Is My Auntie Ann The Segment Of One?by Luk Catrysse - June 09, 2016
While a novelist had probably better not be bothered at all by any notion of who his readers actually are, a copywriter’s performance, on the contrary, heavily depends on audience intelligence. Blessed with data abound these days, copywriters, one hence would think, must be living the best of times.
Flashback to 1995. The Twin Towers were still carelessly scraping New York skies and the single most thrilling new service the internet had to offer was a little something called ICQ. I had just left college and had set my mind on kickstarting a career as a copywriter. A bold plan that was, indeed, since most copywriters in those days were either disillusioned bar keepers or graduates Germanic Languages who somehow had fallen prey to their own Wanderlust along the way.
Anyway. HR introduced me to an art director and that was that: a copywriter I had become. And a lucky one too, it turned out soon: my senior colleagues, wandering ex-barkeeps or not, had won their own weight in golds. All I had to do, it seemed, was learn by imitation.
My Segment of One
My first assignment, moreover, was semi-complete already, when it landed on my junior desk. It had a visual and a headline. All it needed was a finishing touch of bodycopy. “Go ahead, fill the space,” was the briefing creative’s only request.
“Fill the space? What does it need to do? Who’s it for?” I managed to reply, before… “Everyone,” the creative replied, then disappeared into the coffee corner. “The ad will be in tomorrow’s papers!”
There I was. My junior head puzzled. Who was I to address? And if I didn’t find out, how could my very first bodycopy ever impress? Burning questions… I picked up the phone – well, mobile nor email wasn’t yet… – to call my mentor!
His advice: “Write as if you’re talking to your auntie.”
My auntie! Of course! Thank you so much. (…) Wait a minute… Which one? I was/am blessed with 19 (nineteen) aunties. Should I write as if auntie Paula was sitting in front of me? I couldn’t even imagine her sitting on a chair. As a single mum in her late thirties she’s in a multitasking rush 24/7. How was my bodycopy ever to compete with the seven toddlers she had to feed? Auntie Martine, perhaps, the single surgeon. Or…?
Don’t ask me why, but I picked Auntie Ann. Auntie Ann dropped out of school when she was 14, got pregnant a year or two later, married and had quietly settled as a housewife ever since. Imagining her helped me strike the appropriate personal tone in my first assignment. (Relief!) I had found my muse, my segment of one avant-la-lettre, for many hundreds of direct mailings, banners and radio commercials to come.
As my portfolio thickened, I completed my set of personae with other familiar folk. The twenty-something nephew with the academic degree. My wife, of course. The hot-tempered neighbour. The quasi-illiterate neighbour. An entire club of colleagues. And, later: my daughter. I never looked too far, as you may notice. ‘The more personal, the more universal’ is what I liked to tell new interns and… myself.
Halfway through my life, however, as I got squeezed in between the evergreen senior and my own spirited offspring, my image of Auntie Ann - and family - started to fade. My inner eye returned ever more hazy faces. My target audience and I began to lose touch.
The ‘demographics’ I had always trusted – generation, gender, income, education level, … – felt less relevant every time I tried to take them into account. My monolithic consumer audience was no more, it seemed. Most of my aunties remarried, some of them several times. I saw backpacking cousins checking into design hotels, granddad monopolizing my social news feeds, ‘digital native’ nieces sharing wonderful memories with retirees overseas etc. ‘The consumer’, I hated to admit – so long, Arthur Nielsen, so long – had splintered into 7 billion personae.
Even if, from a consumer’s perspective, I would be inclined to welcome being liberated from stereotypes and cliches, as a copywriter, I could not but resent the entire audience fragmentation trend. There I was, the ‘senior’ copywriter, sent back to square one: “who’s it for?”, the very same question I took to my mentor’s more than 20 years ago.
“Why don’t you look at Auntie Ann’s data?”, I hear you wonder. Well, I did. Of course, I did. I know where she does her groceries, which laundry detergent she prefers, how she pays for it and even how many loyalty points she’s collected so far. I’ve been tracking her online, which felt odd, well, never mind. But despite all these data – and my thorough understanding they are today’s CMO’s philosopher’s stone, they didn’t actually help me revive my former muse. No matter how I added, substracted, multiplied…, the result wasn’t Auntie Ann retrieving ‘flesh and bone’.
Maybe it’s time to admit there’s only so much a copywriter’s supposed to know. Humility, after all, has never harmed a conversation. Our copy – “Auntie, how have you been?” – just might soon surprise with newfound sense of wonder.