Copywriting Glossary

A Dictionary of Common Copywriting Terms

If you’ve scratched your head wondering whether there were dirty secrets behind copywriting jargon such as “Johnson box,” “bangtail,” “greek,” and “knock-out type,” you’ve come to the right place for enlightenment. (Though you might be disappointed to discover that they have rather pedestrian and un-sexy meanings.)

Here you’ll find brief definitions of commonly used terms among writers, designers, creative directors, advertising folk and other people who create, or manage the creation of, marketing materials.

What we’re supposed to establish in our communications. Fake this and you’ve got it made!

One of the goals of brand advertising, as brand advertising doesn’t solicit immediate, direct sales, but intends to form favorable impressions that will (hopefully) motivate the consumer to seek out and buy the advertiser’s product or service.

On a return envelope, the slip of paper between the envelope’s back and the adhesive flap. Since the envelope cannot be sealed without removing the bangtail, it is certainly seen by the prospect and almost certainly read, hence its significance for marketers.

What your product or service actually does for your customer. Benefits are the crucial “what’s-in-it-for-them” that must form the core of your marketing message.

blind envelope
A way to disguise direct mail as ordinary correspondence to increase the likelihood that it will be opened. The typical blind envelope is sent without a teaser (see “teaser” below”), without a company name or logo in the return address, but with an ordinary first-class stamp (as opposed to metered mail).

The text of a given piece of copy, as opposed to other written elements such as headlines, subheads, captions, etc.

In the Old West, cattle ranchers seared their mark, the brand, onto the hides of bulls and cows. Today, a brand is the sum of the ideas, feelings, thoughts, and experiences of and/or about a company or organization seared onto the consumer’s brain. Different worlds, different goals, but a lot of the bull still remains.

The art/science/black magic of making a brand. Do not confuse the creation of a logo, which is the graphic representation of the symbol of the brand, with branding, which encompasses an enormous range of messages and experiences.

Business Reply Card, a pre-paid and pre-addressed postcard the prospect returns in response to a direct mail campaign.

Business Reply Envelope. Like the BRC, it’s prepaid and preaddressed. Although it’s more expensive to produce and fulfill, the BRE ensures greater privacy (for things such as credit card numbers) and can support a larger, more complicated response form.

call out
A brief selection of copy that is deliberately designed (often within a “box” or with different type) to stand apart from the main body of text and draw attention to a special point, such as a sale, free shipping, or an important feature.

call to action
The written equivalent of the sales close, the call to action incites the prospect to take a specific action in exchange for a specific offer. While it’s one of the most important elements of a marketing piece, it’s also frequently neglected and/or insufficiently considered.

Printed material — such as brochures, pamphlets and sales sheets — created to provide information and support sales.

A visual mock-up of a set of concepts or work in progress used to either sell or present ideas to the client.

In advertising/marketing lingo, the “big idea” behind a given marketing element or campaign.

Material, such as ebooks, blog posts, newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc., that prospects might actually want to read, as opposed to marketing impositions (such as broadcast commercials, print ads, junk mail) that are frequently perceived as annoying interruptions.

The written word. All the writing found in ads, direct mail, brochures, Web sites and other marketing materials.

copy brief
In an agency, the document that paints the target the copywriter must hit. Good briefs define the objectives, articulate the strategy, illustrate the intended audience, outline a number of “points” the writer must include, and lists items of evidence the writer can use to make a persuasive case.

The art/science/craft of writing copy. Not to be confused with “copyrighting,” which concerns the legal rights and obligations of intellectual property.

cosmetic violator
No, this isn’t a pervert stalking the aisles of The Body Shop. It’s a graphic element, such as a starburst or button, that deliberately “violates” the design harmony of a piece in order to draw attention to its message, i.e., “Sale ends March 31!” or “Free overnight delivery!”

The physical product of a marketing/advertising campaign or project, such as an ad, a press release, a TV commercial or a Web site.

A mailing piece with some heft and immediate visual presence, such as a box or tube, that often contains a gift or premium for the recipient. While dimensionals are expensive to produce and mail, they can be the most cost-effective way to reach difficult audiences, such as C-level executives or very wealthy consumers. Also known as “lumpy mail.”

direct marketing or direct response marketing
Marketing that aims for an immediate action, response or sale (as opposed to “awareness”) from its intended audience, who are often directly targeted through personalized communications (such as mail or e-mail). David Ogilvy considered direct his “secret weapon,” though most mainstream agencies still regard direct as a bastard step-child of “real” brand advertising — you know, the kind that wins awards, regardless of its actual effectiveness.

