What Copy Cosmetics Communicate

dirty messy clunky cluttered disorganized

I used to run a copywriters forum. The members once fiercely debated the differences between “clean copy” and “clunky copy,” and how design can affect response.

What’s “clunky”? I’m talking about odd layouts, inconsistent typestyles, different-looking fonts, garish colors, overemphasis using formatting tricks (like underlining, highlighting, bolding, italicizing, etc), and so on.

In other words, is “junking up” copy effective?

(This reminds me of a question someone once asked me during a live teleseminar: “Michel, I see so much copy with poor design and bad grammar with spelling mistakes, is it intentional or just plain bad copywriting?”)

Here’s my answer…

Maybe.

There’s this story I’ve heard of the “Five Bell Pub.” A passerby noticed that there happened to be only four bells hanging from the pub’s outdoor sign.

So he enters the tavern and asks the bartender, “Mate, don’t you know you have only four bells hanging outside?” “Ah yes, I know,” said the barkeep. “It’s been like that for ages, but I’ve been so busy that I never had the time to fix the sign.”

He then adds, “While you’re here, what kind of ale would you like?”

There are two morals to this story.

People will always feel inclined to correct others. Blame it on pompous arrogance or polite courtesy, it doesn’t matter. You can never please all the people all the time, unless you were to write a salesletter for every single individual in your market.

Being all things to all people is impossible.

And yes, some mistakes are intentional for the sake of drawing attention and particularly polarizing others. I know some copywriters who will purposely add typos to involve and engage the reader, or to draw attention to a key point.

But as someone once said, “You got to know the rules before you break them.”

That said, there is a difference between strategically placed yet occasional spelling mistakes to generate curiosity versus a lackadaisical attitude toward grammar that will only reflect on the quality of your business overall.

Personally, I’m far from perfect and I do make mistakes. Typos or otherwise. And they are not intentional. (If there were intentional mistakes, they would be relevant to the story and the audience, and not used for the sake of drawing attention.)

But there’s a difference between people who point out a simple typo versus what I call the “Grammar Gestapo” who write long dissertations in which they “hang you” for treason since your copy doesn’t meet Harvard standards.

There’s a difference between grammar and style; between being conversational or informal, and being ignorant or, worse yet, illiterate.

It all boils down to credibility (or lack thereof).

As technology evolves, people are becoming more and more sophisticated. Sure, believability, credibility, trustworthiness, proof, credentialization, and all those things are and have always been crucial and fundamental components of good copy.

When people say, “How do you write copy for an audience that has become more jaded, cynical, skeptical, cautious, blah blah blah,” I kind of laugh because I don’t think they are “more.” They have always been that way.

But it’s the increased availability of information nowadays that has caused a growth in all types of markets, marketers, and marketing tactics.

More and more consumers are becoming jaded, just as more and more people are entering new and emerging markets. By the same token, more and more marketers are becoming sneaky, crafty, creative, and insidious in trying to scam people.

Therefore, proof in copywriting is such an essential component.

While the challenge is to find better, more effective ways to prove our case, there are some basic things we can do to communicate it, even if subtly. And that includes with the message you imply as well as the one you communicate.

The image you project, the quality of your copy, and the packaging of your product (which includes the design of your salesletter or website) all imply credibility.

So here’s the point…

To the issue of “good design” versus “good response,” that’s somewhat of a non-issue because they are two completely different things. Why? Because good design will always speak volumes of the quality of the product and service you deliver.

Psychologists refer to this as the “Halo Effect.”

The cleaner, more professional the design, the greater the sense of credibility, trustworthiness, and confidence it will instill. And the greater the results, too.

People will have tendency to judge your business by the quality of your appearance. It has always been that way and it will never change. It’s human nature.

The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” exists because we have an innate, natural, and often unconscious tendency to do so — regardless of how unfair it is or how much we want to change how the world thinks.

If so, then why is clunky, shoddy, or cluttered design so prevalent?

First of all, in some cases, it does work. I believe this type of appeal was propagated by direct marketers who have increased their response by differentiating themselves in a market that has been otherwise saturated with corporate, highbrow, brand-driven, agency-influenced marketing materials.

Copywriters and marketers will profess (and even use this positive spin in their copy) that the “value is in the content, and not the packaging, the glitter, and the fluff.”

There will always be a need to be more personal, less contrived, and more creative with your copy — such as the use of cosmetics to ramp up your response.

Formatting to add emphasis, as well as handwritten notes, doodles, callouts, and images, do increase response. It also helps skimmers, and draws attention by driving the eyes into the copy. As copywriter Alex Mandossian calls them, it’s “eye gravity.”

But the rule here is use sparingly and strategically.

Online, people skim, scan, and scroll. So these grabbers stand out and add “speed bumps” to stop people from scanning and forcing them to read.

But overdo it and you will muddy your message. Too much emphasis will cause the message to blend and blur together, losing the effect you wanted to create with highlighting in the first place. Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing.

So write to be scanned, and emphasize key elements in your copy to flag scanners. But overuse can become counterproductive and murder your response.

