PERSPECTIVE: The power of words could help to revive the copywriter's art

Sitting in the boardroom at the Volkswagen US headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, senior executives were under pressure. It was the late 50s and they were about to launch the Beetle into the most competitive marketplace in the world. No doubt about it, this motor was small, it was ugly, and - with the Second World War still fresh in the mind - it was German. In a country where big and beautiful are stamped in the DNA right alongside patriotism, there was a problem here.

The advertising brief for the Beetle that soon after hit the desks at Doyle Dane Bernbach on Madison Avenue demanded alchemy. Instead, Bill Bernbach chose honesty. The result was a seminal print campaign that changed the course of advertising - and advertising courses. And the Beetle became the first successful car import in America.

But long-copy writers in the Bernbach mould are a dying breed, Robin Wight says (see page 22). Look at the winners of last year's Campaign Press Awards ... there was hardly a copy line between them. The same will probably be true for this year's winners (unveiled on 26 March, book your seat at the Grosvenor now). The question Wight asks is: "Should we care?".

He believes we should.

But back in Bernbach's day (and David Abbott's, come to that) commercial life was simpler. Now we're head-butting well over a thousand commercial messages a day and we're better than ever at filtering them out. So winning even a second or two of thought time is a tough task for an ad. And newspapers and magazines are fatter, there are more of them, and to get noticed among the increased display pages, the advertorials, the sponsored supplements, the inserts, tip-ons and cover-wraps, means the ads themselves have to sweat like never before.

Little wonder that Bernbach's sons have stripped out the words altogether: snare them with a strong visual, don't demand too much of their time, hit hard and quick and then get out. So it's hard to tell a press ad from a poster ad these days; forget that magical reader/read relationship, we're all just passing by, like the car on the highway catching a brief glimpse of the billboard through the rain-streaked windscreen.

But is the demise of long-copy press ads inevitable? I don't think so. As a nation, we're reading more than ever; there are at least 9,000 magazines in the UK, 35 per cent up on a decade ago, and e-mail and text have revived written communication. And, unlike most other mass media, the beauty of the press medium is that the reader is in control of how they absorb the ad. Readers can choose to spend five minutes reading the advertising copy, if they care to. Perhaps today we simply don't have enough time to care. But trying to cut through, to make us care, well isn't that what advertising is supposed to be about, after all?

- Caroline Marshall is on maternity leave.

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