It's almost two decades since the self-appointed gurus of advertising proclaimed that long copy was finished. "Nobody reads copy anymore," they announced. "We live in a visual-obsessed society in which people's attention span is measured in milliseconds." Inevitably, and sadly, the industry's impressionable young creative teams heeded this diktat sent down from on high. Long copy had been given a death sentence.
Surveying the advertising landscape today, I admit that the people who say long copy is dead and buried are half-right. Much of it is buried, although it's definitely not dead. It's actually buried up to 220ft underground, facing the capital's Tube platforms.
Fortunately, not everyone was taken in by the trendy talk about the fast-moving, information overloaded world we inhabit, the world in which advertisers have just a split second to get their message across. The world in which image is everything and words are nothing.
The more enlightened agencies and clients realise that it's a different world underground. Forget split seconds, advertisers have around three minutes to attract, engage and seduce their audience. This "dwell time" (the average gap between Tube trains) offers an opportunity to attract attention; capture the imagination; and develop an unassailable case in favour of a commercial or charitable cause. Research has also shown that long dwell environments generate 4x greater message take-out, which, in turn, is proven to improve brand preference and choice.
As Chris O'Shea, a contributor to D&AD's classic The Copy Book, comments: "Holding someone's attention for three minutes has to be better than whizzing through six sales points in 30 seconds. It allows me to build, layer by layer, a well-reasoned argument that hopefully leads the reader to the inescapable conclusion that the product I'm telling him or her about is better than anyone else's."
These days, more and more writers are accepting this three-minute challenge. Using 16- or 48-sheet cross-track posters, they're treating the well-educated, upmarket Tube travelling audience with respect, not as illiterate dunces who only respond to an eye-catching image.
Some of the more recent advocates of the genre include advertisers such as Wardrobe, various mass-market products and, interestingly, a long copy poster for Audi. Interesting, because its agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is headed by a leader of the "kill copy" brigade who said, some years ago: "Communication through the written word is being replaced with communication through images." The ever-wise Sir John Hegarty obviously accepts that rules are made to be broken.
Sadly, not all advertisers are alive to the opportunities down on the Tube. "There's not enough to say about my product," they moan, admitting defeat before they write the brief. Sorry, but this is a cop-out. I believe that any advertiser who can't make a coherent three-minute pitch for his or her product doesn't deserve to survive in marketing.
If the creative team can create an engaging, immersive message, people will read it. As Adrian Holmes writes in The Copy Book: "Any copywriter has to strike a deal with the reader. And as far as the reader is concerned, the deal is this. I'll keep reading for as long as you keep me interested." Readers are interested. It's a fact that 87 per cent of commuters welcome Tube advertising.
And who can blame them? Let's face it, the alternatives are either staring at the tracks trying to spot those little furry mice, establishing eye contact with your fellow travellers (not recommended) or reading the warning to stand behind the yellow line.
The truth is that people read more copy now than ever. If they didn't, the Internet wouldn't work. In fact, judging by the amount of time buyers spend researching online before making any sort of purchase decision, the old adage that "The more you tell, the more you sell" has never been more accurate.
Although long copy's in robust health underground, a well-timed booster injection will do no harm. So, to encourage the new David Abbotts and Tony Brignulls, we're launching the London Long Copy Challenge.
Open to all advertising creatives, the challenge is to write a long-copy cross-track poster targeting Londoners. Come first in your category, and you'll win a £125,000 campaign for your client and £1,000 worth of London shopping vouchers for yourself.
At the same time, you'll be proving that long copy is not six feet under. It's buried considerably deeper than that.