Copywriting and poetry have many similarities. They share rhythm and aim to appeal to our emotions. And they both draw from the same toolbox, using devices like metaphor and alliteration to create vivid descriptions. If copywriting is all or part of your job and you want to lift your game, take time to read a poem each day. It will ward off creative atrophy and definitely inspire your writing.
Alice Major, an award-winning poet and essayist, explores the connections and similarities between copywriting and poetry, and encourages a ‘random acts’ encounter with poetry, so you can discover which verses you like.
Copywriting and poetry: Answering the same questions
When you were working in corporate communications and writing poetry in your own time, did you feel that the colliding of two worlds inspired you creatively? What things do poetry and advertising have in common? And what skills sets do poets and ad copywriters share?
I have found more crossovers between those two worlds than you’d find in a pair of high-lace boots – and the common strand of the lacing is the fact that humans play around with language all the time. Over time, whether I was working on a poem or a bill-stuffer to go with a utility bill (or a Christmas letter-to-employees, or a speech), I came to realize I was always asking myself the same questions:
- Who am I writing this for? What do they want to know? How to they feel – or want to feel – about this subject? Poetry and public relations are both intensely connected to emotion. That’s what we want to stimulate, because emotion is the human brain’s way of tagging something as significant.
- Does the logic make sense? We get a great deal of pleasure out of following the flow of thought in a piece of writing. That’s as true for a sonnet as it is for a quarterly report or regulatory submission.
- Can I make the language more engaging? As children, we love word games and bad puns, stories and repeated sounds (“Great green gobs of …”). This is how we learn language. As we get older, our cognitive systems learn to go straight for meaning and strip out attention to the sounds. But in fact, we go on unconsciously registering things like alliteration and unusual word usage – they make us stop for microseconds to pay attention.
There’s a theory that language didn’t evolve as a method of sharing information, but for sharing attention: “Here, look at this with me.” To me, this makes so much sense, and it’s the essence of communication.
Poetry is an ancient art, perhaps even our original form of story telling. It often evokes an emotional response and the best poetry brings out a deeper understanding of its subject. The best brand taglines have rhythm, cadence and of course emotional appeal. Given this, why don’t people in public relations and marketing use poetry in videos, campaigns, or internal communications initiatives?
I think we have to distinguish between poetry as a set of tools and techniques – which we can use for many different purposes – and ‘poetry’ as we often think of it in a high-minded way, as a way of trying to understand our lives and the world.
PR and marketing do use the same tool kit as poets all the time – and advertising copywriting has them mastered!
As you point out, cadence and rhythm are essential to a brilliant tag-line. And a 15-second TV commercial can tell a micro-story complete with narrative line, characters and metaphor: “Having this car is magic – you can take your pensive little girl to a land where the rain stops and the sun comes out” – all without a single word spoken! That keeps a language-bound poet humble.
But there aren’t all that many poems that would be directly useful to a PR campaign. Sometimes a very familiar line of poetry – “Hope springs eternal” – might spur a slogan or campaign, because it is familiar enough to resonate with a broad public. But poetry and advertising do have different reasons for being.
Which takes me to your next question . . .
Poetry, copywriting, and the tools of language
Not too long ago one of the clear differences between marketers/ad copywriters and poets was that poets gave their subject meaning, while ad copy focused primarily on making a sale. This has changed in recent decades. Today, brands strive to make deep and long-term connections with consumers. For their part, consumers have relationships with brands and respond to them emotionally, as if the brand is a person. Consumers may say or feel: “I love Apple,” and “I can only wear Nike,” or “I will only drive this make of vehicle.”
As a poet, how do you react to this? Do you feel that the definitions of copywriting and poetry are blurred or merged? Have we lost something along the way?
I’m not sure that the definitions of the two arts are any more blurred than they’ve ever been. I’ve always maintained that poetry isn’t one thing, it’s many things – Robert Service’s rollicking Cremation of Sam Magee and the Old Testament Song of Songs are both equally poetry. There is poetry that you can put in a greeting card and there’s poetry that can be hard to appreciate without an advanced degree in poetic theory.
And poets have always wanted, in a sense, to “sell” their poem, to have it stick in the brain where, in Robert Frost’s words, “it’s hard to get rid of.” The inventive rhyming of rap is a powerful way of selling the poem, and for the artists that can do it well, it’s a good living!
