‘Oh look dear, a whole article about long copy ads’

'The more you tell, the more you sell.'
David Ogilvy built an advertising empire on this advice, but most of today's newspaper advertising seems to subscribe to the school of 'less is more.'

‘The more you tell, the more you sell.’

David Ogilvy built an advertising empire on this advice, but most of today’s newspaper advertising seems to subscribe to the school of ‘less is more.’

Chris Staples, partner at Vancouver’s Rethink, explains why: ‘We’re in a post literate age, and nobody reads body copy any more. I think it just doesn’t work. People don’t have the time to read a bunch of long copy.’

But Neil McOstrich, VP creative director at the Toronto office of Palmer Jarvis DDB, counters that people don’t buy newspapers just to look at the pictures. It’s safe to assume, he says, that if people are willing to read long news copy, they’re open to reading long ad copy too – as long as it’s interesting and well-written.

And while perhaps long-copy ads are best run in the Saturday paper, to reach readers when they aren’t so rushed, newspaper is still the perfect vehicle. Apart from the fact that newspaper readers, by definition, enjoy reading, it’s a medium that’s still taken seriously, says McOstrich, and it’s one of the most intimate mediums there is, offering a rare chance to speak brand-to-man.

But if long copy works, why don’t people use it more?

Well some people do, says McOstrich, and sometimes with great success.

Take Ralston Purina Canada’s Advanced Nutrition/Special Care Cat Chow print campaign by Toronto’s Roche Macaulay & Partners. It won a basket full of awards when it debuted in 2000, and the campaign is ongoing to this day. Susan Molenda, VP of product strategy and consumer communications at Purina, says she wouldn’t still be using it if it didn’t work.

‘People found the ads easy to understand, interesting, very informative, very believable and very persuasive,’ she says. She notes that according to a study conducted by Toronto-based Starch Research Services, even though the ads contained much more copy than most, 73% of those who read the ads said they had ‘just the right amount of detail’ – which is the statistical norm.

But Molenda goes on to say that while long copy worked for her product, it wouldn’t work for everything. She explains that Ralston, obviously, is only interested in reaching people with cats, and such people by nature tend to be on the lookout for any information that helps them look after their treasured beasties.

McOstrich agrees. ‘Long copy for cat food is an example where it kind of makes sense, in a weird way. Because people who love cats tend to be obsessive people. I imagine a sort of a Kathy Bates kind of person for the cats, she would obsess about her cat and I bet she loves to read about her cat.’

This brings us to a fundamental divide when it comes to long copy effectiveness. In the one camp are those who think that long copy only works for certain products and marketing objectives. The products tend to be of the more upscale type (think premium cat food, cars, furniture, food, some beers and liquor), where there’s an educated target and a ‘craftsmanship’ story to tell. Most client marketers fall into this camp.

In the other camp are those who believe that there is always a story to tell, and long copy can work for any kind of product. These are mostly experienced creatives who appreciate the clever sizzle found in copy-heavy ads by such greats as Ogilvy & Mather, Singapore’s Neil French (see ‘Nobody reads long copy any more,’ right) and acclaimed British copywriter Tim Delaney.

Jim Ranscombe, president and CD at Toronto’s One Company, falls squarely into the latter camp.

‘People don’t read ads, they read what interests them, according to David Ogilvy, and if you did it right, you could write a convincing 1,500 words on a brand of toothpicks,’ he says. ‘If you dig for a story, you’ll find one.’

Ranscombe knows of what he speaks. Back in 1996, when his agency went by the Ranscombe & Co. moniker, the shop produced a series of long-copy newspaper ads advocating recycling, water conservation and composting for the City of Toronto’s Works & Emergency Services department. The ads are still talked about to this day.

Nicole Dufort, manager of communications for the Works department, remembers that the ads were lighthearted, rife with wordplay, and fun to read – as clever as written advertising can get.

The response?

‘Those who liked them, just loved them,’ she says. The campaign received more feedback by e-mail, mail and telephone than any since, and it was feedback of the cultish variety: ‘Some people clipped them out and saved them so they could keep re-reading them,’ Dufort says.

But despite her enthusiasm for the campaign, Dufort, like most client marketers, still falls into the first camp when it comes to long copy effectiveness. She says she went with long copy for the campaign mainly because she had a lot to say, and because the target, the Toronto homeowner, tends to be university educated, affluent and thus more likely to appreciate brilliant wordsmithing.

‘There’s no question that the ads would only appeal to a certain segment of the population,’ she cautions, adding that the campaign was followed by another featuring no copy at all, to reach the less literary portion of their target.

‘I wouldn’t exclusively use long copy, but I wouldn’t say you could get away with just one type or the other.’

McOstrich, however, points out an often overlooked aspect of long copy newspaper ads that broadens their effectiveness beyond bookish types: ‘Quite aside from the message you’re going to put inside the copy,’ McOstrich says, ‘from a visual point of view, long copy says a great deal about your product.’ In other words, the fact that a company can produce that much copy about its product impresses consumers – even if they don’t read it.

McOstrich points to the early ’90s Labatt Ice newspaper launch campaign as an example. At the time, he was working on a rival product, so he scrutinized Labatt’s approach carefully. Unlike Molson, which produced visual ads for its new ice beer, the Labatt ads contained hundreds of words describing the ice beer manufacturing process, along with diagrams showing how the ice crystals form and the like.

