Boris Johnson turns copywriter but screws up a nice idea

October 21, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Glenn FIsher with Boris Johnson and copywriter James Woodburn

From left to right: Friend and fellow copywriter James Woodburn, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and your highly-amused editor!

Poor old Boris…

Who writes his copy? Because they need their wrist slapping!

Seriously, when it comes to communicating with your customers (or rather in this case, constituents) you’ve got to make sure you avoid one thing above all else…

You should NEVER patronise them.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Boris’ recent letter to Londoners does…

And in the very first line!

You see, I got a letter through the post from Boris the other day and even though I knew it would be some pointless piece of canvassing or some senseless survey, because I actually quite like the guy, I thought I’d give him a minute to interest me.

(As an aside, I once met Boris at a charity boxing event and he very happily shared a can of Fosters with me whilst we had a very brief chat about the novelist Milan Kundera. True story!)

The letter started like this…

Dear Resident

A pretty great Londoner (William Shakespeare) once asked: ‘What is the city but the people?’ before answering: ‘The people are the city’. London is the best big city in the world largely because of the people who live in it – you.

Don’t get me wrong… it’s a nice idea and is on the verge of being good copy.

Sure it’s a bit cliché, but storming straight in there with a quote that begins to paint a picture and attempts to make you feel a part of something deserves some kudos.

But this opening is fundamentally flawed.

Why?

Because it subtly patronises the reader!

In all likelihood, it wasn’t intended. But interpretation is nine tenths of the law and just because they didn’t mean to make the mistake, doesn’t mean people won’t interpret it that way.

The reason this opening screws up and comes across as patronising is because it’s trying to be too clever.

Chances are the writer had the quote in mind and thought it would be a clever way in to the letter.

So, they went for it and wrote the line:

A pretty great Londoner once asked: ‘What is the city but the people?’ before answering: ‘The people are the city’.

The writer would have then looked at that line and thought: Oh hang on; ‘normal’ people might not know that it’s a quote by Shakespeare. We might confuse people if they don’t know who the Londoner is. And unless they know it is Shakespeare then it’s not quite as good, because using this Shakespeare quote makes me look clever and that’s why I used it.

So, they come up with a plan…

We’ll put William Shakespeare in brackets. Yeah, that’s brilliant! That way if someone doesn’t recognise the quote they’ll know its William Shakespeare. Great.

But the problem is by adding these brackets, all the writer actually does is patronise the reader by trying to force evidence of his or her cleverness.

The reader thinks: It’s like that is it? You put William Shakespeare in brackets for me because you thought I wouldn’t recognise the quote. You think I’m uneducated.

And in a flash, you’ve got the reader’s back up.

The thing is… and the thing that makes me worry that the writer is indeed being patronising and attempting to force the clever use of a quote… is the fact that the problem could have been so easily avoided.

You can’t be offended by this version:

William Shakespeare once asked: ‘What is the city but the people?’ before answering: ‘The people are the city’. London is the best big city in the world largely because of the people who live in it – you.

The writer still comes across as being ‘clever’ by quoting Shakespeare, but this version of the opening line is much more effective…

You see, instead of patronising the reader, it compliments the reader… it assumes the reader knows who William Shakespeare is and then goes on to share one of his quotes.

It’s a small change. But the principle behind it is so important to understand when it comes to writing good copy…

You must always ensure that you never patronise the reader… instead you should always try to compliment them, involve them and relate with them.

And remember, if you try to be too clever in your copy, nine times out of ten, you’ll end up in you looking pretty dumb.

Best wishes,
Glenn

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Category: Emotionals

About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (1)

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  1. Baz_Copy says:

    Haha. I got that letter through too. Good point. He acts like a dick but still think he’s ok. Enjoyed the article though, keep them coming.

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