However, those who do overuse (and perhaps abuse) clunkiness argue with: “Fancy design doesn’t sell, only good copy does.” I totally agree, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for good design, a professional image, and a clean message.

Admittedly, some pieces of clunky copy sell really well. But people who bought from them didn’t buy from the clunky design because it was clunky. They bought because it was different. Especially in a market that’s been jaded by highfalutin corporatespeak.

Chance are, clunky, cluttered, “cartoonish” copy will communicate that the product or service is the same. It’s the opposite of the “Halo Effect.”

This is often referred to as a meta-message.

The meta-message is the message beyond the message. Just like body language and non-verbal communication can influence others when you speak, the meta-messages you imply in your copy are extremely powerful, too.

Both for good and bad reasons.

On a Dateline NBC report, they tested the sales of a fake “skin-moisturizing pill,” complete with fictitious clinical trials, scientific data, client testimonials, and fancy, glittery packaging. People bought in droves. (The whole thing was made up by Dateline’s producers. The pill was nothing more than chocolate powder.)

Interesting show, but this proves that people do give more credence to a clean image — sometimes, to their detriment and scammers know this all too well.

Nevertheless, when something is overused and abused, whether it’s clunkiness or even cleanliness for that matter, it loses its impact. It loses its sense of uniqueness. And it stands out less and less, appearing just like everything else.

And that is the point. Use it, but don’t abuse it.

Be too clunky, too busy, too cluttered, and the meta-message your copy will communicate is that the product or service you’re selling is just as clunky.

It’s what I call a “UPA” (i.e., an unconscious paralleled assumption, in that they unconsciously assume there’s a parallel between one part and its whole).

In this case, the UPA is that people will associate poor design or poor copy with poor quality product or service. People will think, “If the marketing material is shoddy, then the product, customer service, or company behind it must be just as shoddy.”

People seek good design, professional appearance, quality sales materials, a sound image, great packaging, and so on. They expect it. They look for it. They crave it. And more important, they justify their purchase decisions with it.

Just as good covers help to sell more books, good (and good-looking) marketing materials do the same. Especially in the long-term with repeat and referral business.

Otherwise, your market will think: “If they can’t take care of themselves, then how in the world are they going to take care of ME?”

With scams and scammers abound, it will put more onus on the copywriter to find new and creative ways to communicate that credibility, even if it’s indirectly such as through “meta-messages.” But it starts with your design, your copy, and your image.

Don’t have a logo? Get one. Don’t have a consistent color scheme? Make it so. Don’t have time to clean up your sales materials? Find it.

Write and present great copy that’s personal yet professional, credible yet conversational, simple yet specific. It’s all part of the package.

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7 thoughts on “What Copy Cosmetics Communicate

  1. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller

    Michel,
    You hit a nerve!
    I love those old “buckeye” mail order ads. There’s something to that old line, “Ugly sells.”
    On the other hand, like a salesman with a stained shirt and tie, if you don’t look presentable, nobody will take you seriously.
    My problem is when graphic designeritis takes over. The ad looks beautiful, but nobody can read the darn thing because it’s set in some gorgeous illegible font! In reverse!
    Argh!
    Morty

    • @Mordechai (Morty) Schiller Exactly. It’s to avoid abuse on either end of the spectrum. Too clunky or too clean don’t sell. Ugly doesn’t sell, it only captures attention. Great for one-off promotions, but not really good for creating a lasting impression that invites repeat and referral sales.
       
      Thanks for dropping by, Morty. Long time no type!

  2. An interesting post. I was wondering if there’s any screenshots that shows copy that is overly designed? or copy that is too clean ?

  3. sebastiancielenski

    Hey Michael, 
     
    Great post :) Thanks a ton. I still remember sitting at work during lunch break and reading the 10 commandments of power positioning. I am a fan and you’re a great writer. Keep it up! :)
     
    Listen…
     
    You know you have a typo in the first sentence? I know you said your typos are not intentional, but it’s so fitting I thought maybe you cracked a little joke :D
     
    Anyway… great read. Gotto finish it now :)
     
    Sebastian

  4. Michel,
     
    Your timing posting this was interesting, because the day before, I’d posted something similar on my blog (inspired in part by something Seth Godin had posted a week earlier). You say, “Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing.” The way I’d worded it was “to emphasize what’s more important, deemphasize what’s less important.”
     
    We have the tendency to start from the base copy and then start emphasizing everything we want people to notice. But what’s more effective is to pick out the few critical points and emphasize ONLY them. If they capture the reader’s interest, they’ll dig in and find all the other little details we want them to see. If they don’t capture the reader’s interest, then the reader isn’t the target audience, and may as well not waste any more of their time with this particular bit of copy.
     
    A great example is Apple’s homepage. When I last checked there were only 16 words in the main content area of the page, and there was plenty of whitespace. No attempt to cram more in. No attempt to draw attention to alternative content for people who weren’t captivated by the big image, three smaller images, and those 16 words. Just the core of the message presented without distraction, and blindingly obvious instructions for how to take the next step.