The large umbrella term communications encapsulates the various mediums through which individuals, groups, and organizations pass information and ideas. At the same time, the way these various forms of communication are conducted through art, advertisement, music, literature, and photography, for example, shows the sophisticated structure of how human language classifies humans as distinctly unique. This article will explore the career of copywriting and how copywriters use an amalgamation of language (linguistics), formal writing composition, and at least a fundamental instruction on psychology. Actually, understanding the theories of human behavior in the consumer context will greatly benefit copywriters in their aim to persuade and inform and since the role of the copywriter involves basic knowledge of the behavior of their target audience, aspiring copywriters should undergo a mandatory introduction to the basics of psychology as one cannot produce effective writing without a satisfactory baseline knowledge of human behavior.
Fundamentally, communication and its variety of mediums of expression all have the same goal in mind: to make the receiver understand the speaker's message, and possibly agree with it. In the field of business writing, copywriting constitutes the more ‘creative’ side. Klaudia Mustika Wungu, Andik Matulessy, and Suryanto (2020), professors in Psychology, wrote an article analyzing the psychological dynamics in a copywriter’s creative process and explained the etymology of the title Copywriter by stating, “A copy is the text of an ad or words spoken by people in the ad. So it can be interpreted, Copywriting is a process to create the ad text" (p. 36). Therefore, 'copy' simply refers to the text found in an advertisement. Copywriting necessitates creativity with literary devices, but there is also an implicit theory behind the visual and linguistic decisions in the design of the copy. Dandeswar Bisoyi (2013), a Ph.D. professor at MIT Institute of Design in the User Experience Department, defines the role of copywriting in his article about effective communication in product development by stating,
Unlike other creative professions, it starts by carefully considering the end consumer and understanding that consumer’s reality and that consideration informs and guides the entire copywriting process (p. 1).
Bisoyi’s use of the phrase ‘understanding the customer’s reality’ is crucial to understand what copywriters really do. In fact, this terminology calls attention to the fundamental expectation in the copywriting profession that writers should study and comprehend their target audience’s behavior and habits before they even begin to write their copy. While most copywriters have access to consumer data through the website and social media analytics, it is humans who make the decisions based on a culmination of personal preferences and brand communication behind each data point. Identifying a consumer’s ‘reality’ in the buying process (which product to choose, company to trust, etc.) further underscores how copywriters should have preliminary instruction in human behavior.
Certainly, the concept of human behavior in a consumer context is not new, since research on consumer behavior in online content is increasing. Copywriters have also had to adapt to writing copy for the world wide web as they compete in an oversaturated climate. As a matter of fact, the digital space has a colossal amount of information and an online audience with a general attention span of eight seconds (Subramanian, 2017). Under these circumstances of the online era, copywriters face a challenge to develop a creative copy that stands out amongst the rest and leaves the audience desiring more information. Maria Pilar Martinez-Ruiz and Karin S. Moser (2019), respectively professors in business with specialties in Marketing & Sales and Organization Psychology, published an article outlining the evolution of the internet and its effect on consumer behavior and research. According to them, the digital age designated Web 3.0, the version of the internet before the current Web 4.0, is where it became “possible to obtain detailed information about consumer decision-making for psychological variables that previously were almost impossible to study in real-time. [Among these, it is possible to find] individual perceptions, judgments, attitudes, and intentions toward products, [and] services” (The evolution of the world wide web and its impact on consumer behavior section, para. 3). These ‘consumer decision-making variables’ are now harvested as data to map out consumer journeys, thus giving product developers, marketers, and copywriters a compass that points them in an accurate direction in their brand writing approaches.
Consequently, consumer behavior is the main consideration in the copywriting profession. This specialty falls under social psychology, which focuses on social interaction and behaviors and in this intricate field, copywriters take a role in facilitating the customer journey, tasked with the challenging endeavor of casting a large enough net with their copy. One way to achieve such a large audience is by using inclusive and clear language to strengthen brand identity and avoid alienation of audience members. Alvin Ward Gouldner (1956), a previous professor of Sociology at several universities such as Washington University at St. Louis, distinguished ‘Pure’ and ‘Applied’ Social Sciences by stating,
The truth of the matter is that the applied social scientist presently makes use of the concepts rather than the generated propositions of pure social science (p. 170).
