Tweed Lion

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper

Advertising & The Great Copy Debate


For those not familiar with the short vs. long copy debate, allow me to succinctly (and hopefully not too inaccurately) sum up the issue. The argument for short copy goes like this:


Aw crap, you aren’t really going to make people read all that, are you?

Meanwhile the argument for long copy goes a bit like this:

“You really think I’m going to drop $100 on a perfume because of a picture of a tattered model holding a bottle?”



Rolls Royce

An example of a very successful ad for Rolls Royce that used a lot of copy created by David Ogilvy, a chief proselyte of the long-copy gospel.


Thus the battle lines are drawn, some beating the drums of “give the people all the information they need to act wisely,” and others raising the standard of “no one wants to read eight paragraphs about your new blender.” So who’s right and who’s wrong? Like so many other things in life, the answer isn’t so cut and dried as zealots would like you to believe.

Here are some common sense (and research supported) things to think about.

1. More people read short copy, but not a lot more.

There seems to be a small percentage of people who will read anything if it’s short enough and in their path. It doesn’t mean they care, will remember, or are likely to be sold. And the vast majority of people are very good at skipping ads all together.

2. Long copy will convert more prospects to customers, but only if it contains really useful information.

Long copy seems to act as a sort of winnowing device. If people care about your product or service enough to spend five minutes reading about it, then they are more likely to become buyers. Of course if your copy is sloppy or dull, no one will care it even if they do care about the subject.


“No one reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” -Howard Gossage

So long copy wins, right? Not always. Turns out some copy needs to be long and some copy doesn’t. If you don’t need it to be long, you might as well keep it short to get the slight bump in people who will actually read it.



“But,” some whine like helpless children, “how will I know how much copy I need?” Calm down. We’re here to help.



An example of a very short copy ad, created by Wieden + Kennedy, that worked well for Nike, but probably wouldn’t have worked very well for an upstart shoe brand.


People need longer copy when they are hungry for more information and reassurance. To know what your customers need, think about your product and ask yourself, Am I selling:

  • In a venue where the customer is seeking me out?
  • Something the customer really needs?
  • An expensive product?
  • Something the customer will be stuck with for a long time?
  • Something other people are likely to judge my customer for purchasing?
  • Something novel?
  • Something technical or hard to understand?
  • Something similar to any other product with a bad reputation?


The more questions you answered affirmatively, the more your customers will need more selling and reassurance. Thus, the longer your copy needs to be. (Each “yes” answer should probably mean at least 100 words of copy, and more might be even better.)

Think of it like this: No one wants to make a stupid decision. (And yet Las Vegas still exists.) Making bad purchasing decisions fills us with all sorts of cognitive dissonance, and we are much more afraid of losing the status quo than gaining a promised benefit. So the more perceived risk to our status quo, the more you’re going to need to assuage that risk with sweet, sweet words.


copy chart

The farther a purchasing decision is from the origin point, the more copy you need. Make sense?


If you look at the chart above, bananas are really close to the origin, which dovetails nicely with our status quo. We know what bananas are, how they work, and that they aren’t going to be around for more than five days (not in an respectable condition, anyway). So you could sell bananas with one word, a number, and an abbreviation: “BANANAS! 39¢ lb.” You don’t need to mention that they come in their own carrying case, that they are high in potassium, or preferred by cartoon monkies [misspelling intentional]. However, something like a new car, particularly a new brand of car in a new market, is going to take a lot more work. “Fiat! $32,000,” just isn’t going to cut it.

Something like curtains are low anxiety (usually). We know what they are and how they work. No one worries about them breaking down. But they also are something customers are likely to feel stuck with and other people will judge them for, which means a bit more reassurance is appropriate. Contrastingly, something like The Clapper is easy enough to get rid of (indeed, many have), but there are more likely to be worries that it will actually do what you want it to do.

Whatever the customer’s potential worries are, you’ve got to provide convincing reassurance. And if there aren’t any worries, then just keep it simple. And no matter the length you set out for, always be haunted by Jefferson’s ghost (Thomas, not George) whispering:


“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

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Published on January 13, 2016 by .