Giles Keeble: let’s see some real copywriting, algorithms!

It’s a strange world in which my computer now asks me to prove I am not a robot. I have written before about ads being written by AI (and the fact that they wouldn’t be worse than many of the ads written by humans). However, the more that algorithms are used to target individuals with specific messages, the rarer good, thoughtful, human copywriting will become.

The art of copywriting is endangered and it is ironic that digital media is ‘the world of the written word’, as Paul Burke writes in a recent piece. An algorithm that writes an ad, however coherent, will have no idea what an ad is, what role it plays in the world, or even that there is a world. If people are going to choose what to feed the computer to write ads, why not continue to have people who know how to write them? Is speed the issue? Or cost? Would getting ads out quicker, and allowing more ads to run at the same time, be a real benefit to a brand, like alternative copy in the days of coupons?

That is not to decry all ads with coupons, as a glance at ‘The 100 Greatest Ads’ will show. But those invariably had long, well-written copy. What we may be seeing is a return to Direct Marketing, with advertising as a commodity in which short-term effectiveness is the only goal.

Another repetition: I refer again to Stephen King’s Scale of Immediacy. Where on this scale will AI do well? And if the results are a cost-effective way of direct advertising, won’t there be a temptation for that to be the main form of advertising, with film only used occasionally for a bit of emotional branding? Perhaps some time in the future AI will understand and then replicate emotions. But until then….?

Of course, the purpose of advertising is to sell, but as I have written before (perhaps too often), that is not necessarily the role of a particular ad, or even a campaign. An ad can have a tremendous and immediate effect, but that is not the only – or in many cases the most important – aim. The attraction of algorithms to deliver messages to a specific person seems to me to neglect a couple of things. First, that simply delivering an algorithmically relevant message to an individual does not necessarily mean the person will respond (back to the stimulus and response beginner’s class).

Second, that a piece of great writing, or a great film, or a painting can appeal and move many different people, in different ways. The response rate of a digital ad can of course be measured and the messages tuned more quickly, but at what cost to the longer term effects of advertising, both on the brands and on the future of the advertising as a creative business? Some of us miss the quality of work done in what may be regarded as the heyday of British advertising: the days when we were eager to see what new ads were in the Sunday Colour Supplements, and when the popular TV programmes had 20 million people watching them.

If you look at the great work from those days, the TV ads from BMP and CDP, the copy written by David Abbott, Richard Foster or Tony Brignull (the short and long of it from Brignull below), what comes across is the care taken; care that leads to quality. If you can’t be bothered to put in the effort necessary for quality, then you probably don’t care anyway, and vice versa. There are too many ill-considered ads: if their makers don’t care, why should their audiences?

The passion that goes hand in hand with caring still exists and I hope it grows, though the end results are likely to be different from the work of the past. I’ll end with a couplet I recently came across from TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’: ‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice.’

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