Salty Englishwoman loses her shite on the shatbots

Chief Creative Officer

Would you rather drink clean water from the toilet or eat leftovers from the garbage?

That was one of several questions I put to my seven-year-old niece Sienna on Christmas day. It’s a game we play called “Would you rather …” It’s not about choosing the more favorable option as much as being able to stomach the less unfavorable one. 

I made this our game because Sienna has always been a tough nut to crack.

A few years ago, when I asked for her favorite movie, she said “Madagascar.” Then, when I asked her to name her second favorite, she said “Madagascar II.” But what I really heard was “C’mon, Matt, you can do better than this.”

“Would you rather …” isn’t a way for us to kill time until dinner’s ready. It’s more like a language that connects us—a bridge between her quirkiness and mine. 

It has a warmth and a weirdness that video games simply can’t pull off. 

There are no rules to obey, or limitations to hold us back. It’s a revolving riddle that forces us to plumb the depths of our own imaginations and curiosities. Because that’s where the best material is coaxed out of hiding.

It’s everything AI is not. And it’s an analog victory that further reinforces my belief that real live copywriters will always be superior to their chatbot rivals.

* * *

If you’ve been with me since the beginning, you know that I’ve managed to go 25 nuggets without devoting a single syllable to AI. This, for two reasons …

First, because I thought you’d benefit from me sharing more practical marketing tips. And second, because there was already a healthy chorus of people talking about how AI was re-shaping the way they worked. No need for me to contribute a verse. 

But, since people are beginning to ask my opinion on AI specific to copywriting, I thought I’d chime in just this once.

The short answer comes from the UK’s High Priestess of Copy, Vicki Ross, when she recently said …

“Fuck AI.”

I don’t disagree. And to prove it out, I thought we’d waltz the chatbots around the ring for a few rounds before we send them sailing to the canvas.

And to protect our soft office hands … 

🥊 🥊

Round one — Research 

I know loads of writers who use ChatGPT for research. And it can be useful for filling in knowledge gaps. But nothing helps you get to know your reader better than talking to them.

Interviewing customers can reveal common pain points you can use to speak to your prospects’ troubled state—and how you’re the clear way toward relief. Asking about common anxieties can help you drain objections and provide the sense of security people need before buying.

If you dig deep enough, you might even find the perfect hook to an irresistible story. 

One of the most famous ads that came directly from interviews was legendary copywriter John Carlton’s “One-legged golfer” letter. It began with the headline …

Amazing Secret Discovered By One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards To Your Drives, Eliminates Hooks And Slices… And Can Slash Up To 10 Strokes From Your Game Almost Overnight!

The ad was for a set of instructional golf videos and ran in magazines littered with similar promotions. But it was the logical impossibility of a one-legged golfer that broke through.

It took Carlton nearly an hour to unearth that story during his interview. Plus, he gathered all the vocabulary he needed to speak to amateur golfers in their own language.

Even the most finely tuned chat prompt couldn’t have managed that.

And since the goal is to write the way people talk, your best words always come straight from the source.

🧠 🤜 🤖

Round two — Brainstorming

This one makes me extra sad. Because you don’t even need electricity to come up with a boatload of ideas, let alone a steely sidekick to chum the water. 

One of my favorite word men, the actual Word Man Dave Harland, often begins his thinking by dividing a piece of paper into four boxes. 

Starting with the top left, he labels them “experiences,” “synonyms,” “idioms,” and “rhymes.” Once he’s stuffed each box with words and phrases associated with the product benefits, Dave walks away to let his subconscious work in the background. In a couple of days, he’s back at it with a rough bank of ideas to start building on.

I could have stopped my comparison with AI at “piece of paper.” But Dave’s crucial step of allowing time for ideas to incubate produces more ideas than even your most spirited volley at the keyboard.

It’s also what separates writers from typists.

🧠 🤜 🤖

Round three — Finding human truths

Here’s where AI has no chance. That’s because it takes tapping into one’s lived experience to come up with a shared human truth—an idea we can all relate to. Then, the writer has to massage it further to make it interesting and memorable.

Nobody talks about this better than Luke Sullivan in his book “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This.” Here’s an ad he uses to illustrate the power of a universal truth:

This copy could have talked about having bouquets in a range of varieties, sizes, and price points.

But why talk about forgettable facts when the deepest, most primal human truth about flowers is that they get you out of the doghouse?

Just for fun, I asked ChatGPT for 10 headlines that speak to someone wanting to apologize to their spouse with flowers. And here’s my punishment …

  • “Bouquet of Apologies: Rekindle the Romance by Saying Sorry with Flowers”
  • “Floral Reconciliation: Mend Hearts with a Thoughtful Bouquet for Her”
  • “Blooms of Forgiveness: The Perfect Bouquet to Apologize to Your Wife”
  • “Say ‘I’m Sorry’ in Full Bloom: Apologize to Her with a Bouquet”
  • “Floral Harmony: How Flowers Can Bridge the Gap and Apologize for You”
  • “Petals of Apology: A Bouquet to Speak the Words You Couldn’t”
  • “Blossoming Apologies: Why Flowers Make the Perfect Peace Offering”
  • “Reignite Love with Roses: Apologize and Make Amends with Flowers”
  • “Apologize in Full Bloom: The Language of Flowers for Healing Hearts”
  • “Floral Apologies: A Bouquet to Express Regret and Rekindle Connection”

When I asked for funnier options, they didn’t get any better. And they somehow got even worse when I asked for something edgier. Which brings me to our knockout punch.

Every great story has an element of tension. But AI-generated output is so sanitized, you could eat off it. It’s all beauty and no beast.

So, yeah … what Vicki said.

🧠 💪

Listen, I’m not saying AI doesn’t have its place in the world. But if you’re a copywriter, don’t forget that the glistening meat walnut between your ears can still send a chatbot to the scrapyard if you put the time in.

And if you’re someone who’s chosen to broom a proper copywriter in favor of the metallic taste of AI’s lifeless prose, that’s okay too.

You’ll be back.

Here’s a song to play you out >>>

See you next time. — Matt

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Chief Creative Officer
Matt is a professional storyteller. That used to be a thinly veiled way to say you still lived with your parents. But the truth is stories have existed since the dawn of humanity and they still have the power to move people, even if it’s no longer from the path of a charging mammoth. Throughout his career on both the agency and client sides, Matt’s work has been known to compel audiences to indulge in higher thread counts, abandon Lenten sacrifice, or move to the suburbs. He’ll even conjugate a noun if he has to. The bottom line: Matt is our agency twofer. Strategy and Creative. The Big Idea and Stealth Deployment. He’s a single expense yielding a dual return. And who doesn’t love a bargain?

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