Imagine it, History nerds. One day, on your lockdown walk in the woods, all of a sudden darkness drops on top of you as if someone has flicked a light switch. Next, you hear an eerie whispering and a melodic humming.
Then, suddenly there is light, so much light it dazzles you. And when you regain your senses, standing in front of you is a bearded, magical wizard-like creature, holding a mysteriously large ancient book. After the usual babblings, blowing off dust and casting of spells, they give you one opportunity, one chance to do something truly incredible.
You can go back, they say, to one moment in the past and experience it first-hand. You can see it happening, really happening there in front of you, the sounds, the emotions, the smells, everything.
The Holy Grail, for History enthusiasts!
And then the bearded, supernatural being disappears in a puff of smoke and you are left in the woods, contemplating.
I know what some of you are thinking :
This all seems a little bit unlikely, or
If you really were to travel back in time, you would catch some horrible disease and die, or
Why do wizard-like creatures always have beards?
I know it seems impossible but this is 2020. Anything can happen.
So, come on! Where would you go?
Perhaps you’d go back to 1599 to see the very first performance in the newly-built Globe Theatre, which was probably either Henry V or Julius Caesar.
Or, if you don’t like Shakespeare, maybe you’d travel to June 1613 when the Globe went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII after a theatrical cannon misfired and set fire to everything.
Imagine being in Westminster Hall in January 1649 to watch the King of England, Charles I, on trial and eventually condemned to death.
Or in Lancashire, October 1829, where you could witness the fastest steam locomotives in the world competing along a newly-built section of railway track between Liverpool and Manchester. You could be in the crowd as George Stephenson’s Rocket defies all understanding and achieves a top speed of 30mph, claiming the hefty £500 prize.
We read history books, we sit in history classrooms, we watch history documentaries and listen to history lectures. But there is always a distance between us and them. Just think what it would be like to actually be there, to actually be able to watch William Shakespeare watching his own play performed, to see Oliver Cromwell glaring at the stubborn king, to hear the belching of The Rocket as it speeds along. We’re all allowed to dream!
So, where would you go?
I’d be tempted to transport to Italy, 1592. Naples, more precisely. An architect called Domenico Fontana has designed an underground aqueduct and the works are in progress. There are men digging, everywhere.
Then, you imagine, one of them sees something in the earth, something he doesn’t expect to see. A flash of colour. He calls his mate over. They dig a bit more and they reveal more colour, a picture. A wall with a picture. And what are these? Words engraved on the wall. An inscription?
Eventually, Domenico himself appears.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “Carry on!”
It wasn’t nothing, of course. What they had discovered was the Roman city of Pompeii, a city largely forgotten for a thousand years buried by a volcanic eruption in AD79. The diggers had hit upon ancient walls, covered with paintings and inscriptions, as the course of the underground aqueduct passed through, and under, large parts of the ancient city.
But Fontana himself kept quiet and nothing came of it. Proper excavations didn’t really get going for another couple of hundred years. The UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site we know today, that attracts millions of tourists every year, is largely the result of the last 150 years and indeed continues to be dug, still revealing treasures and insights into the ancient world.
To see the first glimpses of a hidden city, though, a site that would in the centuries to come progress our understanding of the Roman world so significantly, to meet the workers whose spades breathed life into Pompeii for the first time in 1500 years, to be part of that discovery, this is where I would go.
But would you tell them what, in fact, they had discovered and how important their discovery would become? Or would you just let them get back to building their aqueduct?
So, history nerds, on your woodland walks this Christmas, keep an eye out for bearded wizards offering time travel services and make sure you’re ready to give them a quick answer.
Where would you go?
What could be clearer? If you need logs, you can buy them here. If you don’t need logs, don’t bother visiting!
Clarity achieved in words and working effectively to deliver sales to this company. The copywriter’s dream.
After all, you wouldn’t want the sign to read,
IT SEEMS WE PROBABLY SELL LOGS.
