Why copywriting is a lot like reality TV

I say ‘reality TV’.

You think of…

  • fit families hopping from pillar to post to avoid a sea of bright red lava…
  • Zac Efron roughing it and breaking the Internet…
  • Kim K’s crying face and the resulting emoji…
  • home cooks plating up weird and wonderful dishes…
  • or love proving to be completely blind, across a wide range of shows.

Whatever your impression of reality television — and whether you like it or hate it — have you ever considered how much like copywriting it is?


Well, I have.

Here’s why…

1. Structure is really important.

There’s a lovely family with five kids. Two are adopted. Mom’s a neighbourhood saint. Dad’s a firefighter. And their two-bed home is on its last foundations. Enter the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition team, to save the day.

That’s all very well, but this show wouldn’t be as interesting without the narrators, their commentary and their insights into the process.

Nor would the results be as impressive.

Like reality TV, a successful copywriting project requires that a stage be set; that someone with a strategic viewpoint give a bigger picture. Without this context, it’s impossible to predict the scope of work, get started and deliver something with which a) the client and b) the user is thrilled.

2. Rank amateurs abound.

If American Idol (or any of its many, many spin-offs) used semi-professional singers, and if everyone who auditioned for the show was good, there’d be no fun watching it.

Its beauty is its focus on amateurs. Rough diamonds, as it were. And the rougher — and more awful — the better.

In many cases, repairing or editing disaster copy can be just as much fun and just as rewarding as creating new copy from scratch. I love doing it, because a few strategic tweaks here and there, plus a polish, can revolutionise a shoddy piece of text.

In addition, being a freelancer means that I get to work with new clients all the time — some of whom have no idea what a copywriter even does or how copywriting differs from copyrighting. This means that I’m able to educate them, which is very satisfying.

3. The facts are simplified.

Mythbusters was one of the most intelligent reality shows out there. Jamie, Adam and teams did things that fascinated even kugels like me.

But there’s a lot we didn’t see. Because you can’t really attach a prosthetic tail to a human in one hour, using only the things lying around your lab.

As copywriters we are often required to simplify complex things. The target audience doesn’t need to know — or can’t know — how complicated a product, service or solution really is. And so, we finesse it. We make it more accessible.

4. There are some weirdos.

Reality TV presents strange people doing strange things. That’s why we enjoy it. And the more bizarre, unlikeable or un-self-aware they are, the better.

It’s no coincidence that reality TV producers work on specific quotas when casting a show. Ben Elton sums up this phenomenon in his novel Chart Throb, dividing talent show contestants into “Blingers” (the very glam), “Mingers” (the very weepy) and “Clingers” (the very desperate). And competitive shows like MasterChef, America’s Next Top Model, and The Bachelor are similar.

Always remember that freelance copywriting is what you do if you like variety. If dealing with different people, brands and companies every day excites you. And the weirdos keep it interesting. At the very least, they give you stuff to talk about.

5. Some of it is lies, lies, lies.

Many viewers are attracted to what they perceive as the non-scripted, unpredictable freshness of reality television. The ‘realness’ of it.

Take Survivor, where you feel like you never know what’s coming next — even if you’ve watched 10 seasons of it.

In reality though, while episodes may not be scripted, they are constructed and edited within a framework that tries to reflect certain values. The issues of reality TV are simply a highly exaggerated version of everyday life.

For me, this is the biggest overlap between reality TV and freelance writing: the fact that what the target audience sees is sometimes not true.

Many copywriters, me included, are also spin doctors who try to come up with the most impressive ways to convey unimpressive things. We are often asked to white-wash the facts; to make the negative positive. And if we do it well, the end-user only sees a lovely piece of copy.

Bottom line? It’s wonderful.

I think reality TV appeals to so many because it is about real people and it shows them doing real things.

We want to be able to judge, laugh at and root for people like us — or, at least, people who make us feel better about our own weirdnesses.

At the same time, freelance copywriting is among the best jobs in the world if you like people, variety and real-world tastes of different industries.

And if you can take it all with a pinch of salt.

This article originally appeared on Medium on 17th July 2020.

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

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