Tributes to advertising writer David Abbott, who died last month, rightly focused on the range and impact of his work. The campaign he created for The Economist is enough on its own to secure his place in copywriting history – it’s hard to imagine a time when it will stop being a reference point. But it was only one highlight in a career that spanned long-running campaigns for Sainsbury’s and the RSPCA and fondly remembered TV commercials for BT (‘It’s good to talk’) and Yellow Pages (‘Fly-fishing’, ‘French polishers’ and ‘Bicycle’).
Faced with a legacy on that scale (including 287 D&AD credits), it’s easy to sit back and gaze in awe. But it’s always instructive to look at the detail of how a great creative thinker works, if only in the faint hope of picking up a few tips. Looking through Abbott’s entry in The Copy Book (published by D&AD in 1995, reissued by Taschen in 2011), I was struck by one trick that he uses repeatedly and feels notably fresh even though the ads in question are decades old.
The first example is an ad produced in 1980 for Chivas Regal, in the run-up to Father’s Day. It’s a mass market ad for a big brand, but it’s written from a personal perspective: a direct message from the copywriter to his father which, by being personal, manages to be universal. (Abbott acknowledged it might strike some people as sentimental, but it makes sense in the context.)
Five years later comes an ad for Volvo, where the copywriter steps out of the accepted fiction that an ad is a ‘brand’ talking to its customers and instead puts himself directly into the frame (literally – he’s the one beneath the car).
Finally, over a decade before either of the ads mentioned above, there’s a recruitment ad for agency account managers – “men” in those days – where the copywriter speaks directly to the people with whom he will soon be working.
In all three cases, the same trick is taking place. The writer is playing with the convention that adverts are a ‘brand’ talking to its audience, and explicitly drawing attention to the fact that there is a copywriter – a real person – being paid to write this stuff. In theatre, you would call it breaking the fourth wall – momentarily stepping out of character to address the audience directly, effectively to say, “Look at me, I’m an actor”. It’s a technique that plays with expectations and has a postmodern edge to it – a sign that Abbott could have fitted comfortably into the age of Twitter and meta-jokes.
In the writing tips that appear alongside his work in The Copy Book, Abbott advises copywriters to “Put yourself into your work”, where he’s no doubt nodding towards this trick. But I think what he’s doing in these ads is more specific than this general advice implies. He’s not just putting himself into the writing in the conventional writing-workshop sense of ‘drawing on your own personal experience’. He’s shifting the conceptual framework entirely to place the writer in the foreground. In a world where the babble of disembodied brands with annoyingly ‘personal’ voices is getting louder, there’s something appealing about this honest acknowledgement that a copywriter is involved in the process. It’s not a trick you can play every time but, when you do, it has a nicely humanising effect.
It’s also done with a commercial purpose. Like many of the great copywriting tricks, it’s rooted in the tradition of door-to-door sales, where a common trick is for the salesman to step out of character: “Between you and me, it’s my job to sell this stuff, but I’ve actually got one of these vacuum cleaners at home and it works a treat.”
I wonder what Abbott made of the more recent trend for chatty, informal copy that has become the norm on packaging in particular. While the people behind that hyper-personalised approach might protest that they’re simply ‘putting themselves into the writing’, I suspect he would have been sceptical. The difference is that, when Abbott talks about putting himself into the writing, he’s not simply gesturing towards it tonally – nor, crucially, is he equating himself with the brand. The power of the approach comes from the way he’s separating himself from the brand and highlighting the the fact that he’s a copywriter doing a job. It’s a structural idea, not a writing style.
By his own admission, Abbott was never that interested in style (or tone of voice as it might be termed now): “I am not interested in words. I don’t own a thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it,” he says in The Copy Book. “Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar. I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate….”
Whether it’s in a press ad or on the side of a juice carton, I imagine Abbott would maintain that copywriting is primarily about advocacy rather than self-expression – building an argument rather than projecting a personality. If drawing attention to yourself as a writer is an effective device for bolstering the argument, then it’s worth doing.
All this is a long analysis of a simple creative trick. But it’s interesting how a lot of the best writers, designers and creative thinkers have a bag of tricks which they draw on and reinterpret over the course of a career. This ‘fourth wall’ device was one of Abbott’s best. It’s instructive to see how he returns to it in pieces of work that are years apart.
Looking through the rest of The Copy Book, there are sections where the work starts to feel dated and the claims made for it seem overblown. But the entirety of the Abbott section is timelessly and disarmingly great, because the work is rooted in great thinking. It’s appropriate that he of all people should use this device of drawing attention to himself as a copywriter – when you’re David Abbott, why wouldn’t you?
Nick Asbury is a writer for branding and design and one half of creative partnership, Asbury & Asbury, asburyandasbury.com