No qualifiers, no jargon
As any copywriter will tell you, qualifiers generally don’t help in advertising. Absolutes are clearer.
We will, rather than we may. All, rather than many. Always, rather than often. And there’s no room for perhaps, essentially or somewhat.
Absolutes bring clarity to writing. Qualifiers bring doubt. And if you don’t know what you mean, how can you expect your reader to?
Have a look at The University of North Carolina’s take on qualifiers (https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/qualifiers/) if it appears you’re still somewhat confused!
And copywriters will also tell you to get rid of jargon and overly boastful adjectives. Customers have become too savvy for that.
WE SELL STUNNING, ORIGINAL WOOD, CHOPPED DELICATELY INTO CHARMING AND CHARACTERFUL SEGMENTS
Just say it clearly, honestly and without flannel.
So far so good. Clarity works. Everybody wins. Right?
Yes, clarity must be effective because even the government is using it.
Marketing Communications firm, The MullenLowe Group, has helped the government deliver its latest Covid messaging. And it works. Wash your hands regularly, wear a mask on your face and socially distance.
In April it was STAY HOME, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES. Again a clear, honest message that accompanied the initial UK lockdown and eventually resulted in an effective suppression of the virus.
But when the virus had been (as it turned out) temporarily suppressed in the summer, the message changed.
STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES
The Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, amongst many others (mostly on Twitter), said this was too vague. And when combined with the clearer, but some said contradictory, branding (EAT OUT TO HELP OUT) the effect was exactly the opposite of what they were striving for. More complex conditions had created a more vague, less clear message. It was the log sellers’ version of,
WE SELL STUFF
Sally Dibb, Professor of Marketing and Society at Coventry University, argues that a more effective umbrella message might have been something like, WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER. Then they could have added more layers of detail without ever contradicting the overall message. She argues this would have provided clarity and consistency which could have kept more people on their side (https://theconversation.com/where-the-uk-government-is-going-wrong-in-its-coronavirus-messaging-according-to-a-marketing-expert-146783)
So what’s the problem with clarity?
But even if you get your branding right, is there a danger that by striving for clarity, you can actually create more trouble? Warning, I am about to discuss Brexit. Take cover!
TAKE BACK CONTROL, GET BREXIT DONE, £35O MILLION A WEEK FOR THE NHS
Need a lie down?
You cannot argue that these messages were unclear, however. But did they create more problems than they solved?
The more we search for clarity, the more divisive and divided we become. You are either pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. You are pro-national security or you are pro-refugees. Either you are in favour of foreign aid or you want more domestic spending.
But I may like some elements of Brexit while regretting others. I may want to support refugees while still keeping the UK secure. I may think helping the poor in other countries is as equally worthwhile as funding the NHS.
Where has the middle ground gone? Where is the nuance?
It is certainly hard to find on Twitter, the platform that only allows 240 characters to express opinions. This attracts and encourages polarised opinion, simply because there is not enough space to put forward a nuanced argument … and people don’t have time to read it.
Ex-Conservative minister and London Mayoral candidate Rory Stewart has argued all this already, of course : https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/11/rory-stewart-wants-change-way-british-democracy-works/601480/
But he lost, not just in the Tory leadership election but in the Brexit debate too. And when campaigning stopped in the London Mayoral elections, he was not winning!
WE SELL LOGS, IF YOU PROVIDE US WITH MONEY AND CAN TRANSPORT THEM YOURSELVES
A more nuanced message but a ridiculous one for the log sellers.
So, the log sellers know what they are doing.
The message works. It’s clear. You can be consistent. You target your potential customers. You can deliver what you say you will.
But selling logs, with all due respect, is low stakes in terms of world issues. When the stakes are higher, when lives, whole economies and livelihoods are on the line, has our search for clarity led us somewhere more dangerous? Has a need for clear, simple messages actually served to divide society? And, if so, are we copywriters at all to blame?