Long copy isn’t back

Apple has just released a series of long copy ads with the help of advertising agency TBWAMedia Arts Lab, USA. Does this mark a return to the heyday of long copy advertising? Sadly, but definitely, not

Apple has just released a series of long copy ads with the help of advertising agency TBWAMedia Arts Lab, USA. Does this mark a return to the heyday of long copy advertising? Sadly, but definitely, not…

When I heard about Apple’s new long-copy campaign on Twitter, I admit to feeling a tingle of anticipation. Something told me this was going to be great.

For one thing, long copy is due a proper return. It has occasionally reared its head over the years, but it always felt like it would take a major brand like Apple to do something on a par with the greats of the past. Not just a retro imitation, but a proper reinvention that works on its own terms.

And there’s something especially intriguing about Apple doing it. They’re such a minimal brand – all white space and understated cool. What a change in direction it would be to see lots of words coming from them. Especially when they’ve got so much to say.

The timing is also interesting. Right now, it feels like more and more people are questioning Apple’s claim to superiority. Maybe this was Apple about to come out and tell a few home truths. Remind us exactly how great their products are and why. Make us fall in love with them again. I had all this in mind when I went to look at the ads.

Here’s the copy in full:

There are four executions in the campaign, each featuring a different image, but the same copy. There’s also a film version, with an edited version of the same copy.

So is this a return to the heyday of long copy? The rediscovery of a lost craft in the service of one of the great brands of our times?

Sadly, but definitely, not. The copy is dire. Vacuous, boring, self-regarding and counter-productive. It starts with a glimmer of promise – the point about designing things with the user in mind – but then goes precisely nowhere with it.

Arguably the worst thing is that it’s entirely free of information. The point is too obvious to need labouring, but look briefly at one of the old classics:

Put aside the clever headline, sharp tone and expertly crafted momentum that carries you to the end – and look at the actual information being conveyed. 32 miles to the gallon. Five pints of oil. No need for anti-freeze. 40,000 miles per set of tyres. Smaller parking spots. Lower insurance. Cheaper repairs.

The same goes for this Timberland long-copy classic:

It may have dated in terms of social attitudes, but look it up, read it from start to finish and see how hard the copy is working.

You learn all about the details of how the shoes are made. Not just the inspiration for the design and the philosophy behind it, but the nerdy details of how the design has been subtly improved over the years. And the details are interesting. Strip away the jokes and the rhetorical tricks and the tone of voice and you’re left with a pile of solid, irreducible facts.

With the Apple ad, you get nothing. You search in vain for a single detail or piece of evidence. Something that demonstrates how they design from the point of view of the user. Any small detail that signals artistry, craft and invention without simply proclaiming it.

Of course, there’s one difference that Apple could use to defend itself. Unlike Think Small or Timberland, this isn’t a product ad. It’s a brand ad. It’s not about explaining the details of a particular product to you, but giving a more general sense of Apple and its values and philosophy. We’re not in the era of hard sell any more; it’s more sophisticated these days.

It’s at this point I begin to lose the power of rational argument and feel like throwing things at hard surfaces.

First of all, I can’t think of a better ‘brand ad’ for VW or Timberland than the ones above. Each of them leaves me with a pretty good impression of the brand, its philosophy and its values.

Secondly, I can’t think of a worse brand ad for Apple than this one. Has no one ever told them that you don’t convince people you’re cool by going on about how cool you are? They start the ad by saying they think about everything from the user’s point of view, then spend the rest talking relentlessly about themselves.

The final lines are a veritable orgasm of self-regard. You put your logo on your product? That is a massively uninteresting thing to tell people. It might conceivably be interesting if Apple didn’t put their logo on their products, but relied on people working it out for themselves because they’re so brilliantly designed – that would be a story to tell.

Equally, it might be intriguing if Apple resurrected the – genuine – story of how they used to etch the names of their team members onto their circuit boards as a hidden mark of personal ownership and pride. That’s a good story. The copy looks like it might be heading in that direction, but then veers back into generalisations at the last minute.

Life’s too short to analyse all the other vacuities and non-sequiturs, but it gets particularly bad in the second-to-third ‘stanzas’:

If you are busy making everything,
How can you perfect anything?

We don’t believe in coincidence.

Or dumb luck.
There are a thousand “no’s”
For every “yes.”

What’s actually being said here? Which company out there claims to make everything? Do you really mean ‘perfection’ when your products by their nature go through constant iterations and improvements?

And why the sudden jump from perfecting things to coincidences? What’s dumb about luck? Don’t luck and serendipity play a part in the design process? Why are you talking in riddles? Tell us what you mean. Give an example. This reads like a succession of those vaguely New Age quotes that people stick on Facebook with a picture of a sunset.

