Writing Advertising? Shorter is Always Sweeter.

Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

In the history of advertising, some of the most lauded taglines have also been the shortest.  Why is this?  (And while we’re at it, why does the leggy blonde always seem to go out with that short guy?)

Why do we not seem to gravitate to long, multi-syllabic complex thoughtforms?  At first glance, it would seem to be useful if we could pack more bullet points into our advertising signoff, so people would remember lots of stuff about our product or service.  But for American consumers, it just doesn’t work.  Maybe it’s because we’re American.  We like it punchy.  We like it now.  We like Ricky Bobby and light beer, dammit.

Okay, that’s cynical, and not so helpful.  Let’s get serious.  For the most part, shorter taglines work for a number of reasons. Primarily, its because they’re easy to remember.  And if you’re in the business of stimulating demand (that’s what advertising is supposed to do, bee-tee-dubs,) then a short, pithy line is simply more memorable, more recall-able than, say, an advertising haiku. So there’s a form-follows-function overtone there.

Second, there’s an actual meter to consider, a rhythm, a tempo, a little bounce that shorter lines provide over their more verbose counterparts.  With a short line, the consumer can file a meme away into a corner of her mind that only your brand (in the best cases,) can occupy.

Finally, it’s about time.  The modern consumer is busier than ever, and is literally overwhelmed with messages, media, and now devices that carry and deliver information, including advertising messages.  Whether it’s social media applications, or websites, or traditional media, or a sporting event, or the floor at the local grocery store, there simply isn’t time in the consumer’s day to focus on all that content – especially your bloody marketing message.  Now, more than ever, being short and to the point is not just a welcome deviation from the discord in the din, but also a way to stand apart from it.  Brevity is indeed the essence of wit.

Although this might seem confining, remember that you can say an awful lot with a few small words.  Case in point:  ‘Be all you can be.’ for the US Army.  This line lasted more than 20 years and defined perhaps the most successful articulation of any military marketing message. Five words, of two or three letters each.  And yet, the meaning is monumental.  Partly because it’s personalized to the individual reading it via “you,” and “all” is just broad enough to cover virtually every aspect of that individual’s life.  Brilliant.

Some of the most notable short advertising taglines:

Just do it.
Think Small. (This was actually a headline but it rocked so hard, it has to be included.)
We try harder.
Got Milk?
Be all you can be.
A diamond is forever.
Think different.
It’s not TV.  It’s HBO.
Intel Inside.
Because You’re Worth It.
Great taste. Less filling.
I want my MTV!

Putting it into practice:

Let’s not forget, there have been immortal taglines that are not short.  (The Ultimate Driving Machine/When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight/Melts in your mouth, not in your hands, etc.) So when you set out to craft advertising for your business, keep your audience front and center, and let that dictate what you write.  What are they doing?  What do they need?  How can you help them?

Keep it simple.  Better yet, keep it short.  Pack as much into the idea that you can, without leaving too much to the imagination, (although leaving to interpretation is okay.)  Generally, basic language works best – small words, single syllables if you can help it, and a clear, declarative tone.  And NEVER make your slogan – strapline, tagline, whatever you want to call it – a question, okay?   (A really good one only happened, like, once.)

Now,  get your eraser out and start writing.

10 thoughts on “Writing Advertising? Shorter is Always Sweeter.

  1. Sandra McLeod Humphrey November 9, 2011 / 8:24 pm

    Good post and it gives me a lot to think about. I would tend to go with short and punchy myself. The tag line for my blog is short and people seem to relate to it quite easily and readily. Love your blog and I’ll be back!


    • Nader Ashway November 9, 2011 / 10:40 pm

      Thanks, Sandy. Of course, if you can pack a punch into a short line, the result is usually very memorable. Make it emotional, make it aspirational, but make it sing! Thanks, as always, for reading.


  2. David Adelman November 9, 2011 / 10:23 pm

    Nader, great post and right on. First, the leggy blonds end up with the short guys because the short gals latch on to the tall guys. Best advice when writing is to start with an eraser. Big ideas should seem natural and, therefore, shouldn’t need a lot of explaining.


    • Nader Ashway November 9, 2011 / 10:43 pm

      Thanks David. I agree that the best ideas are the ones that don’t need explaining. The really interesting part is that you can show the same (short, simple) line to 100 people, and you’ll still have 100 different perceptions. But if you’re able to ensure that they’ll all be very close to the intended idea, that’s success.


  3. Cathy Kenyon November 9, 2011 / 10:54 pm

    Great post. All my advertising tends to be very short (I can never think what to say). So I guess that’s alright, then!


    • Nader Ashway November 11, 2011 / 1:57 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Cathy. As I said, shorter IS sweeter, so you must be on to something!


  4. Phil Johnson November 11, 2011 / 4:41 pm

    Nader, Good writing as always. I want to add one more excellent tagline to your list: Powered by Service for Zappos. What makes it meaningful is the energy that Zappos has invested in making service the engine for its business. And that’s the issue with all taglines. Until you build a story for them they are empty shells with little emotional impact. How many powerful images did it take before Got Milk? became iconic, or Just Do It became an aspiration for all of our goals. The challenge for most marketers and brands is building the meaning behind the tagline. No tagline starts out great. You create it over time.


    • Nader Ashway November 13, 2011 / 5:24 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Phil. You’re right in saying that a line on its own has very little merit, until we begin to associate a story – and particularly an emotional connection – to it. Those who really succeed can build that story into a line that’s short and powerful and can be recalled with ease. Thanks for following!


  5. Susan McHugh January 15, 2012 / 4:03 am

    Hi – I’m a friend of Cara’s. It’s probably obvious but the short guy gets the leggy blonde because he’s rich (and old).


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