readers to enter a competition to design a paper aeroplane. There was a lot of copy in his ad. So much copy, in fact, that it wouldn't all fit on one page. So Gossage persuaded his client to buy space on the reverse of the ad, and the copy languorously continued over the page.

His client indulged him and bought the space for all those words. And readers of the ad indulged him by reading all those words; 11,000 people from 28 countries entered the competition. Meanwhile, American Airlines and Eastern Airlines called to book ads in Scientific American within hours of the ad appearing. Encouraged by the roaring PR that the ad attracted, a toy shop took up the idea and introduced a line of elaborate paper aeroplanes and the whole concept culminated in a book, The Great International Paper Airplane Book, which became a bestseller. A neat piece of integrated communications, as it turned out.

In many respects, the work of Gossage, celebrated in Steve Harrison's wonderful new book (page 10), leveraged a lot of the principles of dialogue and engagement that have come to define digital marketing. But his love of long copy, of the craft of the wordsmith, has less and less place in the digital marketing toolbox. As Paul Kitcatt points out on page 22, in a Facebook world, the art of the copywriter looks extremely vulnerable. Facebook's Premium ads bypass the advertising copywriter entirely, using content punters have posted to brands' Facebook pages instead.

I'm not sure many writers in ad agencies today could hold a reader's attention across two pages of copy, though perhaps that has as much to do with our dwindling attention spans as it does the decline of the writer's art. But if Russell Davies is right (page 20), the art of copywriting could be about to take an interesting turn. The proliferation of digital media might have reduced the opportunities for finely crafted copy, but it has increased the demand for more and more content. Davies reckons that, with craft skills in decline and so much digital media unable to support the cost of quality professional writers, the automation of written content production can only grow.

For people whose job it is to properly entertain in order to engage in order to sell, all of this throws up some interesting challenges. But surely there's real opportunity here too. In a sea of mediocre, computer-generated words, wonderful writing - lovingly created by a real, live person - may yet make a comeback. I wonder if there will be any real, live writers left in advertising by then, though.

claire.beale@haymarket.com

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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