Possibly the most excruciating thing about the advert is that it contains its own damning critique, right here:

Who will this help?
Will it make life better?
Does this deserve to exist?

Did anyone ask the same questions about this copy or this campaign?

And there’s one last issue – those line breaks. It’s become a disturbing trend in long copy ads to lay them out like poetry. Tesco did the same thing with its recent (pre-George Osborne) apology ad:

It’s tangentially interesting that both Tesco and Apple make use of the phrase ‘This is it’ in their copy. The similarity is telling –it’s one of those emphatic phrases that is pure tone and no meaning. The kind of thing you say to convince yourself something is happening when it isn’t. If you find yourself including it in a piece of copy, you know something has gone wrong.

The line break trend is annoying to anyone who likes poetry, where line breaks are intrinsic to the meaning and not just a decorative feature (at least in any half-decent poetry). But there’s something particularly annoying about it in the context of these brand ads.

It’s being done for a reason – to elevate the tone and lend an air of preciousness and high-brow appeal. If it looks clean and vaguely classy, maybe it will give the copy an aura of intelligence it otherwise lacks. Maybe you won’t notice it’s saying nothing if you’re too busy admiring how it looks.

So what’s the positive alternative I’m advocating? Well, it could be one of two things. You could try a faithful return to the traditional long-copy ad – why not? If Timberland can talk at length about what makes its latest shoe so great, surely Apple has plenty to say about its latest product? I’m sure there’s mileage in writing a brilliant ad packed full of product details that demonstrate Apple’s philosophy and ‘values’.

But equally, I don’t think you have to return slavishly to the old USP-driven model. You could write a more high-level brand ad, but one that says something. Being a brand ad doesn’t let you off the hook. You still need a message. Every word has to earn its place.

And it’s not like there’s nothing to say. You’re talking about one of the most interesting and impressive companies in the world. Whatever angle you choose to take, you should have trouble fitting it into a full-page ad. This one is padding from the first line.

I was hoping to welcome the return of long copy on seeing this new campaign, but it turns out to be a hollow and lifeless return. Like watching a hologram of David Ogilvy. This is long copy drained of all the things that make long copy worth doing. Static and soulless and empty. The written equivalent of a mood board.

One last footnote: I strongly suspect the motivation for this campaign came internally – it doesn’t feel like the work of the same agency that produced 1984. Tellingly, the script is based on a new mission statement that Apple launched earlier this year, apparently to reassure the world that the company hasn’t lost its way since the passing of Steve Jobs.

For me, the fact they’re spending their time producing mission statements, brand films and copy like this is a sure sign that they have.

Nick Asbury is a freelance writer and one half of creative partnership Asbury & Asbury. This is an adapted version of an article posted on Nick’s blog at http://asburyandasbury.typepad.com. It is reproduced with permission.

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  • It might be designed in California but their products are made and manufactured in China and Taiwan.

  • An excellent article Nick, many thanks.

    Your last point is bang on the money. It’s all a bit:

    Remember us?
    We’re the cool guys.
    Not like the others.

    Oh no.
    Our boss doesn’t even wear a tie.
    Not even to meetings.

    And we never stop being creative.
    Like, never.
    So don’t forget how cool we are.

    Seriously.
    The accountants are getting worried.
    And that means everything.

  • newman

    Apple advertising drops further into mediocre.

    “We’re engineers and artists.
    Craftsmans and inventors.”

    Oh brother.

  • aa

    Thank you for this article.

  • Mick

    I think you’ve made an incredibly important point here – it’s about the standard of copywriting in advertising today. It’s lazy. It’s trite. It’s written by the planners and strategists in the brief handed to the creatives and then regurgitated back out the other end. All the hackneyed “this is it” “we are…” etc etc are in the strategy documents handed around at the start of the project and don’t seem to leave the process at all. Perhaps its laziness on the behalf of creatives, maybe its their lack of training or maybe its fear to push things further because the clients are historically afraid of challenging work. Maybe its because copywriters don’t want to be writers anymore. Back in the days of the VW and Timberland ads I’m sure the bottom drawer of all those writers contained a first draft of a novella or script they were desperate to shop to publishers or producers. They loved the word and the story and the character – not the company and the product and the gold lion.

    I’m rambling, and not very well, but I think you’ve made a really important point – the written word has lost is strength and the amusing idea with the funny photo is king. And that’s really sad.

  • I like it. The small text is intriguing and makes you want to look closer to read the longer than usual body text. This sort of advert would probably not work all the time but for a one off campaign it works well.

