How to Write Award-Winning Copy

Part two of a three-part series.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was recently invited to join the judges of the Verbal Identity panel of the 2016 LIA Awards. Now that the LIA winners for Verbal Identity have been announced, we can examine why those Gold and Silver winners took the honors. I want to spend some time analyzing one entry in depth, in order to show you the points we considered when judging entries.

The best work in the Use of Copywriting division was Curry PC World’s “Spare the Act” TV commercial. Take a look:


AMVBBDO, London, did the copywriting. The ad, part of a series of commercials, launched during the 2015 holiday season in the U.K. Along with the video, the Verbal Identity jury received the ad script and a case study on the campaign’s effectiveness. (They read the requirements!)

When considering the Use of Copywriting entries, we took into account many different aspects of the work—tone, style, length, general appeal, etc. But the most important question for any entry was this: What does this work accomplish through language alone? Put another way, what does the copy do that nothing else can do? For a TV spot like this one, we had to strip away the obvious non-copy elements, such as the setting, the direction, the props, and the acting. Jeff Goldblum is brilliant in this spot—he lifts the other actors up to his extraordinary level—and you might think that he’s improvising some of his lines, Jeff-Goldbum-style, as every line sounds completely spontaneous.

But as we read the script, we saw that there was very little improvisation on the part of him, or any of the actors. The spot is pretty much presented as written—with pauses, exclamations, and stage directions included. This shows how carefully the writers crafted the copy to suit Goldblum’s acting style, as well as set up the other actors to behave like real people dragged into a weird fantasy of a Hollywood star coming into their home to coach an acting scene with them—and teach them a lesson about gift giving.

Look at Martin’s delight as Maggie unwraps the present; his gleeful “I think you don’t” (in response to her “I think I know what this is”) immediately clues us in to the disaster waiting to happen. Seeing her confusion at the unexpected gift, he tells her, “It’s a jigsaw puzzle,” as she sits there staring at a jigsaw puzzle—and then he follows up with a prideful and ridiculous boast, “The man at the shop tried to sell me the 800 piece.” Those three lines tell us all we need to know about Martin: he’s a good guy, he really is trying, and he loves his partner and wants to get her the best gift he can (1000 pieces—not 800! Fewer than 1000 pieces is rubbish!). But he’s utterly clueless as to what Maggie really wants and lacks any kind of imagination. In 20 seconds we’ve gotten a clear picture of a common holiday trope (the bad gift) and are ready for the solution, here provided so kindly by Mr. Goldblum. (And note how effortlessly the character’s names are worked into the scene, making them even more real and familiar.)

This is superior copywriting. The acting in those 20 seconds is great, but it’s the script that tells the story, quickly and humorously. There is not a word wasted in the entire spot, and it’s a long commercial—two and a half minutes! Every line draws you deeper into the story and ratchets up the comedy, leading to the climactic and inevitable kiss. Goldblum’s lines in the “persona” of Maggie are a spot-on parody of the usual holiday commercials in which someone is moved to tears by a tablet or a watch, and he invests those words with such intensity that Martin—and, by proxy, you, the audience—completely buy into the scene.

Would this spot have been as effective without Goldblum? Probably not. But even with an inept cast the script would still be lively and compelling. And the ad communicates its point without ever mentioning Curry’s, the store name, in the script. Although a product is mentioned once by name (the Intel-powered Microsoft Surface), there’s no image of it—it’s just used as an example of the kind of thing you can buy at Curry’s. The message is clear: shop at Curry’s and your loved ones won’t have to pretend to like your crap gifts—they can “spare the act.”

Our jury recognized the skill and care that went into this copy. With language, it did what other tools could not: it entertained, persuaded, and conveyed its message with style and humor. And that’s why it got the Gold.

Can your copy accomplish something with language alone? Does it speak directly to the audience? Does it convey its message in a memorable way? If the answer’s yes, then you’re on your way to award-winning copy.

Next time: How to write an effective tagline

By Laurel Sutton