By The Minneapolis Egotist / /
Observations from a mostly retired but still fully functioning advertising mind
My original headline for this latest missive was going to be: Body (Copy) Discovered in Edina Family’s Bedroom Closet. After all, who doesn’t love a good murder mystery? Spoiler alert: there’s no murder involved here, but there is an element of death. More to come.
How it all started: Last week, some wire shelving in one of our basement bedroom closets collapsed under the weight of a bunch of old junk, including a small pile of ads I had created back in the day. (Must have been the weight of the ideas?!)
An incredibly satisfying 2-hour trip down Memory Lane ensued as I leafed through the stack of laminated newspaper and magazine ads. I chuckled to myself, recalling how we used to spend 10% of our net take-home pay on lamination back in those days—15% if you opted for the felt backing, which I often did.
If the work in general was stronger back then—and I would submit that it was—I theorize that it’s in part because you try harder when you know there’s a chance your work might one day be encased between two sheets of forever plastic. You sweat over every last detail, including what has become something of a lost art: body copy. There’s simply not as much demand for it these days when your canvas is the size of a postage stamp. Besides, who’s got the time to read more than 280 characters?
Check out the following ads and you’ll hopefully see what I mean.
For the record, I’m not suggesting these are great ads. Some are certainly better than others. But it’s fairly apparent (at least to me) that the body copy was given considerable thought. Not only the words themselves—each one carefully chosen to advance the story initiated by the headline and hold the reader’s attention until the last sentence, which usually included a call-to-action involving a phone number!—but the way they’re laid out—the kerning (horizontal spacing), the leading (vertical spacing, named after the strips of lead used by early typesetters), the way paragraphs are stacked, indented, ‘ragged.’
I remember slaving over body copy, especially when I was just starting out in the biz. I was inexperienced so it took me longer than it took other more seasoned writers. But it was important to me that I get good at it. And after toiling at my computer (Macs were brand new back then), late into the night on many occasions, I eventually became proficient.
Body copy isn’t entirely dead. You still see it in a dwindling number of magazine and newspaper ads, as well as on websites and direct mail (electronic and snail mail), but it’s not what is used to be. Take a look at this recent full-page ad in the Star Tribune and you’ll see what I mean.
Why would anyone read this? It reminds me of Steve Martin’s line to John Candy in the movie, “Trains, Planes and Automobiles,” “Here’s a good idea: Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!” The only conceivable value this ad has is for wrapping fish.
The other thing some of these old ads demonstrated to me was the emphasis on and investment in original photography. These days, if it doesn’t exist in a stock library, or AI can’t generate it, it doesn’t see the light of day. I guess digital ads don’t live long enough to warrant the investment. If only they could be laminated.
— Doug deGrood