Copywriting isn’t what it used to be

In the recently updated edition of The Copy Book (originally published by D&AD in 1995), Nick Asbury writes about his work and how copywriting has changed for better and worse

Professionally speaking, I grew up in the shadow of the greats in The Copy Book – people trained in the tradition of classic long copy advertising. It’s a tradition with roots in door-to-door salesmanship and direct mail – copy as an extended product sales pitch, weaving together features and benefits with wit and charm, and carrying readers skilfully towards the killer close.

I have one foot in that tradition too – starting out in telesales, then working for years in advertising and direct response charity copywriting, where every sentence has to earn its keep. For as long as companies want to sell things, it will always be a relevant tradition. Brands like Apple could learn a lot from old VW ads.

But my other foot has been in the less well-defined world of ‘writing for design’ – something that has always been around, but has become more visible in the last 20 years. People lament the passing of the great long copy era in advertising, but it’s more of a migration. Long copy has shifted to packaging, websites, brand narratives, tone of voice guides and copy-led identity schemes.

There are downsides to that shift. Instead of sharply honed sales pitches, most packaging copy consists of loose screeds of chattiness, designed to convey a personality more than a message. I suspect David Abbott would not have approved.