    A lot of people are against Apple which is a personal choice but I think denying that Apple are engineers, artists, craftsmen and inventors is not really being fair. Their products are well designed, refined and innovative. The products are made with precise engineering. They are well crafted and creative too so I see no evidence presented to deny Apple of not being what they have described themselves as.

    I guess that is just my opinion though!

  • Mark

    Long copy aside (although agree it’s terrible) I really don’t get ‘Designed by Apple in California’.

    Like Adam mentions above does where it’s designed hold more weight than where it’s manufactured? I don’t think so. A lot of naval gazing going on here.

  • Connor

    You entirely missed the point of this entire advert, slow clap for you

  • Mark

    Any chance of expanding on that Connor or is clapping your limit?

  • J

    @Mark,

    To me Apple are getting you into their heads, and the signature is reference to where the ideas are born, where the user experience is created, where the rigorous crafting is perfected, etc.

    This is not done in a factory in Taiwan.

    Read the advert, then read it again. Hopefully the signature should then make more sense.

    The vast majority of people don’t care where it’s manufactured and churned out, people buy into Apple the brand, whose heart (and brain!?) just so happens to be in California.

  • Lew

    @Mick: I don’t think the written word has lost its power.

    People will still read (and more importantly act upon) longer copy *if* that copy is written well and *if* it is interesting/useful and relevant to the reader.

    I do agree that the standard of copywriting has dropped dramatically, though. And ads like this one certainly won’t help the cause.

    If anyone’s looking for a bit of inspiration (and you haven’t seen it before), I suggest you check this out, from I Have An Idea: http://bit.ly/Tz8SGS

  • Great post this, however I feel it’s missing something.

  • Richard

    I agree with J – the ad might stink but the signature idea is strong – that’s what people buy into.

    Lovely bit of trolling by Connor, truly witty stuff…

  • The points in the article make sense if we look at the adverts in isolation; siloed from the identity issues Apple have been dealing with this year regarding iOS and – to maybe a greater extent – since SJ’s death.

    This isn’t as if Apple is putting this out there as a new strategy. That isn’t the point of these ads. Like the ‘Think Different’ ad’s that reinvigorated Apple in the late 90’s, these adverts are more a call to arms to Apple themselves. They are reminding themselves why they are who they are and outlining their strategy to themselves for the next decade. Desperate? No, again this just echoes Think Different.

    The fact that their flagship products are about to receive one hell of a polarising facelift doesn’t hurt either. If you think some design decisions don’t make sense right now with iOS7, remember they’ve said a 1000 no’s to get it to where it is now (in 7 months by all accounts) and this is only stage 1 of the facelift. The Human Interface team, will get it out the door then go back and iterate, iterate, iterate on all the nagging inconsistencies in the product until it’s perfect.

    If this truly doesn’t resonate with you, don’t worry. The Think Different campaign wasn’t a huge commercial game changer, the products that followed it sure as hell were.

    (I’m pretty sure this is largely what Connor was getting at as well)

  • Dan Canyon

    The film made me slightly sick in my mouth.

  • Great article, couldn’t agree more

    Steve’s turning in his grave

  • It’s not great but they’re now targeting the masses, not just the type of people who read Creative Review.

  • Gary

    Great article – more of this type of stuff on the blog please!

    The Apple ad is dire – so corporate and self-importnat, and not what Apple’s brand is about. My wife actually thought the TV spot was a Microsoft ad until the designed by Apple in California reveal.

    Watching “here’s to the crazy ones”made me feel proud to be an Apple customer; watching this one makes me embarrassed…

  • arielko

    read it and weep – feels like the beginning of the end to me.

  • arielko

    @Johnny Cullen:

    that would have actually made an excellent campaign :)

  • Tim

    To Quote Mark Twain,

    “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

  • Ben

    While agree with you about the spurious breaks, at least Tesco know how to use grammar…..like not starting every new line with a capital letter when it’s part of the same sentence!

  • Thank heavens you don’t have to listen to Jonny Ive reading it out. He is now speaking so slowly I can only think he’s doing it for a bet. If it takes that long for his brain to get his mouth to act, no wonder they take a long time designing their products.

    In fact the long copy feels just as ponderous, even without his narration. It stems from the same, po-faced, self-regarding, ‘what we do is very nearly art’ point of view that appears to be infecting Apple right now.

    Where has the challenger of 1984 gone, where is the energy of the iPod campaign?

    Compare this with the JZ Magna Carta Holy Grail campaign that Samsung are currently running and Apple look a bit like the square kid at the frat party.

