Who cares if copywriters arrive at the office in torn jeans and worn-out Ree boks? What bugs me is work that reads as if it were written by uncaring slobs.
We claim to prize literacy, yet so much advertising reads (and sounds) like voices of third-graders on the playground. We use simple, unimaginative words, and we state the obvious ("Sale! Now!") as if we were announcing an arms treaty.
So why can't we write as if we were addressing an audience capable of digesting more than two-syllable words? Maybe the real reason we're afraid to sound like real writers is that we no longer have real writers as role models. We have a vacuum of inherited talent—inherited not by birth but by exposure to singular thoughts, good taste and powerful vocabulary. We no longer have any David Ogilvys or Bill Bernbachs or Julian Koenigs setting writing standards we want to emulate.
Who today would dare to use the word "diffident" in an ad, as Ogilvy did in writing about the Rolls-Royce? Who today would stand up to a CEO and suggest "Lemon" as the headline on a car ad, as the DDB people did many years ago?
To be fair to writers, however, there are no CEOs to whom we can talk. We lost the owner/entrepreneur years ago. He/she has been replaced by an executive fattening a résumé for the next job, a head of state too weak and frightened to make any bold moves lest that affect the stock price, the salary and the perks and privileges of office.
As a result our copy has become as static as our thinking. We test-drive every ad as if it were our last Mercedes. Look at some of the copy you see today. Much of it needs a good flossing because there are so many decay-causing adjectives stuck in the middle of facts. And speaking of facts, have you noticed how much of advertising sounds as if it came directly from the research? Bill Bernbach (who should be everyone's idol) once told me to be careful of research. "Think of it as a lamppost," he advised. "A drunk uses it for support, an intelligent person for illumination."
So what can we writers do to make our business better?
Read, read, read. When did you last read a book that wasn't (a) a no-brainer designed to take your mind off an airplane trip; (b) a pseudo-porno thriller guaranteed to titillate; or (c) a hot best seller you'll need in order to have something other than real-estate prices to discuss at the next cocktail party?
Do you know that classics come in paperback editions with readable print? Do you know that libraries are still free and open to the public?
When you read, do you keep a dictionary within reach so you can look up (and hopefully adopt) words you always liked but were afraid to use?
Do you subscribe to any weekly or monthly periodical that is not published in the U.S.?
Those questions apply to clients, too. If you are a client, do you dare to demand excellence and original thinking? Then, if and when you see brilliant advertising, do you have enough confidence in your judgment to buy it?
Well, dude, do you?