Why copywriting is like reality TV (27/01/2012)

I say ‘reality TV’.

You think of several good-looking people eating earthworms for money, a family of motorbike manufacturers fighting with each other, a chubby guy baking multi-storey cakes, or a nice family with several adopted kids getting a beautiful new house.

Whatever your impression of reality television – and whether you like it or hate it – have you ever considered how much like copywriting it is? No? Well, I have.

And 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-bedroomed 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 close to the top of the pyramid provides a bigger picture. Without this context, it’s almost impossible to predict the scope of the work, get started and deliver something with which a) the client and b) the end user is utterly thrilled.


2. Rank amateurs abound

If American Idol (or any of the many international Idol spin-offs) used semi-professional singers, and if everyone who auditioned for the show was pretty good, there’d be no fun at all in watching it. Its beauty is its focus on amateurs. Rough diamonds, as it were. And the rougher – and more extraordinarily 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 often 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 is one of the most intelligent reality shows out there. Jamie, Adam and the junior Mythbusters do things that fascinate even science-averse non-techies like me. But there’s a lot we don’t see. Because you can’t really attach a prosthetic tail to a human being in one hour, using only the things lying around your lab.

As copywriters we are often required to simplify complex things, using words. 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 completely un-self-aware they are, the better.

It’s no coincidence that reality TV producers work on very 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 sob-story-ish) and Clingers (the very desperate). And competitive shows like MasterChef, America’s Next Top Model, The Apprentice 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 deliberately designed 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.

Reality TV appeals to 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 ourselves. 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.