A few days ago my girlfriend and I were taking the Metrorail to Chinatown when she pointed out a poster advertising the train we were riding — the multitude of stops, the easy-to-understand schedules, the clean and safe cars.
(That sounds silly, I know. It’s like those companies that run ads during their hold music — Why are you hustling me? I’m already here.)
“Read that poster,” she said. “Doesn’t it look like it was written by a fourth grader?”
Indeed it did: Lots of simple sentences. No words longer than about seven or eight letters. No complicated wordsmithing. Just short, gentle, unchallenging copy.
I told her what many copywriters and journalists already know: While it may not have been written by a fourth grader, it was written with the understanding that people without much of an education would be reading it. The writers knew they had to target a very broad audience, so they cast a wide net when it came to reading comprehension skills.
I’ve always felt it’s one of the most insulting ways to address people.
Lately I’ve been working up a new WordPress blog that lists the many ways our world is slowly turning into the world of Idiocracy. For those of you who haven’t seen this scarily prescient Mike Judge film, it’s the story of a regular-ish guy named Joe who’s cryogenically frozen for 500 years. He wakes up to find himself in a dystopia of famine, environmental disaster, and — most strikingly — extraordinarily low IQs. Mass marketing has dumbed down the population so much that farmers now water crops with Brawndo, a Gatorade-like sports drink advertised as having “what plants crave.”
The result is a worldwide famine. Nobody understands why Joe would want to give the plants water (“Like out of the toilet?” they ask). Brawndo has electrolytes, they say. It’s got what plants crave. It says so right there in the ad.
I think the Metro ad we saw is one of the many steps to a world exactly like the one Mike Judge imagined.
It’s not a good idea to alienate your readers with complex phrasing, eclectic references and an expensive lexicon of terms that make them reach for the dictionary. But the alternative isn’t to treat them like idiots.
So: How do you reach the widest possible audience while still maintaining an intelligent voice?
Back in my journalist days I knew a sports writer named John. John was very cool in a very geeky way — he reminded me of Toby Radloff. And he would always cluck his tongue at me when I complained that my editors were too hard on me when I tried to write “smart.”
“Write at no more than an eighth-grade reading comprehension level,” they’d say, and I’d get mad and stuff my articles with as many five-dollar vocabulary words and heady references as I could without derailing the topic. Penury! Sin Qua Non! Fifty Four Forty or Fight! Then it would all disappear by the time it reached the page.
“You’re doing it wrong,” John would say. “Your writing should be more than a reaction to the constraints placed on it by your audience.”
He was right: The fact was, my audience did have a pretty substantial portion of readers whose education had gone in a different direction than my own, and who might be turned off by my a lot of my choices. My job as journalist was to inform, and I couldn’t do that if my readers were turned off by my writing.
Another of John’s pearls of wisdom solved my problem.
“Write simply and directly. But don’t patronize. I always try to include just one good vocabulary word per article. If it’s a good article, your readers will want to pick up the dictionary to find out what it means, or ask someone else what it means. One word is always simple enough to look up, but they’ll only do it if what you’re writing is compelling and page-turning for every moment up until the point at which the word appears.”
The Metro poster did none of this. It used what seemed like a series of simple, five-letter words and simple, declarative, five-word sentences to convey an idea. Whoever wrote it clearly thinks that, if you are the kind of person who rides public transit in Los Angeles, you have the brain power of a four-year-old.
I wish I had taken a picture of it. But I’m sure you know the kind of copy I’m talking about.
Also, maybe point zero zero one percent of Angelenos ride the Metrorail. Not saying there’s a correlation there, but there you are.
Don’t do what this poster did. It’s a bad idea to marginalize your audience by talking over their heads, but it’s even worse to marginalize them by talking down to them. Because if enough of us talk down to our audiences, eventually that’s what they’ll come to expect. They won’t want the kind of fast-moving, compelling wordsmithing John encouraged me to write. They’ll want subway posters that tell them the Metro is a good thing.
They’ll want writing that has what plants crave.
Popularity: 9% [?]