Why less can be more (sometimes MUCH more) when it comes to ad copywriting

The Samaritans TV ad - foot and mouth, 2001

Any copywriter will tell you the jobs that need fewer words can take the longest, strange as it may sound. I can assure you this is true! Take coming up with brand names, strap lines or key messages. These might be short, but are absolutely critical to marketing success for companies or organisations just starting up or rebranding. So, not something you’d just dash off in half an hour or so.

The same applies to many, but by no means all, advertisement copywriting and scriptwriting jobs. Some types of adverts are quite long, such as advertorials and those shopping ads on TV that seem to go on forever (yes, I’m looking at you, QVC and similar!) But often, it’s a case of ‘less is more,’ no matter what the ad format or media you’re working with. And sometimes, the very best approach is to let the product or service, or its customers / users, speak for themselves.

This takes me to what, in my opinion, is the most powerful TV ad of all time. If you’re over a certain age (like me, ahem) and especially if you have strong connections to the countryside (also like me), you’ll vividly remember the horrendous outbreak of foot and mouth that almost destroyed our country’s pastoral farming industry in 2001.

During the seven months the epidemic lasted, almost 6.5 million animals*, mostly cows and sheep but also pigs, deer and goats, were slaughtered, at an estimated cost of £5 billion to the private sector and £3 billion to the public sector (National Audit Office, 2002). The effects of the slaughter were highly visible, with dead animals lying in fields and huge funeral pyres across the countryside.

Across the 2,000 farming premises with confirmed infections and 8,000 or so other farms, around 4 million beasts were slaughtered for disease control, and the rest – which were healthy – for ‘welfare reasons’. That’s a huge cost in terms of animal life as well as in financial terms.

But, tragically, these weren’t the only costs paid by the farming community. The human cost was even more devastating, with a sharp rise in farmer suicides and breakdowns, as well as mental health crises for many people working in related professions, such as veterinary services and countryside tourism.

In June 2001, The Guardian reported the suicide of three farmers in the Welsh county of Powys alone, which was one of the worst affected areas for foot and mouth in the UK. Sadly, they were far from the only ones to take their own lives.

As one of our leading mental health charities, The Samaritans (now called Samaritans) took action and produced a TV advert released in January 2002 that, to put it mildly, shocked me rigid. I remember it coming on air one evening and just sitting in silence, and in tears, after it had finished.

Why was this ad so powerful? Did it wax lyrical about the work The Samaritans were doing and describe how they could help farmers get through their mental health crises and carry on? Did employees of the charity talk about ‘cases’ they were dealing with?

No, they didn’t. Take a look at the advert below – it’s only two minutes or so long – and see for yourself the approach their agency, Ogilvy & Mather London, (now just Ogilvy), took.

As you can see, the farmers simply tell their own stories in real interviews and press conferences that would also have been aired on local and national news. The music in the background is hauntingly powerful and builds to a crescendo as the dire state of the farmers’ mental health – and their almost tangible despair – becomes blindingly clear.

At the end, you see the only words written by an advertising copywriter; words that have stuck with me ever since, and which appear on the screen against a backdrop of burning animals:

And they wonder whether foot and mouth affects humans.”

The words appear in flame red and then turn to white (a small symbol of hope, perhaps?), before The Samaritans logo and phone number appear as the ad concludes.

And this is my point about less is more. The Samaritans and Ogilvy & Mather London could have taken all manner of approaches to this TV ad – but I very much doubt anything else would have had anywhere near the same impact. It certainly brought the realities of the crisis home to me, at a time when many people were chuntering about costs, pollution from the fires and not being able to visit the countryside. Which are all valid concerns to varying degrees – but the real cost was something very different.

From a marketing communications viewpoint, that TV ad hit the nail on the head big-time, which is why it deservedly won the Bronze Film award at the 2002 Cannes Lion Festival. How long did the agency’s copywriters / scriptwriters spend coming up with that one line for the end of the ad? I’ve no idea, but I imagine a great deal of time and effort went into its creation. I suspect dozens, even maybe hundreds, of ideas and iterations were put into the melting pot before the final concept came to fruition. All that to write just NINE words.

Of course, as copywriters, we don’t all get the chance to work on such high profile campaigns as this one, or with such prestigious agencies as Ogilvy. But it’s worth remembering, whether you’re drafting copy for a social media ad, GoogleAds, billboards, TV ad scripts, press ads or anything else, think ‘impact over word count’ every time**. And where you can, and where it’ll work, let the story tell itself.

If you’re looking for an experienced advertising copywriter, you know where I am.

* Some sources put the figure at closer to 10 million animals.
** This is just one of the many arguments against charging by the word, which I strongly disagree with unless you only write long-form copy / content. A story for another day!