Making strange

The fine line between plain and plain strange

This morning, as I was doing some research for an article, an advert popped up and caught my eye. The short ad simply read: ‘BP: With us, it’s not business as usual.’ It’s a deceptively clever line, for reasons more complex than can be appreciated at first glance. To fully unpack the intelligence behind the slogan, we first need to understand where copywriting falls on the creative spectrum.

 

The creative spectrum

Some writing is functional – it’s what you could describe as ‘one note’ in its messaging, e.g. a stop sign. These are practical messages that nobody would bother analysing for artistic merit. On the other hand, we have intensely creative writing, such as the canon of great literary works. These pieces of writing are densely constructed, and every single person who reads those lines can arrive at a slightly (or vastly) different conclusion as to what they ‘mean’.

You could visualise the spectrum like this:

 

 

Where does copywriting, for the most part, fall on the spectrum?

Most copywriters would say about here:

 

 

Roughly, just the safe side of the centre. This might surprise you, as you might think that most copy is the result of hot-housing creatives, agonising until they come up with just the right phrases. In fact, great copy is more often the result of logic and strategy. Who do we want to reach and how will they understand our message with as little effort on their part as possible?

Copywriting is a creative discipline, but it is also underpinned by defined objectives – most obviously to drive a customer to purchase a product or service – that it can sometimes have more in common with the stop sign than the great literary works.

 

 

Picking a household brand at random, TUI, you can see that their homepage shows message-rich but economical copy:

 

 

This is impactful, concise and directive. It speaks explicitly to the reader and compels them to browse TUI’s cheap deals so that they can get away in August – exactly what the company wants. Most people will understand this copy. Great.

Job done.

And this is precisely where many copywriting agencies stop. It’s not straightforward but it’s also not difficult to write unimaginative text like this. But it is the bold, the brave and the talented that capture more attention and drive more sales, by placing the needle within this tricky region:

 

 

If you’ve communicated your client’s message with no grammar or spelling errors, why would you want (or even care about) nudging that arrow across?

 

Why would you want to do that?

You’d do it for one compelling reason: to engage. In linguistics, sentences that skim over people as stones over a mill pond are known as ‘received sentences.’ They don’t really make landfall anywhere in that person’s consciousness, or not for any prolonged length of time. You sign-post the reader towards the thing, they buy the thing and that’s that.

But, by occasionally subverting the reader’s expectation of what they might see, you can excite the creative regions in their brains (the Holy Grail of our profession), and create actual brand engagement.

These are moments of perfect creative/functional balance that induce members of the public to cheerily announce a product’s slogan to their family as they pop the item into their shopping basket, or to remember the words of a television advertisement from infancy to old age. This might sound vaguely dystopian, but this is the sweet spot that excellent copywriters aim for.

When achieved, it’s the equivalent of scoring a hattrick at the World Cup whilst working out a quadradic equation.

 

 

So how do you do it?

Here, you’ll need to use a device that academics call ‘ostraneniye’ (Russian for ‘making strange’), or what the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton refers to as ‘schema refreshment’. These complementary notions both boil down to one thing: ‘take what your reader is expecting to see and make it strange.’

This has the same psychological effect of putting a bend in a road overnight. In this theoretical situation, the inhabitants of the area would wake up in the morning, drive the same route as usual on autopilot, before coming to the new bend and abruptly waking up.

It gets the brain fizzing and engaging.

Which brings us back to BP. Why did their slogan linger in my brain all morning?

 

 

It’s because they’ve employed ostraneniye (making strange) perfectly in this messaging. They’ve taken an old received phrase ‘business as usual’ and inverted it for impact. It’s still clear, it’s still forthright and it’s still dynamic. But by underpinning this message with a playful literary device, they’ve amplified their missive for maximum engagement.

 

How does this work?

Well for one, ‘business as usual’ is generally a phrase muttered by a company or individual when bad news is afoot. It generally serves to direct people away – ‘don’t look over here, there’s nothing interesting happening.’ The agency that have crafted this messaging for BP have taken a well-known negative received phrase and flipped it into a positive message to drive home the company’s innovations in renewable energy. A lesser agency might’ve supplied a short paragraph about BP’s green initiatives, and would you have cared?

Probably not.

This is confident language use and it works.

Finally, though, a note of caution: the use of ‘making strange’ can quite easily go off-piste. We could think of last year’s much-maligned Mango Diet Coke ad, which had critics comparing the script to a ‘Christmas list written while drinking LSD-laced sherry’.

 

 

It resonated with precisely no one, which, in the age of targeted advertising, is unthinkable.

So, you can see that there’s much, much more than meets the eye to excellent copy. Straddling the line between plain and plain-strange takes years of practice and you don’t want to trust any old writer to navigate those choppy waters for your brand. Let the experts help you to energise your message, convey your USPs and achieve your goals.

 


 

Zing’s writers have years of experience and a bursting portfolio of clients to attest to our expertise. We love words and we understand how people respond to them, so call us today to see what we can do for you.

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