This observation between the two terms still rings true presently. With this contrast clearly defined, it is obvious that copywriters engage in Applied Social Science. Science does not negate creativity, but it does infer the methodical process followed and supported by hypotheses and evidence in consumer behavior. Accordingly, a copywriter does not create for creation’s sake, but rather, to express creativity within the parameters of a given target audience and what linguistic and visual formula produces the best results.
As mentioned previously, the web’s tools have given businesses insights into consumer behavior and how it correlates with a successful product launch. Arthur J. Kover (1995), who has a diverse background in the advertising business and academia as a Marketing professor, explains what makes a piece of copy miss the mark with the reader: “this is not necessarily a case of creativity but rather one of the right connection. If the writer does not conduct a dialogue with the appropriate other, the advertising will neither break through nor communicate” (p. 604). In copywriting, the writer initiates a connection through their copy with their interlocutor, and while this method of communication does not occur in a traditional dialectic sense between the writer and audience physically, it is still a method of communication.
To exemplify this point further, Klaudia Mustika Wungu, Andik Matulessy, and Suryanto (2020) describe how an improper brief, a document that describes a target audience and project goals, could result in a disconnection with the audience by stating, “unclear briefs and different insights can be factors that slow down the creative process of making advertisements” (p. 40). Clearly, the profession of copywriting includes specific methodologies and applied research that must be honored. Among these, psychology is a social science that must be taken into account, since it deals with the human mind and behavior. In their defense of psychology and the validity of social sciences, Jonathan L. Freedman (1971) states: “[a common criticism from other scientific fields is that] science should not probe into human feelings, thought, or behavior. The argument goes that the scientific method is acceptable when you want to determine the effect of gravity [...] but it should not be used to find out how children read, or how to reduce prejudice, the effects of overcrowding, or why human beings fight wars” (p. 712). The criticism arises because qualitative research, which relies on opinions and attitudes, is generally viewed by some STEM scientists as less credible. While generally the term science invokes traditional views of quantitative research, seen as more reliable than human subjectivity in their personal perspectives and opinions, the social sciences tend to utilize qualitative research through interviews, polls, and questionnaires completed by people.
A combination of qualitative and quantitative research adds for sure value to the scientific process. Norman Heller (1956) articulates an observation of the advertising field regarding psychological applications, “as a result of the complexities of measuring the sales effectiveness of an advertisement most advertisers and their agencies take a secondary course and are concerned with the memory or impression impact of the advertising” (p. 248). While psychology and copywriting typically lean a little more on qualitative research, qualitative research should not be underestimated just because it reports on subjective, human perspectives. Like the psychological observation process, the copywriting process still includes quantitative data and must follow a particular process. Freedman's list of fundamental questions some psychologists ask such as ‘how children read, or how to reduce prejudice’ shows an assortment of psychological concentrations, since human behavior exists in varying conditions and environments.
A couple of examples of these psychological concentrations include psychology in the clinical (medical) setting and forensics, the fields of individuals working in civil and criminal cases. This article focuses on industrial and organizational psychology in the workplace with human resources, development, and most relevant to the current debate, sales and marketing. Undoubtedly, the circumstances of advertising have vastly contrasted with the other disciplines in business due to its more creative elements and unique communication style. The copy must reach more readers versus a direct salesperson who must persuade through the spoken word and in the case of copywriting and advertising, they both apply inclusive language practices. Robin Lakoff (1973), a professor emerita of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the inclusive language in linguistics by stating,
We should be attempting to single out those linguistic uses that, by implication and innuendo, demean the members of one group or another, and should be seeking to make speakers of English aware of the psychological damage such forms do (p. 73).
Depending on the target audience, copywriters should avoid alienating their audiences and carefully construct the linguistic elements of their copies appropriately.
