The Fantasy of Copywriting

As copywriters, our underlying task is to get positive replies to the offers we make. Whether that means pushing a prospect to ask for more information as part of a multi-step process or closing the sale in one stage, reacting favorably to our message is how we measure success.

An experienced copywriter has a number of tools at his disposal to achieve this end. One such tool is the use of fantasy.

Before we go further, let me be clear: I don't mean exaggerated claims, harmful falsehoods or gross misrepresentations. These kinds of despicable distortions give selling a bad name. Rather, I'm talking about the responsible use of imagery to paint flattering word pictures that drive the sales message home.

A famous example is the longstanding promotion for Agora's International Living newsletter. The letter begins: “You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees … amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks. The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight. … For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven.”

Note how the writing is dramatic, vivid. The copy is sensual. You can imagine the intoxicating smell of the heavily scented trees, the penetrating color of the water, the carefree feeling of bliss, can't you?

In short, the copy borrows novelistic techniques to conjure the very real fantasy that living abroad promises, before it segues into the benefits of subscribing to a newsletter that uncovers affordable paradises every issue.

Who hasn't fantasized about living in their own private Eden? The copy expertly taps into that universal longing and shows how to satisfy it in a realistic way: that is, by subscribing. Indeed, I suspect that our fantasies exert a stronger pull on our lives than reality. Many of us, myself included, indulge in rich fantasy lives. Why not in copywriting?

In her Oscar acceptance speech this year, Hilary Swank said, “I'm just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.” Today she lives in a $3.9 million townhouse in the West Village that was profiled in The New York Times recently. How we envy people who can turn their dreams into reality! Why not in copywriting?

At first glance, it might seem that fantasy is appropriate in consumer appeals only. Not true. It can work in business-to-business marketing, too. For example:

In a subscription letter I wrote for The Journal of Investing, I wanted to tap into an exalted image of the prospect. The copy read: “That's what makes you the ideal JOI reader: sophisticated, bold, inquisitive … someone looking for the kind of astute analysis that often means the difference between competent and commanding performance.”

As you can see, the fantasy isn't over the top; instead, it plays into the reality of a serious publication written for earnest financial executives. At the same time, it reinforces how the reader sees himself (or would like to see himself). Coincidentally, this letter remained the control for more than four years.

Though I don't have strict rules governing the use of fantasy, I would recommend keeping the following in mind:

The more you know about your prospect, the more likely you'll be to spin a compelling fantasy. Good writing doesn't emerge in a vacuum. Maybe that's why writers are such voracious readers and consumers of information. As our minds are better fed, we have more to draw upon when trying to come up with breakthrough ideas, connections and associations.

Don't limit yourself to secondary stimulation. I can read a mountain of material on banking procedures, for instance, before I write a manual on employee service. However, my copy will be more knowing were I to sit in a bank and observe the day-to-day routines of the employees I'm writing for. Copywriters, especially freelancers, should take time to get out of their cocoons.

Match the fantasy to the prospect. Employ fantasy language and images relevant to your prospect and your product. The copy I wrote for The Journal of Investing paralleled the conservative, buttoned-down world of the prospect, just as the overly lush language of the International Living control paralleled its world.

Be certain that the fantasy you conjure is fulfilled by your product. Don't write graphic word pictures simply for the joy of hearing intoxicating language. The fantasy serves a clear purpose: to stimulate the longings and desires lying underneath the surface and to bridge those feelings to your product and to satisfy them.

To put it another way, the fantasy of copywriting is a reality.

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