Are clichés always bad in copywriting?

clicheI’m a writer. I’m a creative. By nature my imagination is always on the go, buzzing with new ideas and scenarios. I’m always keen to put a new spin on something rather than doing the same old thing, over and over.

So if somebody were to ask me if clichés in copywriting should be avoided like the plague (haha, see what I did there?), my gut reaction would be a resounding yes.

The dictionary defines a cliché as a “trite or overused expression or idea”. People use them when they’re chatting with friends. Things like “easy as pie”, “in a nutshell” and “spilling the beans” have have been bandied about in conversation countless times, and are no longer original or interesting. Since copywriters are supposed to inspire and motivate readers, we shouldn’t be using unoriginal or uninteresting language.

But are clichés always a no-go in copywriting?

Clichés can be boring

If your article, web page, sales letter or press ad is littered with clichés, then the whole thing is probably a slog to read—which means it will have little impact or not be read at all. Worse still, it might be corny and make your business look out of touch.

Copywriters need to use innovative words, ideas and approaches to grab attention. They need to use words cleverly, so that they stick in people’s heads long after they’ve read or heard them.

But clichés don’t have to be boring

Clichés being stale and unoriginal is as much to do with the way we use them as the phrases themselves. If you take a cliché and use it in an innovative or humorous way, then you will catch people’s attention. In fact, because they’re already familiar with the phrase, using it could have more impact than a brand new construction.

Let’s look a few examples. The brand name for one of the world’s top dating sites, Plenty of Fish, is a riff on a cliché. In 1997 MasterCard used a spin on the “things money can’t buy” cliché to produce a hugely effective slogan: “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” And if you’re writing an article about the benefits of eating lettuce, is it not exactly the right time to sneak in a line about the “tip of the iceberg”?

I recently wrote an article for Behind The Curtain — my blog about mysteries and conspiracy theories — about a short story I’d just had published. I used the phrase “stay tuned” to tell the reader I’d be posting a sneak peek of the story the next day. “Stay tuned” is obviously a cliché, overused by television presenters to encourage viewers not to change the channel during a commercial break. But I’d used it in a different way, to encourage readers to come back to my blog.

Sometimes clichés are necessary

Copywriters have to be creative and imaginative to make their words stand out. But they also need to get a message across. Sometimes, in order to communicate that message clearly and plainly, a cliché is the best option.

After all, we use clichés when we speak because they are highly effective at communicating what we want to say in few words. Yes, you could ditch the cliché in your writing and invent something new, but you could end up with something far less snappy or clear.

How many companies talk about “slashing prices”? This is absolutely a cliché. But the reason it’s still used is because everybody understands what it means. You could say “cutting prices” or “dropping prices”, but neither lets the customer know that the discounts are substantial. “Slashing” does. You could say “dramatically cutting prices”, but that’s clunky and wordy.

In every instance it’s a judgment call for the writer. But in my opinion, the rule should be, always be creative with your use of language, but if a cliché is the best way of communicating with your audience, go ahead and use it.

What do you think? Do you agree that clichés have their place in copywriting? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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