For example, if a copywriter creates an advertisement for a sportswear company, the ad should not include language which shames or alienates individuals of a larger size. Jane Ridley (2021), a writer for the New York Post, reported on a story with similar advertising fail by writing, "Large letters above the despairing model ask: 'Feeling fat and lazy?' The rhetorical question is being posed by self-styled 'wellness motivator' Deborah Capaccio, whose trim figure appears on the promo, which directs you to GetYourSparkleBackGirl.com" (para 3.). While Capaccio argues that the provocative language aims to confront the negative-self talk of their target audience, the advertisement failed to include an additional statement dispelling this negative self-talk of their target audience before guiding them to their website. Of course, the website name 'Get Your Sparkle Back Girl' could allude to encouragement, but its ambiguity caused a disconnection with a general audience.
Ultimately, the art of copywriting falls under the humanities, as it combines linguistics, sociology, communication, and, as this article shows, elements of psychology relating to consumer behavior. Understanding human behavior aids in the way copywriters write the copy. They must analyze the brief, conduct target audience research, and from that data, discern which language elicits the best audience response and that is why businesses invest in the guidance and research of an organizational psychologist, when designing their marketing approaches for the very purpose of understanding consumer behavior. What drives them? What do they want to know? Clearly, a copywriter with a deep awareness of these psychological fundamentals in the consumer behavior context adds value to the linguistic design of the copy. It is therefore evident that to apply the theories and methodologies generated from Organizational Psychology, copywriters should receive a baseline introduction to psychology. This would promote better empathy with their audiences in choosing words that are able to reach them successfully.
Bisoyi, Dandeswar. (2013). Effective communication of product information: a copywriting methodology. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 6(1-3). 10.9790/0837-0640103. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272717572_Effective_Communication_of_Product_Information_A_Copy_Writing_Methodology
Freedman, J. L. (1971). Psychology as a science. Social Research, 38(4), 710–731. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970765
Gouldner, A. W. (1956). Explorations in applied social science. Social Problems, 3(3), 169–181. https://doi.org/10.2307/799137
Heller, N. (1956). An Application of psychological learning theory to advertising. Journal of Marketing, 20(3), 248–254. https://doi.org/10.2307/1247866
Kover, A. J. (1995). Copywriters’ implicit theories of communication: an exploration. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(4), 596–611. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2489718
Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and woman’s place. Language in Society, 2(1), 45–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4166707
Martinez-Ruiz, M. P., & Moser, K. S. (2019). Studying consumer behavior in an online context: The Impact of the evolution of the world wide web for new avenues in research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02731
Ridley, J. (2021, July 22). “Fat and lazy” billboard in Times Square stirs up body shaming controversy. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2021/07/21/billboard-in-nycs-times-square-accused-of-body-shaming/
Subramanian, K. (2017). Product promotion in an era of shrinking attention span. International Journal of Engineering and Management Research. Volume 7. Pages 85 -91. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315786448_Product_Promotion_in_an_Era_of_Shrinking_Attention_Span
Wungu, K., Matulessy, A., & Suryanto, S. (2020). Psychological dynamics in the creative process of copywriters in the making of advertisements. International Summit on Science Technology and Humanity (ISETH2019), 35–41. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338790602_Psychological_Dynamics_in_the_Creative_Process_of_Copywriters_in_the_making_of_Advertisements
Figure 1: Naxart Studio. (2013). Vintage Typewriter Pop Art 1. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://fineartamerica.com/featured/vintage-typewriter-pop-art-1-naxart-studio.html
Figure 2: Makarova, A. (2020). World Wide Web Ore. . . Be Careful With Your Information. [Oil on linen canvas]. Retrieved from https://www.artmajeur.com/en/annamakarova/artworks/13128602/world-wide-web-ore-be-careful-with-your-information
Figure 3: Neubecker, R. (2015). I encourage my peers to think about science in this larger context. [Illustration]. Science. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.347.6226.1166
Figure 4: Anonymus. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. Distance Learning Systems. https://dlsii.com/blog/tag/applied-humanities/