Do people read anymore?

They say you should never speak ill of the dead, but Steve Jobs, widely considered to be a visionary, and to many a god, made some predictions that suggest he was neither omnipotent nor even particularly far-sighted.

In 2008, for example, he suggested the Amazon Kindle was doomed to failure. Here’s the full quote from the New York Times:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore… Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

Let’s put aside the fact that referring to less than one book is a either a peculiar way of saying “no books” or a missed opportunity to delve into the fascinating world of book fractions. And let’s ignore the fact he was flat out wrong about the success of the device. And let’s, for a moment, look at his reasoning: “People don’t read anymore.”

He said it twice. He must have been sure about it.

The moment I got into copywriting, I heard it, too – and not from the sort of office back-seat drivers who wouldn’t know their arses from their elbows; but from managers and sensible, seasoned colleagues.

The response I gave in my head was always “Then why have you hired me?”

To be fair, those who proffered this advice didn’t mean “everyone is now basically illiterate”. They meant that scanning was the way people “consumed content” online. And there’s a lot of research that tells us this is true.

So perhaps people – and Jobs – should have been saying “people read differently nowadays”.

But I’m not sure if that’s really the case, either.

I’m pretty sure the Kindle went OK after Jobs’ dire soothsaying, and if sales are not necessarily booming at the moment, that’s not because people have given up on books.

I’m also fairly certain that searching for a pertinent piece of information among less relevant detail isn’t something that humans discovered only after the invention of the screen and the pixel.

And I’m convinced that George Tannenbaum is right when he says, on this very subject (which was the inspiration for this post) that:

The fact is, no one reads what’s dull, insipid, smarmily slick, dishonest, shilling, jargony crap. No one reads an in flight magazine, or a message from Sleepy’s, the mattress superstore.

But, as [Howard] Gossage put it perfectly, “No one reads an ad. They read what’s interesting. And sometimes that’s an ad.”

(Gossage died 13 years before Time named the computer the Machine of the Year and Commodore launched the 64.)

Speaking of the Commodore 64, it’s considered the highest-selling computer of all time. By 1994, Commodore International was bankrupt and defunct.

Technology, and the world that shapes it, changes outrageously fast, but it doesn’t tend to change humans – not essentially.

Maybe our attention spans are getting slightly shorter. Maybe Millennials are a touch more impatient than Baby Boomers. Maybe we’re evolving – ever so gradually. Of course we are.

But people still read.  And they will for a while yet.

When a copywriter should step back

A copywriter thinking

A very fine copywriter in deep contemplation

It may seem odd that in just my second post for the Ink Well I should write about copywriters having no business getting involved in certain marketing activities. But that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

In most instances I think a writer is an essential member of any marketing or communications group whose objective is to persuade, disarm or enlighten. If they – the copywriters – are not wielding influence, they should at least be wielding a pen with vigorous intent.

At least. Continue reading

Bill Bernbach’s “trap of bigness”

Ink Bureau cards - Bernbach blog post

I love the blog Letters of Note. If you haven’t come across it in your digital travels, it’s well worth a look. One of my favourite letters (among many) published on the site is written by famed ad man, Bill Bernbach.

He’s described in the introduction to the letter as “a real-life Don Draper… one of the greats”. But in 1947 at the age of 35 he didn’t have that reputation. That was the year in which he wrote to the owners of the quickly-expanding Grey Advertising, where he worked as the Creative Director, warning against what he saw them turning into:

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

I’m intrigued by this trap of bigness and have been for a long time, but until I read Bernbach’s letter, I didn’t have a name for it.

Continue reading