Basically, augmenting a reader’s reality means either:
a) getting her to see more of what’s there, to notice previously overlooked details, or
b) getting her to look past the surface to see intangibles, relationships, processes, or
c) both a & b
This isn’t a technique given to systemization, but there are ways to spark your thinking process. One I particularly like is something I stole from the field of Tagmemics. Below is an extremely abbreviated discussion of it.
You can understand just about any object by means of:
- Contrast: how is a donut different from funnel cakes or doughboys or cinnamon roles, etc. What makes a donut a donut and not something else?
- Variation: how cake donuts, glazed donuts, fruit filled donuts, etc. are all donuts. How little chocolate donuts in a box at the convenience store and fresh-baked donuts from Crispy Kreme are both donuts.
- Context: how donuts are typically a breakfast food, how they’re often paired with coffee, in what situation donuts are eaten, what are the cultural connotations and associations of donuts, etc.
Likewise, you can also think of an object in terms of:
- A particle or thing: a donut as just that, a donut
- A wave or dynamic process: a donut in terms of eating a donut.
- A field or network of relationships: donuts as a cultural and culinary force
Augmenting a reader’s reality often means moving them from understanding something simply in terms of contrast to looking at context. Or from seeing something as a thing/particle to seeing it as a dynamic process or a network of relationships.
The most obvious example might be to take someone who sees coffee just in terms of the simple hot steaming cup o’ joe in front of them to seeing that cup of coffee as an opportunity to either actively support fair trade practices that enable the coffee farmers to earn a decent living from the sale of their crops, or to support some exploitative corporation.
For the most part, fair trade coffee looks and tastes just like regular coffee, but we gladly pay a premium price for the intangibles attached – as long as someone has taught us to see and value them. As long as we’ve been provided with that bit of augmented reality.
Of course, those kind of intangibles have to be baked into the product itself. They usually can’t be created out of thin air through copy alone. When J. Peterman concentrated on only acquiring and selling items of authentic romance (emphasis on the authentic part), his company went from a single space-ad in the New Yorker selling cowboy dusters to $70 million in annual revenue in a few years, arguably on the strength of the catalogue copy.
J. Perterman copy was legendary for transforming a shirt into something much more than a shirt. The copy “augmented” one’s perspective on J. Perterman’s clothing, usually by leaning heavily on context and relationship. Here’s an example from their current web catalogue:
Like Opening Day in 1907. Giants hosting the Phillies a day after a snowstorm blanketed New York. The crew at the Polo Grounds barely finished shoveling in time for the first pitch.
A few weeks later, it was the White Sox home opener against the Browns. There was no snow, but when St. Louis starter Harry Howell took to the mound it was a chilly 38 degrees.
Vintage Baseball Sweater (No. 2646).Last seen at the turn of the 20th century in places like Coogan’s Hollow, Crosely Field and Comiskey Park, it got players through the first 10 games of every season. You know, those days when the skies are gray, the foul pole white with early morning frost, and the players’ breath as thick as the mustard on the hot dogs.
Substantial, five-gauge 100% lambswool, it’s the perfect weight for early spring or late fall. Wear the collar up or down.”
Makes you desire the product far more than you might otherwise want a button-up cardigan, huh?
But in late 1999 the company slid into bankruptcy with the same copywriters writing the catalogue copy. What changed? According to J. Peterman himself, it was a loss of focus; they started selling all sorts of stuff not hand-picked by himself or staff that had been trained by him – stuff lacking authentic romance.
And while there were undoubtedly other business pressures and dynamics at play in the demise of the company, I’d be willing to bet that the copy suffered when the objects themselves no longer had authentic romance baked into them. You just can’t augment what isn’t there and never was there to begin with.
The good news?
- If you’ve got something with a genuine appeal, you’re way ahead of the game
- Most items and services are more interesting than you might think – especially to the person in dire need of it. Often times, the authentic stories are there to be found, and as a copywriter, you just have to dig a bit to uncover them.