Don't write off the word

Not long ago, I was drawn into a round table discussion airing on National Public Radio about the best novels of the year. The show’s host, Kerri Miller, a locally famous reading advocate in bookish Minneapolis, was gushing over her recent discovery of audio books.

Miller talked about how novels in audio book format let her “read” at times when she otherwise could not with a traditional book – like while driving or going for a walk. Now it’s becoming her only mode of book consumption. As long as the words are getting to the brain, she reasoned, does it really matter how they get there?

According to one of the other panellists (and some recent university research findings), the delivery method matters very much indeed.

This panellist, the head of a local publishing house, argued that reading something instead of hearing it allows you to go back and re-read a sentence multiple times to get the full effect, and it affords the luxury of examining words and sentences next to one another. Plus, the panellist continued, reading a novel is a more personal experience than being read aloud to, because it is our own voice we hear in our heads, not that of some stranger.

Elements such as type style, white space and even paper stock are all meticulously chosen to create a certain experience for the reader. All of which gets lost when text is converted to sound.

Stacked odds

This got me thinking about the state of the written word in advertising, marketing and branding today. Video continues to reign supreme – TV remains the largest portion of US ad spend, accounting for 42% of the $187 billion outlay, while online video ads are set to grow by 29% this year. But does text still have a place among all that we’re asked to see and hear? Or has technology permanently relegated text to bit-part status?

Audio certainly has the advantage of being less avoidable – it is easier to look away from a print ad, for example, than to get up and move out of a loudspeaker’s range. As for video, it has that inherent attention-grabbing quality that mere words on a two-dimensional surface do not. Add sound to the video, and the advantage becomes almost unfair.

Small but powerful

Of course none of this removes the need for high quality writing – even a silent movie has a script. But I still find something uniquely direct and elegant about a simple sentence against a solid background. The message seems to require less decoding in this form compared to having those same ideas read aloud or seeing them interpreted through video.

Sometimes, a few words are worth a thousand pictures.

Embedded copy examples

And when brands want to convey their entire essence in the most compact and direct manner possible, where do they go? To the tagline – text, plain and simple.

Embedded copy examples

Beyond the page

A cleverly crafted string of words can move from the page (or billboard) into people’s vernacular. You can see this clearly playing out through the tagline’s most contemporary iteration, the hashtag. Created a few years ago by Twitter users on what was at the time a primarily text-based service, the hashtag was originally designed as a searchable (and later clickable) label that enables others to talk around a particular topic.

But it has evolved into more than that, with users now employing the hashtag to succinctly encapsulate an entire idea or argument – or just sum up how they feel – rather than merely serving to provide a context for a conversation. The hashtag is a tagline for our lives, and a shining example of how just a few words can say and do so much.

I believe that no matter where technology takes us, no matter how forcefully the written word gets pushed aside in our rush to grab the world’s attention, it will always play a unique and critical role in branding. Text still matters.


  • Copywriting
  • Advertising
  • Words
  • Text
  • Writing