    The fact that the products were beautiful once seemed to be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Perhaps the problem stems form the fact that they have replaced IBM as the establishment figure – does that now make Samsung the rebel? Perhaps it’s the fact that they haven’t got a revolutionary, world-changing product to launch – so they’ve taken up navel gazing.

    Have I got an alternative? Not yet. But once I’ve finished writing this on my MacBook Pro, I’m going to check the time on my iPod Nano watch and think about it while I watch downloaded Treme re-runs on my iPad. If I think of anything I promise to facetime you on my 5.

  • foljs

    @arielko

    read it and weep – feels like the beginning of the end to me.

    Yes, because Apple didn’t have BS copy in ads before.

    Or because Apple designs the ads themselves — so they are at fault–, they don’t use an ad company.

    Or, maybe, because “it’s the end for Apple” hasn’t been repeated enough, the last 30+ years.

  • foljs

    @mark
    “””It might be designed in California but their products are made and manufactured in China and Taiwan.”””

    And that’s interesting because?

    Almost everything is manufactured in China and Taiwan.

    Why would people where the fuck it was made? Who designed it, that is: who gives China the specs and oversees the making, is the important part.

    Duh.

  • of that copy, the first line is good. I would stick with it.

  • John

    “What’s actually being said here? Which company out there claims to make everything?”

    I think it’s a pretty clear snub at their competitors, all of whom make far more different products than Apple does. Nobody *claims* to do everything, but nobody else makes it a point not to.

    Microsoft makes products in every category Apple does, but with a lot more variance (like half a dozen semi-supported languages in their dev environment), plus a lot of tangentially related ones (video game consoles and games, online services, telephony, at least 2 different database systems). It was only a year ago that they got out of the TV network news business!

    Google has literally hundreds of services, with many of them in “beta”, often for years. They’re now branching out into cars and last-mile internet access.

    Samsung is a monstrous conglomerate that will gladly sell you anything from smartphones to ultrasounds to oil refineries to life insurance.

    A few years ago, Tim Cook (then COO) said “We can put all of our products on the table you’re sitting at. Those products together sell $40 billion per year. No other company can make that claim except perhaps an oil company.”

  • Nicole B

    The article is spot on! It one by one tackle the print ads by big companies especially that with Apple. Presenting brands and products have become lazy nowadays, creating only symbols and small phrases..Although it’s effective, the long and creative copy writing has been rarely done. But the answer lies to the consumers themselves. Is long copy advertising really gives an edge to a certain product?

    Nicole Bryce-Sharron
    Photo Indigo

  • This is it.

    The beginning
    of the end.

    This is not an apology.

    This is our eulogy.

  • Steve eMailSmith

    I’m sorry – I know I’m not an Apple fanboy (isn’t that the whole point though?..) BUT it definitely doesn’t tickle me in any meaningful way, so to speak.

    I do believe in long copy, but it would not be effective w/o a brilliant imagery to help it.
    The image has to stop people and break their thought patterns first, the long copy only helps to explain and crystallize ideas, AFTER that.

    I think the WW ad above is a much better example of how that should be done, the ‘right way’.

    The car is, indeed, small – compared to the background and there is no other stuff around to distract the viewer. So one automatically stops and thinks:
    “What the heck is this thing? Are they crazy paying for so much space only to show that small image?” or some such…

    There! The image did its job already.
    The visitor stopped whatever they were doing and started thinking about the car. Moreover, the AD would stick in their minds for a long time now…

    Next step, they start reading, to satisfy their (now aroused) curiosity…

    Brilliant, if you ask me… Well done, WW!

    Cheers,
    Steve ✉ Master eMailSmith ✉ Lorenzo
    Chief Editor, eMail Tips Daily Newsletter

  • Chris Campbell

    ‘Designed by Apple in California’ is extremely relevant to the American market, and the rest of the copy is clearly taking a dig at Samsung/Google etc. It’s not that hard to figure out.

  • Grace

    Such a brilliant article

  • stu

    Just the type of article i missed from this blog! Keep it up and and you might just win back my 1st hand attention from Its Nice That

  • I’ll have to agree in part with Mick, above.

    I see untrained people handling the copywriting more and more these days, with budgets cut it seems that it’s one of those skills that has been handed to others to do whilst doing their ‘normal job’. Unfortunately I am also seeing evidence that account managers are making design decisions and when projects are handed to designers, they sometimes already have a creative direction which has been decided by client / account manager and the designer is turned into a paint-by-numbers artworker.

    This may not be prevalent in larger agencies but I’m certainly seeing it in the smaller agencies where I spend my time.

  • Alice

    I’m struggling to read Apple’s long copy on an Apple computer. How’s that for user experience.