But I do have concerns. We all share these tools because they come out of our common cognitive tool box, and they are essentially tools that can be used to manipulate other people. That’s why we know we can create brand loyalty, that’s why we create clickbait headlines and apps that reinforce our built-in brain habits.
So the purposes for which we use these tools do matter deeply.
A misogynistic rap lyric, a political speech that whips up emotion with rhetorical devices we’ve been using since ancient Greece, an advertisement for a product that harms the ozone layer – these are all words with consequences. Of course we have to care about those consequences.
When I first came to public relations, it was from journalism, and I confess I was a bit snooty about coming down in the moral universe. It didn’t take me long to realize that the world of communications can’t ever be neatly split into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ When I looked back at the ill-informed glee with which I had dissed business, I felt I’d been naïve. I live in a world where I depend on products and services; I live in a province (Alberta) that feels the uneasy tug between environmental degradation and the economic needs of real people.
But there are times when as communicators, as people, we have to hold up our hands and say, “No, this is a line too far. This is not for the common good.” And use our words for what we believe in. Perhaps poetry can sometimes remind us what that common good is.
How do I love Thee, daily poem?
What advice do you offer to people who work as creative writers, including ad copy writers? Can reading poetry kick-start a creative process, and how do we figure out who we should read?
I do find that reading poetry often helps kick-start my creative process, mainly because poetry is based on metaphor, the linking of words and thoughts in unexpected ways.
Metaphor isn’t just a fancy decoration pasted on to writing. It’s fundamental to how we think, and especially to how we think in novel ways.
Sometimes I read a poem and think “Oh, I could link that with this,” and away I go. This is absolutely the most enjoyable moment in creativity of any kind.
Poetry covers such a huge spectrum, and as readers, we’re all so different. So it’s hard to direct people to what they’ll find creatively inspiring. The best way is a kind of ‘random acts’ encounter – try it and see what you like.
One way of getting a random burst of poetry is to sign up for one of the sites like Poetry Daily – they can send you a poem every day. Or download the Poem in your Pocket collection that’s done every year by the American Academy of Poets and the League of Canadian Poets, and read through the individual pieces. If you find one that interests you in particular, you can track down more of that poet’s work.
Or do all us poets a big favour and subscribe to one of the literary magazines that publish it. I always carry a litmag around with me – a poem is great to dip into when you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment or a grilled-cheese sandwich. A couple of Canadian mags that I like are the venerable Fiddlehead from the University of New Brunswick, and Calgary’s Freefall. And I also really like Los Angeles-based Rattle (which also has a poem-a-day on its site as well as the magazine.)
One last little tip about reading poetry – you have to slow down! You’re not reading for the information content the way you skim a newsletter.
You want to return to that childhood place where the sound and rhythm of language was magic. Read a poem. Read it again. Let its high-lace seven-league boots take you places.
Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and your approach to your work?
Everyone and no-one. I’m probably most influenced by the work of Robert Burns, via my father, who wrote poems in that tradition. I like where Burns locates himself as a poet – someone who is speaking with people, not at them; someone who feels there is room in poetry to speak up for ordinary people. But that was a seriously unfashionable stance for poets to take when I was growing up, so I didn’t get much encouragement in that direction.
I like Czeslow Milosz’s examination of the poet’s role in his book The Witness of Poetry, which gave me a sense of the history of my craft and gave me an intellectual context for doing what I like to do anyway.
Poet and essayist Alice Major
Alice grew up in Dumbarton, Scotland – a small town on the banks of the Clyde, not far from Glasgow. Her family came to Canada when she was eight, and she grew up in Toronto before heading west to British Columbia to work as a reporter on The Williams Lake Tribune.
Alice is an active supporter of Canada’s arts and writing community. In October 2016 she was selected as one of 25 Influential Alberta Artists from all disciplines and regions of the province, to celebrate the Alberta Foundation for the Arts’ 25th anniversary. The list includes musicians, dancers, visual artists, theatre luminaries and others, including luminaries like jazz musician (and former Canadian Senator) Tommy Banks, acclaimed indigenous artist Alex Janvier, and novelist Rudy Wiebe. Alice’s awards include:
- First poet laureate for the City of Edmonton (2005-7)
- Past president of the League of Canadian Poets,
- Past president of the Writers Guild of Alberta,
- Past chair of the Edmonton Arts Council.
- Founder, Edmonton Poetry Festival.
Alice has a BA in English from Trinity College, University of Toronto.
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