A young woman’s battle with the age-old copywriting dilemma: To pun, or not to pun…
They make me giddy. Sometimes they make me groan. But still, I love playing with language. I was dubbed “the pun master” in my advertising class at USC last semester.
Funnily enough, that is exactly what I was told not to do on my first day at The Bookshop, a copywriting portfolio-building workshop. Maybe it was just because it was an introductory class, and they believed we should try to focus our energies on thinking conceptually. Apparently, there is a general rule in advertising: “tell a pun, go to jail.”
I don’t believe there should be any rules in advertising. However, the more I worked on my first copywriting assignment, the more I realized that my natural inkling towards punning was holding me back. I was focusing so much on the wording that I forgot about extolling the virtues of the product. And there are many more ways to be clever than making a word look like another word.
The more I researched famous ads with puns in them, the more I realized that the really good ones were incredibly hard to find. They have to be really clever, not Dad jokes (sorry, Papa Yanovski). They have to tell a story, and be unexpected within the familiar context of an ad.
Take “Foam, sweet foam.” We get it. Your coffee makes you feel at home, comforted, etc. And it’s sweet, because it’s a latte. But it really just makes people groan. We already think about lattes that way. Puns typically don’t make us think beyond our own narrow frames, which makes the ad easily forgettable.
Now lets examine the ad, “That’s Pour-fect,” for Hansa Pilsner. Why did they choose that phrase? It probably didn’t take a lot of thought. Let’s run through the minds of the creatives on this one:
“Let’s say our beer is perfect!”
“Wow! No companies claim that their beer is exceptional. This should stand out.”
“Furthermore, we can take advantage of the pouring benefit of beer!”
“Perfect. I have just the pun for that.”
Puns may seem exhaustingly useless in the context of advertising. Yet, there are a few exceptions.
This punny ad for Audible takes us out of the familiar. You would not usually associate George Orwell with missing the train. You then have to make the connection yourself: Even if you miss the train, you can download a book by a wonderful author to listen to it while you wait, to make the situation better. While it’s true that using “Orwell” as a stand-in for “Oh, well” might make you groan, it also will make you think, because it is so unexpected within the context.
You won’t forget that one so easily.
All in all, the familiar-unexpected combination is what makes a great ad, pun or not. It’s when someone is able to remove us from our click-whirr pattern of responding automatically in the same way, to the same things, day in and day out, that we have done our jobs as copywriters.
While I will continue to use puns in daily life as a matter of principle, I won’t begin concepting my ads with puns in mind. If the idea is strong enough, and the pun will make people think in unexpected ways, I’ll definitely use it.
I promise never to live by any strict “advertising rules,” but I do appreciate learning methods to the madness. As the great Mia Michaels said, “The beauty of art is that there are no rules.” They’re more like guidelines, to help us reach our full potential and be as creative as possible. And I’m loving every minute of learning about them.