Verbal Identity’s Monday morning copywriting exercise: How big is your villain?

Sometimes, a product just doesn’t inspire you. It looks bland. There’s nothing new in its story. There just anything great (or even different) about it.

What do you do then?

In Hollywood, when they want to make the hero more heroic, they make the villain more villainous.

Is there a villain in branding and copywriting?

At Verbal Identity we say: You gotta hope so.

Otherwise, why would you be spending time and money writing, trying to persuade anyone to change their behaviour?

In last year’s D & AD awards, the only Black Pencil was won by a campaign encouraging Columbian guerillas to demobilise.

In the last 20 years, the client that’s won more awards at D & AD than any other is the UK Government’s Central Office of Information.

These campaigns have obvious villains: civil war, death on the roads, lung cancer.

But where are the villains in the story of the soap powder, the middle-aged sedan, the new computer tablet?

Dirt. Middle-age. Being out of touch (in both senses of the word).

You don’t have to magic up the villains, there’s always a hint of them (again, if there isn’t, you have to ask yourself or the planner, why are we writing this? What belief or behaviour do we want people to stop?).

And once you have the hint, the next thing to do is demonise them.

So instead of dirt, think of embarrassment at being unclean. Instead of middle-age, think of the evaporation of all youth and hope and sex appeal.  Instead of being out of touch, think of being lost/uncontactable/left behind.

In Sebastian Faulks’ book on Fiction, he dedicates a whole section to Villains. My favourite is Fagin, that “loathsome reptile”. Faulks makes the point that the best villains are given all the traits we find despicable in ourselves: the laziness, the greediness, the lies, the squalor (I hope though, not Fagin’s pimiping and pederesty).

Certainly, good copywriting and brand building are about celebrating our hero, not demeaning our competitors. But it’s handy to have, at the back of your mind, the undesirable behaviour or trait you want your readers to have at the back of their mind.

Suddenly, it’s a lot easier to see a heroic role for our brand.

When I was a young copywriter at Saatchi and Saatchi, we would grab every brief we could. One day, no one wanted to touch (yet another) price ad from British Airways. Jersey to Paris, £99. There’s no ad in that, is there?

We sat and thought about it. We thought about all the self-indulgent things we’d do in Paris if we had a day and a bit of money in our pocket. We started writing.

A few months later, the ad won 4 golds at Campaign Press (+2 nominations) and the copywriting was nominated for a Silver Pencil at D & AD.

This Monday morning, try this Verbal Identity 10-minute exercise to get you started:

Think about the competitors. Quickly scribble down what base behaviours they encourage in yourself. Go on, be harsh.

Do they make you resistant to change? Do they make you wish you’d stayed in bed? Do they make you want to spend recklessly?

After that, demonise those behaviours: what’s the worst that could happen if you followed your base instincts?

Now look at your lovely clean product. And start to write about it.

What hope does it offer? How does it inspire you? How does it help you control and direct your energies?


Good luck. Please let me know how you get on.

And if you’re stuck, I keep Monday mornings free. Call or email. I’ll send you a prompt.



verbal identity of a good ad

Saatchi and Saatchi (Art Director: John Messum; Copywriter: Chris West)