19 May It’s not the heart you put into your writing, it’s what your writing puts into the heart. (Or why a stiff upper lip would’ve sold a lot less whisky.)
Friday evening, right out of the blue, I came across a strapline that packed an unexpected emotional punch.
It was for a blockbuster new movie, released this summer, about Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan and called, simply, ‘Dunkirk.’
Here it is: ‘When 4000,000 men couldn’t make it home, home came for them.’
Now granted, the context gives it a good deal of its clout. If you know about Dunkirk – a singularly British victory snatched from the darkest jaws of defeat – you understand the deep resonance it still has and how different everything that came after could have been.
And yes, it was the end of a hard week and a certain amount of drink had been taken, but still… I have to admit it very nearly brought a tear this old copywriter’s tin eye.
Now I’m not given to emotional displays – I went to went to an all boys Grammar in the 1970s where that sort of thing was positively discouraged – so I decided to look a little more closely at exactly why those ten words should carry such an emotional clout.
First, there’s the way they’re arranged into a fairly common rhetorical device: the chiasmus.
In this ‘criss-cross’ structure, the first part of the sentence is mirrored by the second part in order to make a larger point. (‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’. ‘ When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog’)
The power of the chiasmus (full disclosure – I don’t know this stuff off the top of my head. I had to look it up) derives from the ‘case closed’ logic it impresses on the reader. That’s why it’s such a favourite with politicians. By setting up and and dismissing the premise of the first clause, it leaves the second clause as the only available opinion or action. (Because that can’t happen, this has to happen instead).
So suddenly, the only hope those stranded soldiers have lies on the other side of 22 miles of freezing cold English channel. Wow, this is going to be some movie..
Second, there are the words themselves.
Recent neuromarketing research has revealed what artists and writers have known instinctively for centuries; that certain words – or rather the notions they signify – can sidestep the logical and beat a direct path to those areas of the brain scientists refer to as our limbic centres, where some of our oldest and most powerful human instincts reside.
Without disappearing down a Google rabbit hole, I’m willing to bet ‘home’ would appear pretty close to the top of a list of such words.
Home. It’s a hugely emotional concept. Both the idea of it and, for most of us, the reality of it. Those four little letters bookend everything we hold precious in our lives, from our very first days and weeks right up to the here and now. And here it is, evoked twice in one short sentence, and back to back to boot.
Added to that, it’s an emphatically static premise. Home is a definite place, fixed and permanent. The very fact it’s always where we left it, giving us roots wherever we may wander, is part of its power.
And yet now, it’s tearing itself out the very bedrock of blighty to come and wrap its arms around its absent sons in their hour of greatest need. Potent stuff.
It’s no coincidence we’re talking about a film strapline here. From ‘Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence’, to ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream’, film tagline writers are the ninjas of the copywriting world.
But can this kind of emotion make the leap from big screen to a 30 second TV commercial? Or even the humble press ad?
The answer? Yes, but not often.
Emotion in advertising is a slippery fish. It’s difficult to do without making it obvious you’re doing it. And as soon as your audience can see the strings, the magic is gone.
That’s why I can happily sit out the John Lewis Christmas tearjerk-fest. Beautiful pieces of film, but so blatant in their attempts to manipulate.
No, for real emotion rather than straight up and down sentimentality, you need to look a lot harder. But if you look long enough, you’ll come across this classic for Chivas Regal. (Click the image to enlarge)
Perhaps I’m just a complete wuss, but a I can never make it to the end of the copy without a bottom lip tremble. Try it, and see what I mean.
Then try it again knowing that the writer, David Abbott, lost his father to lung cancer in his teens. Which means lines like ‘Because you made my wife feel part of the family’ were drawn solely out of his imagination of what might have been.
(Incidentally, this is a rare example of a press ad that doesn’t have, or need a headline. What’s the betting today it would be headed off with something like ‘25 reasons your dad deserves a bottle of Chivas Regal this Father’s Day. Number 18 will bring tears to your eyes.’?)
Emotion, like emotions, must be handled with care. What works on me might have you reaching for the sickbag. But whatever you think about the ethics of the emotional pitch, this one got right through my defences.
So if you go to see Dunkirk and spot a grown man sobbing into his family bucket of popcorn, be sure to say hello.