Dumb is the New Smart
Get stupid… Get stupid… tip back your glass and get stupid…
Oh, the irony. The most challenging copy to write is often the ‘dumb’ stuff. The two-word tagline for the two-star hotel brand. The wacky headline for Wild & Crazy Resorts.
Yes, it looks like it could have been written by a drunk fifth-grader. Yes, millions of people may look at it and say, “They paid someone $200,000 to do THAT? I could have written something better. I would have done it in 30 seconds and only charged $20,000 and saved them a lot of money in the process…” etc. etc. armchair critic blah blah.
The simple fact is that the stupidity or simplicity is probably only skin deep. Chances are it was really hard work. If you did it, it was one of your hardest jobs that year.
Looking at a tiny phrase whipped together with the vocabulary of a five-year-old child, it’s hard not be a cynic. And yet, those two words may be ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. They reach the target audience. They speak to the most important benefit of the product as well as a key emotional trigger of consumers. They tick a long list of boxes for what you need to achieve. Doing all of that with a couple stupid words is really, really hard.
The 7 Habits of Stupendously Stupid People
(and we mean this in a good way):
- Think commercially – Don’t evaluate the slogan for chocolate pudding pops with the same criteria as a doctoral dissertation. Intelligence of copy is measured by how commercially successful it is.
- Write for the audience – You might like Beethoven puns; your audience doesn’t.
- Listen to the client – They probably know their commercial needs much better than you.
- Use the half-second test – Dumb works. You might spend hundreds of hours contemplating a headline. The audience doesn’t. The headline needs to do its job in a fraction of a second as the reader is flipping through the pages of a magazine.
- Be single minded – Double meanings are often duds. A double meaning isn’t ‘clever’; it dilutes your message. (There are exceptions, but still – keep this dictum in mind.)
- Non-nativize yourself – If you are writing for a multi-lingual audience, MANY of them will not have a native level of English. Be careful about being too clever. Run lines of copy by non-native speakers to see how it hits them.
- Take aim – Envision a spectrum. On one end you have the Lowest Common Denominator. On the other end you have the Global Sophisticate (with poetically fluent English). Decide where you need to aim. You don’t always have to go straight for the LCD. Don’t just dumb down the copy for the sake of a few. Look critically at the big picture. A sophisticated brand may still need sophisticated English, even if half of the customers are nouveau-riche with poor taste and similar English. And if you don’t speak English fluently, you don’t expect to understand everything you read. However, for many mass market brands, particularly those with low positioning, you will need to aim closer to the LCD. This doesn’t mean your work really is stupid; it means you have to work much more intelligently.