Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A plea to the Copywriters of Generation Y

I was in the liquor store yesterday, and this assaulted my sensibilities:

Can you tell me what's wrong with it? Click to enlarge, if it shows up too small. Got it yet? No?

This poster, a government ad for the Province of Ontario, undoubtedly went through about 20 client revisions and was in front of maybe 50 pairs of eyes, on agency and client sides, before it was printed and distributed.

And in all that time, apparently not one person stopped to point out that the reader cannot possibly be "21 and under". Not unless they suffer from Henry DeTamble's time travelling disorder. He or she can be under 21. Or 21. Or even "21 or under". But you can't be both at the same time.

Does this make me sound like a grammar nazi? It shouldn't. If you read this blog, you know that I'm not a formal writer. I like a conversational style. But I still follow a few sensible and conventional guidelines because I don't want people to think I'm illiterate.

And I don't want to be one of these old farts who says texting has destroyed people's spelling abilities. It's just a different register, and shouldn't degrade overall skills. To claim otherwise would be like saying people taking notes in shorthand or point form are destroying the English language.

I also believe that our language is evolving. If it didn't, my blog would look like this:

No, I can accept change. Hell, I even try to accelerate it. (Shouldn't "highschool" be one word by now? I think so.) But if you want me to take you seriously in an e-mail or any other written communication, you have to show organized thought and you have to give two shits about not making stupid mistakes.

A couple of years ago, I was trying to hire a Junior Copywriter. I asked that each candidate write a custom cover letter in the body of an e-mail and attach their CV. It made filtering through 100 or so applications much easier:

  • Form cover letter? DELETE
  • Cover letter attached only? DELETE
  • Misspelled my, or the agency's, name? DELETE
  • Really bad typo? DELETE
These ones were easy. But what amazed and depressed me was the number of people with university degrees, people who were expressing an interest in writing copy for a freaking living, did not know or care about the difference between "its" and "it's", or "you're and "your", or "they're", "there" and "their".


And shame on the profs who let them get away with this crap.

You want to be a writer? Learn how to write. Because apparently fewer and fewer people in the ad industry know how to.

BTW, I had to write this quickly, so you may well get the chance to point out a few errors of my own.


  1. Right fucking on!!!!
    25-year copywriter sick of deteriorating standards

  2. I also noticed the misuse of the colon before a bullet list. Tom, you are absolutely right. If writers don't care enough to take care and maintain standards, then who will? I won't list all my pet peeves, but aside from the ones you list, I can't stand that people misuse "less" and "fewer". PC Blue Label products all say "Less calories than ...". EVERY SINGLE blue label product says that. And journalists misuse it all the time. ARGGGH!

    Oh, and high school is two words, not one. ;-)

  3. Bahahahaha, 21 AND lord.


    I think perhaps with this blog you climbed into my brain, and stole the material right out from under me. These are the points I have been trying to make since I entered post-secondary education.

    For me the line is drawn when grammatical errors are so bad that I cannot see past them and understand the message. Conversational style is perfectly acceptable, I have a blog that it written almost exclusively for my Mom. With that in mind I am confident that if someone was to stumble upon the blog, they would not be horrified with the vast amount of errors.

    My point...HOW DID THIS GET TO PRINT? *sigh*

  4. The ad industry has been devaluing the written word for two decades, and we're surprised that no one cares anymore? "Copywriters" who can't write get great jobs with portfolios full of visual solutions and hot TV reels. Copywriters who can actually write hear "Nobody reads copy." The ad schools don't teach writing. Creative Directors don't value writing. Don't blame Gen Y, they're only following the money.

  5. "cannot possible be"