What bottom-feeding clients offer to writers in lieu of actual money, i.e., “We can’t pay you much [or anything], but this is a great opportunity for you to gain exposure.” If you’re a writer offered such an “opportunity,” politely explain that you’re fully capable of exposing yourself, thank you.

Qualities your product or service has, such as power-steering or a silk lining.

For Position Only. In mock-ups or comps, the initials “FPO” are used to mark graphic elements, such as photos, that are merely placeholders, not approved components of the ultimate design.

In business-to-business (B-to-B or B2B) marketing, the employees who screen mail, phone calls and other in-coming communications intended for high-level executives. Marketing professionals regard these people with the same mix of fear and loathing Harry Potter feels for trolls and dragons.

The textual equivalent of FPO graphics, “greek” copy is gibberish that simply illustrates where and how the copy will flow. It looks like this — Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod, etc. — which you’ll recognize as Latin, though it’s all Greek to me.

Just as in journalism, an element of copy above the body that trumpets the important content to come. In any piece, it’s almost always the most frequently read copy. That’s why the headline is so important — get it right and you’ve cleared the most difficult hurdle, capturing the prospect’s attention.

Stands for “integrated marketing communications,” a strategy that combines communications tactics from numerous disciplines including, but not limited to, direct response, advertising, public relations, events planning, website development and more.

Usually a reference to the mailing indicia, the printed free-postage marks on BRCs and BREs.

Johnson box
The headline in a direct mail letter, often set within a rectangular “box.” It’s the part of the letter that’s most likely to be read.

Again, from journalism, a line of copy just above the headline that’s used to create context or “kick” interest for the story. Example:

Kicker: Experts predict 10.5% income tax increases next year
Headline: Gonyph Associates will save millions of dollars for thousands of taxpayers. Will you be one of them?

knock-out type
Not killer copy, unfortunately. It’s copy set in “reverse” (white on a black background) or in a contrasting color on an illustration or photograph. Test after test shows that knock-out type consistently reduces readership (as opposed to simple black-on-white). Use with caution.

lift note
In a mail package, an additional message, often from the president or a satisfied customer, that complements the main message in the letter and brochure. The tone is usually casual with an eye toward a more personal appeal.

Mail “returned to sender,” typically because the intended recipient is no longer at the mail’s address, or because of problems with the address itself.

What you promise in exchange for a response from the prospect. It had better be compelling: The offer is second only to the list (the people to whom you’re directing your message) in its impact on response rates.

The unique place a brand or business occupies in the market or in the mind of its prospects and customers. The simplest way to articulate a position is to think of your brand as the [blank] kind of product/service for [blank] kind of people.

postscript or P.S.
An additional message after the formal closing of a letter. The P.S. is second only to the Johnson box in readership and usually restates the offer and/or a key benefit, often with an additional appeal to urgency.

proof point
A piece of evidence, such as a statistic, endorsement or physical description, that substantiates your marketing pitch. You can never have too much proof. Yet too many messages go out with too little.

What businesses want with hot prospects and customers. Unfortunately, these “relationships” tend to be rather one-sided, as we’re more eager to “relate” to them than they are to us.

In an article or in a more substantial marketing piece, such as a long brochure, it’s a vertical stretch of copy set apart of the main body of text, usually with its own headline and often with a special graphic treatment. The sidebar is often used to present testimonials, brief case studies, or subordinate features and benefits.

Miniature headlines, in smaller type than the main headline, used to break up the monotony of long strings of text AND to communicate the major points of your story at a glance.

tag line
A brief, static phrase intended to accompany the brand name/logo on a variety of marketing materials, such as FedEx’s famous, though no longer used,  “Absolutely, positively overnight.” A good tag line encapsulates the brand’s distinct quality or the company’s unique selling proposition (or both).

In direct mail, the brief bit of copy on the outer envelope. It has just one important job: To get the recipient to open the envelope. If the teaser fails, everything else is moot.

Unique Selling Proposition. A promise a company can fulfill that distinguishes it from its competitors.