"Clever" Copy is Not Always The Same as Good Copy

I've had my superiors ask me to write something "clever" on numerous occasions. It's up there with requests like "make it go viral" or "I want something punchy." 

As a 20+ year writer and creative thinker, being told to write something clever is one of those phrases that instantly sounds like nails on a chalkboard. I know what the Vice President of Marketing is asking for, and it isn't the version of clever that I have in my mind. 

Dictionary.com defines clever as: mentally bright; having sharp or quick intelligence; able. superficially skillful, witty, or original in character or construction; facile. 

The superficial part of that definition is what is usually being requested. When clever is on the brief (if there even is a brief), what is being requested is one (or a combination) of the following:

  • A pun
  • An idiom
  • A pun combined with an idiom
  • An idiom that's been rewritten in some way
  • A play on words
  • A lot of alliteration
  • Rhymes and poetic flourishes

I could go on, but that's the kind of clever I get asked for constantly. The trouble is, in many instances clever is not clear. It doesn't get the point across as quickly as a piece of well-crafted copy that communicates and compels without trying to be fancy. 

Here's an example. One of the greatest copy-only ads of all time was written by David Abbott for The Economist. I'm sure you know it well:


Now, is that copy clever? I would argue it's straightforward, but the idea behind it is smart and strategically-brilliant. You instantly get what is going on here. If you don't read The Economist, your career is going nowhere. 

Would this ad have been better with a bunch of puns, idioms, and other such literary devices? I would say no. 

Over the years, The Economist ads played with copy that was straightforward, and ads that played with words more. "Great minds like a think" is one that took an idiom and turned it around. It's fine. It works. But it's not the powerhouse of the ad above. 

Does this mean that the litany of "clever" types of copy mentioned earlier should never be used? Of course not. Each case is different. Very rarely, a pun can work. I say very rarely because most puns make you groan. But again, a great writer can wield the occasional pun like a samurai. 

Just remember, if "clever copy" is asked for, don't feel obliged to deliver it. Provide the best solution for the client's problem, and convince them why the thinking behind it is clever.