When he saw the research on how the campaign performed, McOstrich was amazed to discover that when people saw all that copy, they decided that because Labatt had more to say, its technology must be better – whether the consumer actually read the ad or not.

Pulling out another example to prove that long copy can work for almost any product, McOstrich points to a well-known tourist campaign for Costa Rica written by Randy Diplock and art directed by Jamie Way back when both were at BBDO.

Larry Tolpin, now managing partner and chief creative officer at Los Angeles-based Duncan & Associates, was head of creative at the time, and remembers the campaign well.

‘They had beautiful, well-written long copy with a sprinkling of small classic pictures.’ This contrasted sharply with the stock beach shot and slogan seen in most tourism ads then and today – but it worked.

‘Not only did it help increase tourism by record numbers,’ says Tolpin, ‘the work cleaned up at all the major Canadian shows, as well as winning gold in New York and London. What’s more, Neil French wasn’t even a judge.’

Asked his take on long copy effectiveness, Tolpin, who arguably has a more international view, notes that while long copy is in short supply in Canada, it’s still alive and well in Britain and the U.S.

‘In the States, great print, period, is limited to only a few top creative shops such as the Martin Agency, Fallon and Goodby. If you look at their work in the One Show, a good portion of them have long copy.’

Besides, adds Tolpin, there’s not really any such thing as long copy. He cites ‘writer’s writer’ David Abbott from Abbott Mead Vickers * BBDO in the U.K.: ‘There is no difference between long copy and short copy. It’s only long copy when the reader no longer wants to read it.’

McOstrich tried to make this point a few years ago during a meeting with Onex magnate Gerry Schwartz. McOstrich and Gary Prouk (now partner at the Sebastian Consultancy) were in Schwartz’s office to pitch the Purolator account, and they were having trouble convincing him that long copy was the way to go.

‘He looked at us and said that long copy doesn’t work, people don’t read long copy,’ recalls McOstrich. ‘Then I noticed Onex’s year-end report on his desk, and I picked it up and I said: ‘This is long copy.’ And he shot back to me: ‘Yeah, but people are interested in the year-end report.’ And I shot back at him: ‘Yeah, but people are interested in knowing their parcels are going to get there on time.”

People are also interested in reading about cars, especially if they’re in the market to buy one, judging by lengthy automotive sections in newspapers and bookstore shelves laden with buyer’s guides. So it’s no surprise that Mercedes has a long history of using long copy.

Asked why the company drives that route, JoAnne Caza, director of marketing and PR at Mercedes-Benz Canada, echoes Purina and Toronto’s Works department: ‘We just have a lot to say.’

Even so, Caza says the company has moved away from the longer story-type ads towards shorter templated ads with a focus on features. The reasons? One, potential customers who want more information can now call a 1-800 number, request a brochure or visit the company Web site. Two, the company’s research showed that consumers wanted shorter ads ‘that get straight to the point.’

But Ranscombe counters that such research results may depend on how the question was phrased. ‘I think that people, asked point blank, would say ‘No, I don’t have time to read a long ad about, say, a toothbrush,” he says. ‘But if you said to them, ‘Would you spend six minutes reading an ad if it meant keeping your teeth longer?’ the answer might be different.’

If writing long copy with that kind of persuasive power doesn’t sound easy, well, it ain’t. Which gets back to the question of why long copy isn’t used more than it is.

‘Because it’s so damn hard to do,’ says Ranscombe. ‘When you can write one smart-ass line and get away with it, why would you bother going further?’

He notes that for the long copy newspaper ads his agency has worked on, the research process took much longer than writing the ad. You have to find a good story before you can tell it, and that means hours and hours researching the client and its products. Considering that many advertisers turn to newspaper because of its quick turnaround, who has the time?

Or the expertise, says Tolpin. Even creatives who love long copy admit that we live in a fast-paced, instant-gratification society that’s addicted to the visual. And as the length of the average take in commercials has shortened, so has our attention span. TV is king, and long copy – effective or no – seems somehow archaic to the new generation of art directors and copywriters, he says.

‘I think it’s a lost art. It used to be that young writers would cut their teeth on print and copywriting – it was a chance for them to shine,’ says Tolpin. ‘Unfortunately, today’s writers want to work immediately on TV – print and radio have become second-class citizens.’

How to write long copy in six easy steps

Many creatives feel that long copy gets the short stick because it’s often done so poorly. For instance, consumers often associate the form with bombastic ‘open letters’ from the heads of large corporations.

Jim Ranscombe, president and CD at Toronto’s One Company, would like to change that. He says when it comes to writing body copy that sparkles, much of the advice given by David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man still holds true today:

1) Make every sentence a reward.

2) Avoid superlatives, generalizations and platitudes.

3) Don’t give the reader a chance to get away.

4) Use enticing subheads.

5) Number the points when you can.

6) Use beautiful art direction and typography.

Marta Cutler, EVP national co-creative director at MacLaren McCann in Toronto, adds that the brand character should dictate whether the writing style is chatty, mischievous or solemn, and that it helps if the copy is married to the images used.

Asked how he writes compelling copy, Angus Tucker, co-creative director at Toronto’s John St., simply quotes author Elmore Leonard: ‘I leave out the parts that people skip.’