Does Length Matter?


In an ad, what works best? A short or a long heading? A crisp or a weighty body copy? It would be best to have more information in your headline so that the rest of the page is read

By Krish Warrier

AN advertising innovator, who is often called “The Socrates of San Francisco”, Howard Luck Gossage, (1917-1969) nailed it when he said: “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”
Which, in turn, begs the question: what works best—long or short copy? And what about headlines? The correct answer to both is like the answer to a Zen koan (takes time for this realization): The one that works.

Traditionally, the practitioners of copywriting have advocated short headlines—eight words or less. This is amply demonstrated even when you take a cursory look at the ads in The 100 Greatest Advertisements… by Julian Lewis Watkins—95 percent of the most effective headlines from the early years of magazine copywriting were less than eight words.

But magazine copywriters were more concerned about space constraints—hence the brevity. On the other hand, the direct mail industry shows different results: Only 50 to 60 percent of the most effective headlines are eight words or less. Which effectively means that longer headlines work, too.

In today’s context, when anything beyond 140 characters is considered labyrinthine, what about online? We are all familiar with “web sales letters or landing pages that have a headline that looks like a short paragraph”.
Do these freighter-length trains of thought actually work? These long headlines can’t possibly be working, right? According to an “eye-tracking study” (understanding the way the eye moves when scanning any document) released by user-interface expert Jakob Nielsen, webpage visitors read in a “F” pattern, “scrolling intently across the top of the page where the headline should be, then making their way back again across the first subhead, then down the left hand side of the page to see if anything else is of interest”.
So, one can safely say that it may be prudent to include more information in your headline than eight words can get across, in an effort to get the rest of the page read.

The headline of one of the most famous magazine ads, written by none other than David Ogilvy himself, reads: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”
A staggering 18 words!

So, when it comes to headlines, what’s the bottom line? Write the shortest headline possible that also convincingly conveys a unique benefit to the reader—which, in turn, will spur them to read the body copy.

The headline for a famous Volkswagen ad was one word: Lemon.
Another headline, for Zippo lighters, again was a single word: Matchless. So don’t say it cannot be done because people have been there and done that.
Which brings us to the second question: Does anyone read the body copy? Especially long body copy? The answer is: Yes, they do read long body copy if it’s relevant and written interestingly. And for many products and services, long copy outsells short copy by a large margin.

 The headline for the famous Volkswagen ad was just a word: Lemon

“When you get someone captive and reading your piece and you’re one on one, you have a chance to tell your story and connect with the prospect,” says Craig Simpson, co-author of The Direct Mail Solution. “It’s just you and them; I’ve found when we increase copy length, we increase response.”

You may say: Well, that’s ok for direct response; what about newspaper and magazine ads? The answer, again, is the same: Write relevantly and interestingly, and people will read you. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the classic Neil French ad (a bit of a stretch for a beer, but oh-so-readable).
Here’s a piece of sage advice from celebrated author Elmore Leonard and it applies equally to copywriting: “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” Tongue firmly in cheek, but so true.

Indian advertising too has produced eminently readable long copy ads. The ones that immediately spring to mind are the ones for Mauritius Tourism by Alok Nanda. Then, of course, anything written by Agnelo Dias.
The common refrain of most clients has been “nobody reads body copy”. The only thing worse a client could ever say to a copywriter is the obno-xious—“maza nahin aaya” or “headline mei punch nahin hai”.

Returning to the question about the length of body copy, I always go back to an Abraham Lincoln story. When asked: “Mr Lincoln, how long do you think a man’s legs should be?” Lincoln replied: “Long enough to reach the ground.” Yes, the basic rule of copy length is the same as headlines—as long as necessary, but
no longer.
Here’s what Bob Bly says about the length of copy. It will depend on three things:

  • The Product: If the product or service has more features and benefits, there is a need for long copy.
  • The Audience: Today, especially, prospects are seeking more information. Consider high value items like a car. People will go through reams of
  • information on the internet before making a purchase decision.
  • The Purpose: What’s the objective? If you are generating a lead for a service business, then you need fewer details. But an ad that aims to make a sale, must overcome every objection the potential buyer may have.

In the final analysis, at the cost of being repetitive, while writing copy, remember to keep it only as long as it needs to be in order to make a persuasive argument, but not so long that your readers are bored stiff and feel sleepy, or worse, go off to attend to something else.

One way to avoid this would be to pre-test your copy. In the absence of formal research, you could run it by a friend, your wife or a colleague to gauge their reactions. You’ll be surprised by how people consume ads.