When someone hears I recently completed a Ph.D. program in English with a focus in creative writing (poetry), I know what the next question will be: “So, are you going to teach?”
No, I’m not. Hear me out.
I’m not going to teach because I already have a job I love where I get to be creative and write for a living. Last year, while working as a freelance proofreader for an advertising agency, I discovered that lots of talented writers worked there. As the proofer, I got to see tons of different projects they worked on, from print advertisements to video scripts to website copy. Until I saw advertising copy writing in action, I never considered the advertising industry as a place I could land. I stumbled upon this field, but I found a place I could flex my creative muscles from nine to five and still have time and energy to write poetry in my off time. Plus, I never have to grade papers. I hate grading papers.
While writing for advertising and writing poetry certainly require different approaches, the two disciplines actually have much more in common than I ever thought they would.
You have to get the audience’s attention. Right away.
In my experience reading for and/or editing several literary journals, I found that the first three to five lines of a poem were particularly crucial. When you’ve got a stack of hundreds of submissions to go through, you’re looking to be blown away at the beginning of a poem—something that makes you stop and say, “Wow, this poem is up to something.” If an editor isn’t on board with the poem from the opening lines, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to get them to come along for the ride later in the poem.
Poet Alexis Rhone Fancher worked in advertising for several years as a copywriter and a sales executive. “The headline, like the poem’s title, has to draw you in,” Fancher said. “Writing ad copy taught me to be succinct, economical with words, and to focus on impact—the poem that moves you, the ad you can’t get out of your head.”
In advertising, this initial hook is sometimes called the “three-second get.” Stephanie Naman, Vice President/Creative Director at Luckie & Company and founder of the Auntie Venom blog, finds that there is a “general resistance to both advertising and poetry,” but for different reasons. While poetry can be perceived as “dense and impenetrable,” she says, audiences can interpret ads as “talking down to them,” which compounds the need to get the audience’s attention immediately. Therefore, one of a copywriter’s (and also a poet’s) greatest challenges is “finding ways to win over an inherently resistant audience,” Naman said.
Every word matters.
Part of what makes poetry so special is the careful consideration given to each word and its placement in a line. And the line itself, of course. All of this is also true of advertising copy. Space is limited, and you’ve got a message to convey. Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described poetry as “the best words in their best order.” Ad copy is not that different in this respect.
Ad copy often comes with limitations that add an extra layer of difficulty in making every word count. Poet and copywriter Ali O’Reilly said, “A lot of my early copywriting was digital. Tweets, Instagram captions, banner ads. There’s a fine art to crafting something on-brand and compelling in 140 characters. Oftentimes you’d have clients be like ‘this post needs to A.) make people’s mouths water through their eyeballs, B.) mention the name of the New Product ‘NewTotallyDeliciousProduct,’ C.) Link to the store locator, and D.) Use our hashtag #SomethingThatShouldntBeAHashtag.”
As the poem has a speaker, the ad has a voice.
Brands have identities and personas that the writer must inhabit when crafting copy. Think persona poems.
Poet Sandra Beasley worked with Hack|Stone Film Group in Baltimore to create a video for the Johns Hopkins University Nursing Program. “I knew the filmmakers wanted to reflect the JHU Nursing program’s inclusivity, which meant casting multiple voices. So, in a craft sense, I had to plan for polyphony all along,” Beasley said. “My own work, as a poet, finds a lot of pleasure in inhabiting persona. Scripting multiple speakers let me tell stories about the different types of nursing.”
The final product with Beasley’s script sounds like a poem, and she approached the script with that mindset. “The free verse version I drafted initially was flat and overcrowded with ideas. Using rhyme fostered cohesion between different voices…There’s a reason so many jingles rhyme, on a pure cognitive level. Rhymed phrases are more memorable and help guide the listener, who may not be ‘used to’ hearing poetry, toward identifying patterns,” Beasley said.
Sound is just as important as the words you choose.
As you just saw in the video, rhyme is one way to give attention to sound in advertising. Advertising borrows plenty of other poetic devices as well because good copy needs to sound good.
In an interview with advertising experts on their favorite slogans for the Creative Review, Nick Asbury of Asbury & Asbury points to the poetry of one of his favorite slogans: Beanz Meanz Heinz. “The classic brief—associate our name with the generic product. The prosaic answer would be ‘Think beans. Think Heinz.’ This is the poetic answer—a brilliant piece of wordplay rooted in the brand name,” Asbury said.
Naman pointed to Dodge Ram’s 2013 Super Bowl spot, “Farmer,” as a particularly effective example of cadence and rhythm in copy.
It does sound pretty incredible, doesn’t it?
Words must evoke an image.
Sometimes in advertising, you get to actually see the image, and that’s great. The Dodge Ram spot pairs the beautiful words with powerful images of farmers, and ultimately, the truck at end of the commercial. But the audience doesn’t always get the interplay of words and images. Radio advertising, for example, relies on words to reach the audience’s imaginations.
Poet Kallie Falandays, author of Dovetail Down the House, worked for a web design studio as a copywriter. She keeps the importance of image in mind as she writes advertising copy. “Whenever I approach a project like a video script, for example, I try to approach it like I might a poem. I start with an image and I progress from there. I always consider how I might write something differently if I were writing it as a poem. I think it allows me to write uninhibitedly and with a grace that might not reach a non-poet's pen, if that makes sense,” Falandays said.
Human connection is at the center.
People do not always want to be sold a product. More often, people want to be sold a lifestyle or a feeling.
Poet Annie Finch used poetry as the basis of her marketing strategy for her retail company American Witch and the lifestyle the company promoted. “I wrote poems for perfume bottles, candles, postcards, salves and cosmetics, herbal teas, jewelry, and soap labels. And I spent a ton of time putting these little poems up on the store website and writing accompanying product descriptions. I had a blast! The feeling that my poems were finally going to be useful after all these years, helping to draw people into a beautiful new lifestyle, and were going to be read by people other than just other poets, was so exciting,” Finch said. Although the company is no longer in business, Finch plans to compile the poems she wrote to market American Witch into a small book.
Brad White, Chief Creative Officer at Luckie & Company, said, “Good advertising copy and good poetry are both often trying to make an emotional connection with the reader or listener. Often they both work to find some human truth that will resonate with the audience.”
White recalled two of his favorite advertisements that reminded him of poetry because of their emotional resonance. Apple’s Think Different campaign, with a commercial read by Richard Dreyfuss, is one of them. White said, “It’s beautiful and thoughtful and compelling. Like we hope our poetry is.”
Another particularly poetic example is Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign. Two spots featured words from Walt Whitman’s “America” and “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” to create what White called “a rallying cry for youth.”