Late 19th century German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would probably be the last person you would imagine anything to do with advertising. A notorious recluse and self proclaimed “Anti-Christ,” his books sold fewer than 500 copies in his own working life. Nonetheless, Nietzsche went on to become one of the influential writers and philosophers of the 19th century, influencing many of the most famous writers, psychologists and musicians of the past 100 years.
In a letter to Lou-Andreas Salome (a Russian woman who was known for her relationships and correspondence with many writers and thinkers including Freud, Rainer Rilke and of course Nietzsche), the philosopher laid out his intriguing writing philosophy. While Nietzsche certainly did not have advertising in mind when he wrote this rough ‘style guide’, a surprising number of his recommendations can be carried over to the copywriting field.
Let’s dive right into Nietzsche’s first recommendation.
1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
What did Nietzsche mean by this?
One way to get an idea of what he was getting at, is to consider this writing advice in the context of Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Nietzsche, ‘life’ (not merely having a heartbeat, but really thriving and growing with boundless energy and optimism) was the ultimate meaning of the entire world. To ‘live’, in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, meant to have a kind of raw, lustful energy; a boundless ‘will to power’ that refuses to submit to the conventional rules of society.
What’s true of writers generally is also true of copywriters. The best copy, and the best-performing copy, is always daring, bold courageous and powerful. Think of Apple’s “1984” ad. That ad, one of the classics in the history of advertising, worked so well because it had such life; by showing a proud, fit, athletic woman rebelling against a stodgy old ‘Big Brother’ type man, it communicated an eternally youthful spirit of inspired rebellion.
2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate.
Another suggestion that carries over brilliantly into the world of copywriting.
Every audience (that is, every market) has a particular voice that it responds to. Trying to sell medical lab equipment while using words like “all natural holistic healing” or “eastern medicine” will never work. Why? Because the audience that buys medical lab equipment (doctors other people in the medical field) have a bias against eastern medicine. Instead, to sell doctor stuff to doctors, you would need to use language that marks you as an insider in their world; that is, doctor-style language.
3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.
What Nietzsche means here is that you need to “know what you’re going to say before you say it.” In other words, you have to do a lot of research, thinking and preparation.
Research comes into copywriting in a number of different ways. There’s the research you do when you initially look at the features and benefits of a product. There is market research (typically associated with larger agencies though even small time copywriters typically do some small-scale market research). Finally, there is research into copywriting itself; studying the techniques and strategies that great writers have used to generate big returns.
Thinking comes into the copywriting process primarily in the way that you approach a project. You need to be constantly drawing on your experience and the books that you’ve read, applying the lessons to what you’re doing.
Preparation is a more general term and includes aspects of writing, thinking, client interviews, and many other elements.
4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.
5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything — the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments — like gestures.
In other words, writers, lacking tools that speakers have (body language, intonations etc) have to compensate for it by using punctuation and related devices.
This comes into copywriting in numerous ways. The use of bold, italic and underlined text; large headlines, medium sized headlines, and small paragraph text; yellow highlighting of certain key words; the use of images and decorative bullet points. All of these techniques combine to create copy that evokes just as much emotion as even the most colorful verbal sales presentation.
6. Be careful with periods! Only those with long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods.
This is essentially a roundabout way of saying “write like you speak.” It’s good, as a web copywriter, to use short sentences; but too many copywriters make the mistake of trying to write that short-sentence style that’s so popular on the web when that style isn’t natural to them, and the result is that it sounds awkward or forced or phony, killing the persuasive power of the copy.
7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
If the previous point is a variation on write like you talk, this point is a variation on write like you believe.
It’s incredibly important in basically any type of writing to believe what you’re saying, unless you’re an unusually good liar. But to really believe in a deep way means much more than to think something. You can think something in a dishonest way; it’s possible to lie to yourself (Freud has plenty to say about this).
People can usually tell when a writer doesn’t believe what they’re saying. It’s not like identifying physical ticks when a speaker is lying; instead, it’s about noticing when copy seems flat, bland, boring, tired, etc. When people sense that your writing is dishonest, they won’t get angry, they’ll just get bored, and with that goes out the window any opportunity of making a sale.
8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.
This is the one tip Nietzsche recommends that probably doesn’t apply so well to copywriting.
Nietzsche’s advice here is very good for fiction writers and philosophers, but it rarely applies to copywriting. Why? Because ad copy rarely ever deals in abstractions. Copywriting is for the most part an extremely literal linguistic game. While there are many elements of psychology involved and certain a ‘deeper level of communication’ than what’s literally being said, it’s extremely rare that copywriting will involve any abstraction.
9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.
What Nietzsche means here is that good prose writing (essentially “non-poetry”, a category that includes almost all non-fiction and therefore ad copy) has to use some elements of poetry to really work.
This comes into play heavily in advertising. Joe Sugarman famously recommended that writing have a lot of ‘rhythm’ to it, to prevent it from sounding monotonous. This is one of the main reasons what writers often use sentences with 3 words at the end, like the examples below:
The car was fast, clean and fun.
The cat was fast, quick and clever.
The outfit was nice, trim and tidy.
The reason these sentences work so well is because they create an effect almost like poetic meter, a sense of rhythm that stimulates the brain and makes you want to keep reading more and more.
10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections.
This is something that any copywriter will be familiar with. Objections are a huge part of copywriting; we’re taught to handle them directly or implicitly in any long form sales piece.
Having said that, that’s not what Nietzsche is getting at here. When Nietzsche says not to deny somebody objections, he means don’t disagree with them in a way that insults their intelligence. Basically, don’t be too argumentative. This is an extremely important thing to keep in mind when you’re writing copy: if you seem like you are arguing with a prospect or insulting their intelligence you will turn them off right away and almost certainly not get the sale.
Of course, there is much in Nietzsche’s writing style that would never work in advertising. He doesn’t use paragraphs; his sentences are sometimes ridiculously long; his ideas are edgy and contentious beyond belief. But a brief look at the advice he gave about writing prose we find that he may have made a better mad man than it seems. At the very least, he knew how to sell you on his ideas.