Advertising and poetry don’t often appear in the same sentence. In fact, hardly ever.
For starters, advertising is part of our daily lives. We’re constantly hit with messages trying to get our attention. Poetry, on the other hand, is seen by many as an esoteric interest, enjoyed by smaller circles predominantly made up of writers and academics. But when you look at both poetry and advertising as forms of literature, they share many similarities.
In 1941, S. I. Hayakawa argued that advertising and poetry have a common function of shaping our lives. He described how advertising, as “sponsored poetry or the poetry of consumer goods”, made poetry more accessible to people in the twentieth century than in any other time in human history. Both poetry and advertising, he writes, “strive to give meaning to the data of everyday experience; they both strive to make objects of experiences symbolic of something beyond themselves.”
As someone who works in advertising and also writes poetry, I can see how Hayakawa would have come to this conclusion. A poet always looks to extract a deeper meaning from an object, situation or feeling. Advertising creatives similarly aim to heighten the significance of a product or service.
When I started my career in advertising, I didn’t recognise this connection immediately. After studying creative writing at the University of Melbourne, I entered the industry with a dreamy head full of poetry and fiction. I had no idea how to structure an advert, or write copy about a product or service. I had to teach myself not to be a poet, but an adman.
Until then, I didn’t think the two were aligned, because writing had been deeply personal for me. I was attracted to poetry because it gave me the ability colour outside the lines of grammar. I could explore language in various different ways without restriction, but my aim was never for a reader to do something. I simply wanted someone to contemplate on my idea or feeling.
But in advertising, I was suddenly faced with this new form of writing that wasn’t about getting a reader just to contemplate an idea, it was about getting them to buy it. Copywriting, I was taught, had to have actionable outcomes. Everything I wrote – from print ads and website copy to scripts – had to be written in a way that led to a strong call to action, so the audience would consider the product I was writing about. In other words, it had to be highly persuasive.
Aldous Huxley once described the advertisement as “the most exciting, the most arduous literary form of all”. “It is far easier,” he wrote, “to write ten passably effective Sonnets, good enough to take in the not too inquiring critic, than one effective advertisement that will take in a few thousand of the uncritical buying public.”
I wouldn’t say advertising is more difficult to write than poetry. But it is more specific – because it has to sell something.
Both forms, however, exploit the reader’s emotions. Advertising in some way or another gives us what we wish for – whether alleviation, diversion or transcendence – because, as much we might hate advertising, we all want more out of life. And advertising heightens reality, just like poetry does. Through creativity, it amplifies the reality of material goods. It invests them with a higher purpose and meaning.
Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that advertising is notorious for using poetry directly in ads. This is when it truly becomes the “sponsored poetry” Hayakawa talked about.
A poet always looks to extract a deeper meaning from an object, situation or feeling. Advertising creatives similarly aim to heighten the significance of a product or service.
The most public use of poetry in Australian advertising over the past decade must be ‘Ode to Can’, the $10 million advertising campaign Commonwealth Bank launched in 2012, recited by Toni Collette. And the beautifully written poem? It wasn’t penned by a practising poet, but by a creative director from M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency behind the ads.
In 2016, we were exposed to more poetry through the Telstra ad campaign ‘Thrive On’. Here we hear spoken word poetry by Australian Poetry Slam Champion Phil Wilcox. Both campaigns inspire us to feel something beyond their reality. But if the poems didn’t have a product attached to them, would they have the same reach?
I always find it interesting reading the comments under these ads in YouTube. There’s always the usual backlash, but most people like them. They refer to them as poems, not ads. And in essence, they are. Becoming aware of this close association made me realise the power poetry possesses. I’ve always considered poetry to be a form of emotional distillation. You try to distill deeper truths out of yourself. And when you do, poetry becomes powerful, because your own truth is in it.
It’s the same with advertising.
An ad becomes truly powerful when you distill the product’s essence. When you get to the heart of the truth and create a human connection. This is where I believe the similarity of poetry and advertising is closest, because we don’t want to buy a product or service. We want to buy a story. A feeling. A truth we can relate to our lives.
To this day, I’ve never come across a copywriter who doesn’t want to write with the same emotional prowess as poetry. We fight like raging bulls to give the world the same feeling derived from a beautiful poem. We hope that, among the thousands of ads you get hit with every day, there’s one that sticks out. One that makes you feel.
Ennis Cehic is a writer and creative from Melbourne. Aside from working in advertising and taking photos, Ennis writes fiction, poetry and essays. He’s been published in The Lifted Brow, The Age, Kill Your Darlings, Dialect (Express Media) and All The Best Radio. He’s a former member of the West Writers Group from Footscray Arts and can be found posting photos with poetry at @enniscehic. More of his work can be found here.