Which is better for advertising: long or short copy?

April 20, 2017

By: George Denison

The other day, I was standing on the platform at Kings Cross St. Pancras, staring at a bottle of whiskey.

I had been waiting to catch a train on the Northern Line. To kill the time, I was idly staring at the huge adverts plastered across the wall. There were all the usual suspects – posters advertising McDonalds, Spotify and the latest blockbuster superhero films, among other things.

There was one advert that caught my eye for longer than the others, though: an advert for Jack Daniels. I pored over this one for longer not because the imagery or message was that much more striking than the other adverts, but because this one had a fair bit of copy to read. There was close to a thousand words worth of text, laid out in fairly small font. I found myself being drawn in, moving closer to get a better look at the story the advert was trying to tell. The tunnel started to fill with the clattering sounds of the approaching train.

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That’s when it struck me. (The advert, I mean. Not the train.)

Despite being surrounded by adverts with short, sharp headlines, the one that had held my attention the most contained several paragraphs’ worth of copy.

I am a copywriter and I have a natural passion for the written word, so maybe I’m biased in my preference of long copy. But it got me thinking about an age-old question that copywriters have been mulling over for decades. What is more effective for engaging a customer – long copy, or short copy?

 

Long story short

There was a time when long copy was much more prominent in advertising. Back in 1923, Claude Hopkins wrote in his seminal book “Scientific Advertising”: “Some say “Be very brief. People will read for little.” Would you say that to a salesman? With a prospect standing before him, would you confine him to any certain number of words? That would be an unthinkable handicap. So in advertising. The only readers we get are people whom our subject interests.”

Nearly a hundred years later, I think his point still stands.

Of course, there have been times where short copy works better. Sometimes, the amount of space available to work with means long copy simply isn’t an option. An email banner, for example, may only afford you 1-200 characters.

But recently, people have been asking whether long copy is a dying format, based on the assumption that modern audiences can easily become bored or distracted.

And it’s true – they can. Advertisers are competing with ever-shrinking attention spans. It has been widely reported that between 2000 and 2013, the average attention span had dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. That’s lower than the attention span of a goldfish, which is nine seconds. Some have questioned the finer details of the study, so the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. But our world of digital distractions is having a clear impact on our attention spans. In 2015, Microsoft reported that “digital lifestyles affect the ability to remain focused for extended periods of time”, based on a Canadian study of attention spans[1].

The internet age has changed the way in which people digest information. With the rise of social media, people are accustomed to reading twitter posts no longer than 140 characters. Larger chunks of text are often waved off with a dismissive “TL;DR” (too long, didn’t read), and people can readily move on to another source of information if one starts to lose their interest.

When faced with an increasingly attention-deficit audience, shorter copy with strong imagery might seem like the obvious way to go. But the Jack Daniel’s advert demonstrates that long copy is still alive and well.

Long copy adverts not only allow you to cover more selling points for your product or service, but also open up some creative ways to deliver your message.

Here’s one example I’m particularly fond of; a subversive long copy advert for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts:

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Maybe it labours the point a little, but with its longer copy format and tongue-in-cheek tone, it does a great job of addressing some of the reservations that customers may have about buying something that is bad for their health.

Another long copy advert that I particularly like is this one for Papercut, which pulls you in with some engaging and relatable storytelling:

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However, the context of where these adverts are displayed is important. When I was standing at the platform at King’s Cross, I had the time to stop and pay attention to the Jack Daniels long copy advert. This is very different to the amount of time I might have to read an email at work, or a motorway billboard, or the banner on the side of a bus. When you only have a matter of seconds to get your message across, short copy is probably the better option.

Even then, a long copy approach can still work for these kind of scenarios, like on this Hillside Trains billboard which is designed to get the attention of motorists stuck in traffic:

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Size doesn’t matter

So, long or short? There is no “right” answer. Copy should be as long as necessary, and no longer. There’s nothing wrong with being long, but only if you can keep the reader hanging on your every word. At the end of the day, if your copy is compellingly written and relevant to your audience, it doesn’t matter if your advert is eight or 800 words long. If it’s worth reading, people will read it.

 

[1] Microsoft attention spans, Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015

 

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