The first in an occasional serial on copywriting
“Choose your words carefully.”
You’ve heard the phrase. And you might have taken it to heart. After all, words—spoken and written—have enfranchised genders, established nation-states, and both started and ended global wars.
Words may just be words. And as Gloria Estefan suggests, they can “get in the way.” After all, “actions speak louder than words.” Right?
Words have meaning. Words have impact. Words do matter. And in that vein, words have power.
“The power of words.”
That’s another phrase you might have come across, especially if you speak American or British English on the regular. I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular phrase lately. It’s actually what brought me to this table, right now, typing these words on my laptop.
I’ve been wondering about the word “power” too. It gets thrown around, all the time, in just about every context: race, gender, the body politic, finance, military, industry, alternative, advertising, and, of course, superhero. Just about every aspect of civilization and identity can have some sort of “power” attributed to them, from bars to brokers.
So what does “power” actually mean? And how is it humanly possible for a mere word to have power?
When you look at the etymology of the word “power,” most authoritative sources agree that it has Anglo-French origins, and martial connotations. It most likely emerged in the Middle English lexicon around 1300, uttered as “poer,” or “pouer,” meaning “to be able,” especially in the context of conquest.
So back in the day, if you had power, you most likely were a boss on the battlefield. You possessed the ability to dominate in battle, and by extension, bands of warriors with power were essentially good at war.
That brings us back to the phrase: “The power of words.” Words can do stuff. Words are able. And if we layer in the original meaning of our Middle Age brethren, words slay.
I thought it would be useful to examine the power of words through the lens of my particular milieu, copywriting. Shall we get our Don Draper on and take a stroll down Madison Avenue?
Words and advertising
The slogan, or “brief attention-getting phrase used in advertising or promotion” according to Merriam-Webster, has a paramount position in the sultry and seductive history of advertising. Especially in America, where great advertising agencies regularly introduce major visual artists and designers to the public—think Andy Warhol illustrating ads for Glamour—the simple slogan has also had a lot to say about advertisement, marketing, and promotion.
Advertising history is littered with famous slogans. “Just do it.” “M’m! M’m! Good!” “Got milk?” The list goes on. One famous slogan was actually mined for an episode of Mad Men, when Volkswagen’s “Think small” and “Lemon” print ads created a mini-revolution on Madison Avenue.
But beyond the catchy, fun enticement of a well conceived slogan is a real and legitimate potential for power. Namely, the power to sell. And as slogans—and their lesser-known cousins, taglines—became must-haves for big American business in the 1960s and 1970s, they also started to climb to an even more prominent plateau in the 1980s and 1990s: the brand.
Today, the brand is the thing. No longer reserved for massive global corporations, brands are now sought by corner shops, mom-and-pops, athletes, celebrities, YouTubers, your great uncle Jack, your precocious niece Jill, and almighty influencers. And though some of the best-known brands are almost entirely visual, many are often backed by an evolving slogan or tagline. Brands like Nike, Target, FedEx, IBM, Walmart, McDonald’s, and UPS come to mind.
Even with immediately recognizable brand logos from the likes of Starbucks, Apple, Google, and Amazon, there is often a concept or direction that is advocated through words. IBM may “put smart to work.” UPS “(hearts) Logistics.” At Target, one of the most recognizable brand logos, you “expect more,” and “pay less.” More often than not, the biggest brands have a natural, comfortable alignment between visual design and tagline. They fit together, and work off each other.
Words’ power goes below the fold, to use an obsolete phrase, in advertising. The slogan gets all the attention, and deservedly so. But the meat of an advertising campaign often emerges in all the copy that comes after the header. Things like calls-to-action, call-outs, and factoids are pure products of words, and they have a major impact on how a campaign performs.
Actually, quite a few people, according to my latest count.
We may read differently, for different durations, through different mediums than we have before. And the act of reading will continue to evolve, once we all get our own set of smartglass contact lenses with virtualized readers that flash on in front of our irises the moment we think them to appear.
And when we read, on a virtual screen on Mars or on a Kindle on a couch, we read words. And there’s some power in that.