  • Becca

    Also, the ‘a thousand “no’s”‘ is grammatically incorrect. That’s my main problem with this.

  • Nick, I’ve only just seen it as been disconnected for a week and a half, and I hadn’t seen the Apple ads before either. I’m flabbergasted at how dire they are. In fact, they read like a #clienttweaked version of @Johnny Cullen’s tongue-in-cheek comment from the top.

  • Ben

    I’m not sure I feel quite as strongly about how bad the copy is. It tells a story, and linking it to the ‘Designed in California’ on the back of every device is not a terrible concept.

    However the typesetting is really
    Fucking terrible.

    It makes it really quite hard
    To read and consume.

  • N
    i c
    e t
    y p
    e
    se t t i
    n g
    .

  • Ed

    I blame
    Dave Trott

    http://www.thegatelondon.com/davetrott/

    (Although he actually gets it right)

  • Wayne

    Long copy ad?
    Isn’t this just a regular amount of copy?
    The Timberland ad is long copy ad.

  • Justin Price

    Doesn’t offend me, they rarely fall far from the tree. The long/short copy argument is only a matter of opinion. Sure, short sharp is stunning, but it’s nice to build a story sometimes, if only for the consumer who may feel these connections. A little romance before parting with the hard earned cash is welcomed.

    O.k, it isn’t the ‘Think different’ campaign from yesteryear, but I can see a few nice touches in the copy, and not having a logo showing in the usual way (logo is on iphone in second Ad) is brave. That’s true confidence in your brand’s identity as a whole. Sure, does it connect with everyone? Maybe not, but advertising rarely does and it ain’t gonna to stop you buying their kit as it sells itself.

  • Excellent piece.
    Couldn’t agree more.

    Alex Pearl
    http://rhubarbrabbit.blogspot.com

  • Mangalore

    I’m not sure I feel quite as strongly about how bad the copy is. It tells a story, and linking it to the ‘Designed in California’ on the back of every device is not a terrible concept.

  • Very well written opinion. I liked and laughed from Timberland’s “un-politically correct” head line. It’s funny how western culture became pathetically “correct”. That add was funny and informative, but they would not dare to publish it today.
    But I think Apple did OK. All they need is just make us to see and hear word – Apple. So next time we’ll look to by a new PC or phone, we look for an apple subconsciously.

  • JMZX

    @Becca

    Good catch, who writes these insane drivel’s?

  • Dan Todd

    Steve Jobs would’ve hated this.

  • Emil

    I agree with Nick when it comes to the print ad. It need to be backed up by facts or connected to something in any way meaningful. Otherwise, well it’s just a mission statement. Much like an internal document of some sort, but not enough to grab anyones attention.

    With that said, I DO THINK that the copy does a quite decent job in the commercial, don’t you agree? In the commercial the distance between the words and the people shown creates something more, even if that it does not consist of USP’s but rather just a feeling.

  • Beewak

    I couldn’t help but read the Apple ad copy in Don Draper’s voice.

  • Paul

    The most annoying thing is the incorrect grammar in “no’s”

    It should be “no”s. I can’t stand it when ad agencies use writers who can’t actually write sentences. Just statements.

  • Patricia

    The problem with this add has nothing to do with the extension of the copy but with the paternalist moral high ground the have adopted and the ‘life or death’ tone of the message.

    It’s really pretentious and verging on the ridiculous. They have lost the plot.

  • Ed

    Possibly the best blog post I’ve ever read on CR and you have structured an argument that is 100% correct and backed up by brilliant examples. This is big branding going wrong, listening to the wrong people, with the wrong ideas and the wrong execution.

    If you are going to write long copy about your product or service, you shouldn’t be banging on about how good you are, you should be informing the consumer of how the product will benefit them, solve a problem, increase their wealth or save them money. The Apple copy is awful, nothing in there to sell the product and the Tescos copy is woeful, it is so bad that you wonder what is going on. The copy says ‘we’, it doesn’t solve a solution for a consumer or provide any reason for a consumer to start buying burgers again. There is no ‘you’, just ‘we’, how completely arrogant is that!

  • Tom

    Nokia. 4 years ago.

  • Just stumbled onto this while googling for something related, and found myself reading it from start to finish. There’s long copy for you!

    I hadn’t seen the Apple ads, but your hatchet job is right on the money. What a woeful own goal from a company dedicated to empowering classy self-expression.

    Seeing an Apple ad should make you think: Wow! Cool! As opposed to, say, ‘Yes, dear…now run along and play in the sand pit.’ (Or even, as a T-shirt I saw in Brick Lane on Sunday had it, ‘in the road’.)