Clever vs. Clear: The Copywriting Battle Continues

By Emily Shea, VP/Partner & Executive Creative Director

December 18, 2013

Marketers spend their lives on a tightrope.

On one side is the Pit of Cleverness, where clear, relevant messages get mangled by cheap puns and risky humor.

On the other side is the Barren Wasteland of Clarity, where colorful ideas and fun wordplay are stripped away by buzz-killing straightforwardness and unrelenting dullness.

And there we are, hovering above them, always seconds away from plunging to marketing copy doom—in one of two flavors.

Is there no perfect balance? Are we all stuck walking the rope forever, constantly teetering closer to one side and always at the expense of the other?

And when we do inevitably wobble, which way should we lean?


Clever vs. Clear By Numbers

Earlier this year, the Copyhackers decided to put the two extremes to the test. When push comes to shove, which approach is statistically more effective: clever or clear?

For the test, they created three different versions of a cell phone repair ad:

1) The clear copy: compelling and direct. Not boring, but essentially void of personality.

2) The clever copy, which includes somewhat risky references to a hangover and a “rough night out.”

3) A bonus third contestant: the emotional copy, which touches on a potential insecurity point for consumers.

Next, they ran all three ads and measured how often each one inspired viewers to click the “Schedule Repair” call to action.

The results: the clever copy won, delivering an impressive 18% boost in conversion rates over the baseline. The emotional copy came in as a close second at 14%, but it turns out that the fear of embarrassment (coming from the insecurity point) is less effective than a little light humor—even when that humor might be interpreted as offensive by some.

The clear copy? A distant third, with a boost in conversions of only 8%.


Web vs. Print

There’s been a huge push in the marketing gossip circles lately to emphasize clear, results-driven copy over the more clever copy that has ruled in the past. Part of the impetus for the switch, of course, is that modern consumers think they’ve “heard it all before” when it comes to marketing campaigns and are therefore more sensitive and resistant to marketers’ playful genius.

But another big factor in the movement is the dominance of digital copywriting. When we learned how to write for the web, we were told: “Keep it short. Keep it simple. Tell them what they need to know, and then get out of the way.”

We knew we had to write differently for the web, and so it was born: the mistaken assumption that clear writing is for the web and clever writing is for print.


The Writer Complex

The other part of the challenge is that copywriting is done by writers. (Hear me out on this.) By nature, writers love words, and it’s their greatest thrill to enter a profession in which they get to play with them all day long.

Clever wordplay, emotional language, alliteration—these are a few of the writer’s favorite toys. Limiting them is like gripping one end of a violinist’s bow while she plays.

Good writing is an elusive art—since technically, anyone can write, and there’s a lot of personal preference wrapped up in the definition of “good.”

Which is why some writers feel the need to prove their talent. In an agency, if someone asks a writer to throw some language together along the lines of “visit our website,” the writer will try very hard to not use those exact words, even if they are the clear winners (no pun intended).

But sometimes, of course, the best language for “visit our website” is “visit our website.”


Results-Oriented Copy

Maybe you’d argue that the whole “clever vs. clear” delineation is a little too simplistic.

The folks at Copyblogger added a little more nuance to the conversation by instead defining two kinds of copywriters: the results-oriented writer and the image-oriented writer.

The results-oriented writer is all about solving customers’ problems with clear, concise copy. If you ask him what “creative” means, he’ll talk about how few words he was able to use to get a complex message across. The image-oriented writer, on the other hand, is married to artistic, clever, or humorous copy that catches the eye and makes readers go, “ah, I see what you did there.”

As marketers, our primary goal is to tell people about ways they can make their lives better. The creative elbow room we’re allotted to execute that goal is available only so long as the integrity of the message is maintained.

In other words: by all means, sprinkle in a little creative seasoning, but the second your message is compromised, abort.


Respect the Pecking Order

Sometimes, in marketing, we get so caught up in trying to execute an elaborate dance to get people’s attention that we forget that they might already want what we’re offering. In which case, we just need to get out of the product’s way and let it shine.

That said, clever marketing isn’t going anywhere. And why should it? If we’re going to get inundated with sales messages all day, we might as well be entertained at the same time, right?

The point, for marketers, is to know your limit (which, by the way, is specific to your audience) and your priority. Creativity is great, but we must all pledge to be understandable and helpful first. Deal?


What’s your take on the clever vs. clear debate? Does one trump the other in marketing?


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Don't Sweat It

Don't Sweat It

In this animated video, we combine helpful information with relatable humor to talk about a sometimes-uncomfortable topic.

In this animated video, we combine helpful information with relatable humor to talk about a sometimes-uncomfortable topic.

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