Does grammar rule?
How do you feel about short snappy sentences in ad copy?
Do you find them engaging? Or irritating?
And what do you think of these opening sentences?
OK, I admit it. I’m an advertising copywriter. And I can’t help writing in short sentences. Or starting with a conjunction. But would I have written like this while studying A-level English? Or taking my English degree?
Of course not.
As far as ad agencies are concerned, the rules of grammar and spelling are there to be broken. Playing with the rules of grammar, when done correctly, can result in powerful writing but not understanding the rules simply leads to poor copy.
Some mistakes are sloppy
Before we even address the subject of poor grammar in ad copy, take a look at these typos and marvel at how they managed to slip through the net of agency copywriter, art director, account manager, account director, printer and client.
Some mistakes are deliberate
Mercedes-Benz used this line for their 2012 C-class coupe TV commercial: ‘More power. More style. More technology. Less doors.’ Purists will argue that ‘less’ means smaller in quantity, e.g., less money; ‘fewer’ means smaller in number, e.g., fewer coins, and is therefore the correct word to use. Let’s give the ad agency the benefit of the doubt; this is a clever headline with an unexpected twist at the end and so the element of surprise makes the ad eye-catching and memorable. Not so for the 2014 Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream with a similar mistake of ‘Less sugar. Less bottles’. That line lacks the playful impact. No fizz, whatsoever.
Other companies ignore the rules of grammar to protect their brand. In 2013, Victoria’s Secret ran this ad campaign for their Body by Victoria line of underwear. They obviously felt the need to protect the range name in the headline by avoiding using ‘BODIES’. However they used a possessive apostrophe to turn the name into a plural, instead of saying ‘Bodys’. They made the error look even worse by setting quote marks around it. In the end, the ad agency had to pull the campaign at cost and create a new headline altogether. (On the subject of possessive apostrophes, check out my blog on knowing the difference between It’s vs. Its.)
Bad grammar? Or creative effectiveness?
Recognise these straplines?
Think different (Apple)
I’m lovin’ it (McDonald’s)
Go Further (Ford)
Book yourself fabulous (Wahanda)
Be more dog (O2)
Find your happy (Rightmove)
Just Do It (Nike)
None of them make sense grammatically and therefore sound rather odd, yet a powerful media spend behind the ad campaigns has led to these odd sounding phrases becoming common parlance.
The shorter, the better?
Social media and texting have encouraged us to be more succinct than ever. Paragraphs and sentences in body copy today are shorter because they’re easier to read online. One word sentences also create impact, whether in copy such as for this Apple ad, ‘All-new Lightning connector. Smaller. Smarter. Durable. Reversible.’
Or as an advertising headline, such as on this quirky Diesel poster: Some may argue that grammar in advertising copywriting is a lost art; others may argue that advertising copywriting is a lost art – long copy, in particular.
David Abbott was legendary in his ability to write long, well-crafted copy. He was prolific in using ‘and’ and ‘so’ to start sentences and make a point, create an afterthought or grab attention. His famous Father’s Day press ad for Chivas Regal consists of 25 one-sentence emotional paragraphs, each of which starts with ‘Because’. Naughty rule breaking? Well, not necessarily: open a novel by James Joyce, Jane Austen or H.G. Wells and you’ll find plenty of examples of sentences starting with a coordinating conjunction. As Kingsley Amis declares in The King’s English,‘And the idea that and must not begin a sentence, or even a paragraph, is an empty superstition. The same goes for but. Indeed either word can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow.’
Some rules are meant to be broken
In advertising, punctuation and grammar are often a matter of personal choice; the main thing is that the ad copy should tell a clear and powerful story and persuade you to buy/try/sign up. David Ogilvy, another copywriter and adland guru, once remarked, ‘I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.’
However, knowing what the rules are before knowing when you can break them is usually helpful.
Written by Caroline Gibson, freelance copywriter and grammar queen. Get in touch with any burning punctuation or grammar questions. Meanwhile, discover whether or not it’s good practice to split infinitives.
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