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October 22, 2011Stop thinking about straplines. Start thinking about throughlines.

Editors. Hard drinking, hard smoking, hard to deal with. When I was just starting out as a journalist, my editor took ten seconds to finish his drink, stub out his cigarette, and offer me a few words of advice.

‘You’re a good writer,’ he said. ‘But your stuff won’t be great until it has a through line.’

It’s the best writing advice anyone ever gave me. And it’s advice I’m still using as a freelance copywriter today.

Whose through line is it anyway?

A through line is a single message, or set of messages, that’s repeated throughout your copy. Whether you’re writing an article for a newspaper or a magazine, copywriting, or working on that novel you’ve been writing for the last ten years, your through line is the point you’re trying to make.

The purpose of The Great Gatsby is to criticise the American Dream. And the purpose of a Polly Toynbee column in The Guardian is to criticise the undeserving rich, as well as to break a few more windows in the glass house she apparently lives in.

Even when you’re not speaking directly about a subject, a strong throughline will still convey your message. Toynbee is an excellent example of a journalist who does just that which is, presumably, why she gets paid such an obscene amount.

Fitzgerald never once uses the phrase “American Dream” in his writing. He doesn’t need to. He gets his point across.

The purpose of a through line in any good piece of copywriting is to get across your client’s message…
…even when you’re not talking about it directly.

The through line is a merger of style, tone, and content to create a single, unified purpose in your writing.

“To fly, to serve, to be blunt.”

BA’s much maligned strapline is an example of strapline as throughline — they’ve even made the point by launching a campaign showing the strapline written through a stick of rock — demonstrating how the words are written through their very core.

“To fly, to serve” is written right through BA’s essence. It’s consistent. It is what the company lives and breathes. It is, ultimately, the sharp end of the point they want to get across.

If you don’t know what the through line is, you don’t have a point.

I’m not going to get further into the debate about whether “To Fly. To Serve” is a good strapline. Because I don’t believe that it is. My personal feeling is that it’s arrogant and condescending — the concept of “service” is being used to suggest a sense of superiority, kind of like a snooty English butler Americans imagine everyone in Britain has. But who knows. Maybe the line will appeal to the American market.

The point is, as far as through lines go, it isn’t very subtle. It’s a classic example of “show, not tell” not being implemented.

In other words, instead of letting you discover what BA stands for by giving clear signals that leads you, the reader, to make to a conclusion (a classic way of persuading people — make them think the conclusion they’ve made is their own), it bluntly tells you what to think instead.

Sometimes it works. But imagine if every other airline’s strapline was their throughline.

Virgin Atlantic: We’re cool!
Easyjet: We’re cheap!
Ryanair: We’re crap!

I’m a fan of the say-what-you-mean school of copywriting. In other words: “here is the product, here are the features“. As consumers become more and more aware of the persuasive techniques we employ in the advertising industry, this “does what it says on the tin approach” resonates with consumers more and more.

However, much like the game of seduction, sometimes the consumer actively wants a little persuasion. They want to feel like they’re being wooed, like their needs are being accounted for. The consumer doesn’t want to be told. They want to be asked.

Would you care to dance?

It’s hard to strike the right balance between being overly formal and overly friendly — you want to be conversational and persuasive, but anyone who’s ever been assailed by a random drunk knows it’s no fun when a stranger tries to be your “friend”.

Tom Albrighton suggests that “wackywriting” (zany copy that tries to talk to consumers like they’re children) doesn’t work, because it’s actually patronising and authoritarian. I agree. But to me, BA’s approach is a step in the wrong direction too. They’ve dropped the wackywriting, but kept the authoritarian. The result is a strapline (and a throughline) that simply sounds cold.

Finding the throughline

Finding the througline isn’t easy. For starters, it might not always be something you can say out loud. Your client’s message might be “We’re cheap!” But how many places can get away with saying that without losing business? It might, in the case of BA, be “we’re better”. But how do you say that without sounding snooty?

The trick is to use subtlety. To use a tone of voice that’s conversational, an argumentative style that’s persuasive, not confrontational, and above all else, to show not tell.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
You can lead your readers to a conclusion…
…but ulitimately they’re the ones who make the decision to buy.

A subtle, persuasive through line will enable them to think they’re making choices for themselves, rather than being told what to think.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 22nd, 2011 at 5:16 pm and is filed under Advertising, Blog, Branding, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 comments

  1. This is a great article and I agree with most of what you are saying. I would add that the throughline – or any messaging – has to be backed up by business activities. For me, this is why the BA strapline fails. Of all UK headlines, BA must have attracted the most headlines about grounding flights due to industrial disputes/ snow/ wind/ fog/ giant ash clouds, etc.

    The strapline “To fly, to serve” becomes too easy to mock.

  2. Paul Wilkins says:

    This article is really helpful. We are undergoing a change of company name and direction. Whilst initially set up as a first aid training company, as we’ve expanded then so has our product range and the companies capability. We are about to branch in to leadership development and with it brings a change of company name to something more generic. Although I found this article looking for advice on a strap line, I am now more inclined to consider the through line approach. So I guess that’s all I now need to do is establish ‘these are our products, here are their features’. Wish me luck!!

  3. al says:

    Thanks Paul, and good luck!

    I wrote another post recently that made an addition to the “here is the product, here are the features” formula — attempting to appeal to people’s emotions as well as their common sense.

    Catherine – very valid point!

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