I was reading Philip Collins’ opinion piece in last Friday’s Times (subscribers can read it here) when a couple of phrases caught my eye.

Miserable Gladstone

“Misery makes for better copy,” Collins noted, before adding: “As Montherlant once wrote ‘happiness writes white'”.

Montherlant actually wrote “Happiness writes in white ink on a white page,” but the point still holds. When it comes to literature, books with a vein or (better) a big fat pipeline of misery running from page 1 to the bitter end are the ones the customers want.

Just think of that period in the 1990s when almost all bestselling authors wrote about their abusive childhoods in Ireland.

It led almost all people who’d had abusive childhoods in Ireland to become  bestselling novelists. And why blame them? They were simply satisfying readers’ insatiable demand for gloom.

Misery and copywriting

So far, so good. But what about misery and copywriting? Does injecting a bit of gloom into your copy get the cash register ringing?

If most business writing is anything to go by, then the general consensus would seem a categorical ‘no’.

Quit the opposite, in fact. The majority of 21st-century business writing is Utopian in a way that would get Chairman Mao nodding sagely with approval.

Turn to almost any business website. You’ll discover that:

  • The products are peerless
  • The service is without compare
  • Every director has notched up success after success until the firm was able to move into its current, enviable premises (usually an industrial estate on the outskirts of some obscure town).

But it’s boring, isn’t it? We’ve read it all before.

On the other hand, being a bit of a misery guts can work wonders. It makes you stand out.

There was an advertiser back in the 1920s (or thereabouts — I don’t have the book to hand) who sold trousers by pointing out something like ‘They’re not great, but at this price they’ll do’. And with that pessimism, people believed him and bought his trousers by the truckload.

Or say you had a choice of two copywriters. Would you choose the one painted the picture of glittering and ever increasing success, or the one who wrote the following?

June 1970. Brown’s Hotel, Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London.

In those days June was a summer month. It was hot and muggy.

I was shaking – and dripping with sweat.

I had just finished persuading 106 furious creditors that I wasn’t a thief or crook.

And that I should leave the hotel in the same way I entered – on my legs.

One creditor had threatened to break them – and I’m a devout coward.

I’d go for the latter, wouldn’t you?

(So did lots of others. His name is Drayton Bird. The great David Ogilvy said he “knows more about direct marketing than anyone else in the world.”)

And now I’ve just given a massive plug to a better copywriter than me, it’s my turn to feel miserable.

So why don’t you give me a call to cheer me up? Who knows? I could even write some copy that gives both of us a reason to feel happy.