February 6, 2019

What Bad Copywriting Looks Like

business man's hand showing thumbs down for bad copywriting

Every brand needs to produce copy that is well-written, structured, and engaging. This is equally relevant for a newspaper ad, landing page, website, or social media channel. Writing good copy is an art that, once mastered, can drive reader or consumer engagement.

As advertising pioneer Shirley Polykoff observed, “Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer.” Good copy can make content read better than its inherent quality. Conversely, lousy copy can turn even the best ideas into a difficult read.

We bring you 7 examples of bad copy and what makes them so:

1. Getting the message wrong – Triumph’s print ad

Triumph suffered a cringe-worthy failure when it printed an ad in a newspaper with the tagline ‘For the ladies… who pamper their dads!’

Considering Triumph is a lingerie brand, this was quickly rated as the creepiest Father’s Day ad ever. And since it drew a lot of flak across social media platforms, the company had to come out with an apology.

Triumph’s copy editor failed to avoid a glaringly apparent blunder. This was an obvious case of jumping on the branding bandwagon despite the clear dubious association.

2. Failing to proofread – Adidas’ e-mailer

Adidas’ congratulatory email sent to customers participating in the Boston Marathon read, ‘Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!’

It is a classic example of why sensitivity is critical in the world of content. The writer clearly failed to associate the message with the reality of events.

Incidentally, this was the 2013 Boston Marathon, which saw three people killed and several injured as a result of a terrorist bombing.

The brand apologised for hurting the sentiments of its customers, but the damage had been done.

3. Grammatical error – Old Navy’s spelling error on a t-shirt

Old Navy is popular for manufacturing comfortable, fashionable t-shirts with attractive slogans. But the brand lost a lot of money when it made a faux pas with a slogan that read ‘Lets Go!!’ instead of ‘Let’s Go!!’

In addition to the loss of revenue, the lack of an apostrophe was a major branding embarrassment that could have easily been avoided with more careful copy editing.

4. Plagiarism – Apple’s stolen slogan

Apple faced a tricky situation when it received a cease-and-desist letter from New York City street artist James De La Vega during the iPhone 5’s marketing campaign. The company had used the phrase ‘You’re more powerful than you think’, which was coined and used by De La Vega as part of his ‘Become Your Dreams’ series for nearly a decade.

Companies like Tory Burch and Amazon had also used De La Vega’s artwork and slogans as part of licensed deals, and logically Apple should have done the same. In addition to the shame of plagiarism, the incident dented the high standards Apple has come to represent.

5. Ambiguous call-to-action – Discovery Channel’s exhibition ad

A CTA tells your audience what to do next – be it call, click, download, or purchase. By using vague and passive language, the ad for Discovery Channel’s Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition introduced a degree of ambiguity to the message.

Discovery created a weak brand copy

In this case adding a verb like ‘view’, ‘explore’, or ‘visit’ at the beginning of the ad would have helped initiate action on the part of the viewer and led to better conversions.

6. Disrespecting your audience – Nivea’s ‘White is Purity’ Facebook post

Nivea’s ‘White is Purity’ campaign promoting Nivea’s ‘Invisible for black and white’ had the slogan in caps ‘WHITE IS PURITY‘.

The ad, which appeared on Facebook, targeted followers in the Middle East. A clear metaphor for skin colour, the post soon became an instance of obvious racial discrimination.

Nivea apologised and deleted the Facebook post. However, the company’s image and standing did take a beating on the social media platform.

7. Gender stereotyping – Mr Clean’s Mother’s Day campaign

Mr Clean’s ad reinforced gender stereotyping according to job roles by insultingly associating household chores with women.

The advertisement, which ran in print as well as on social media, depicted women in general and mothers in particular, irrespective of age, being responsible for cleaning and conducting household chores.

The message: ‘This Mother’s Day, get back to the job that really matters’, was demeaning and insensitive to women.

Final thoughts

Intelligent and effective copywriting can be a tricky business. Which is why creating it shouldn’t be the responsibility of just one brand employee. It is with the considered perspective of multiple heads that a copy can emerge appropriate and empathetic to its audience while also delivering on the content front.

Also read: How to make your way through a social media crisis