July 12, 2016
Inspiration is Everywhere: "Five Things Copywriters Can Learn from Catcher in the Rye"
By Elizabeth Lampe
When I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in 11th grade English class, I dubbed it the best book I had ever read. I related to Holden Caulfield because I was as confused and skeptical of the world as he was. His perspective, feelings, and questions about life reflected my own experiences. When the book ended as a cliffhanger, I wrote another chapter as my unit project. Unsurprisingly, it reflected my own plans for the future.
I loved The Catcher in the Rye long before I chose a career in advertising. But upon a recent rereading of the book, I realized its themes and writing techniques offer a lot of inspiration to copywriters. They really do.
1. Be Relatable, Yet Unique
The language of Holden Caulfield, the sixteen-year-old narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, is one of the most memorable aspects of J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece. Holden speaks like an average 1940s teenager—who readers of the time could relate to. Yet his consistent idiosyncrasies make him stand out as an individual.
Having a relatable yet distinct brand voice also makes products memorable. When people recognize themselves in a brand voice, they connect with it. When a brand voice differentiates a product from competition, people see its value.
2. Rapport is More Important Than Rules
J.D. Salinger broke a lot of literary rules in The Catcher in the Rye. For one thing, Holden Caulfield violates many of rules of grammar. More interestingly, Salinger breaks the rule assuming a first person narrator to be trustworthy—since Caulfield openly tells us he’s a liar.
"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible."
This is all for the purpose of building rapport. Holden’s “spin” on everything gives the reader special insights into his persona, helping us to connect with him.
Writing for advertising doesn't always demand strict adherence to literary rules. The objective is to connect with readers; speaking in a relatable way is what’s important. Slang, sentence fragments, contractions, and colloquialisms are acceptable tools. But use them wisely—credibility is still important.
3. Doing Something Different Makes All the Difference
The Catcher in the Rye stood out among other ‘adolescent-centered’ novels of the time because it is told from a teenager’s point of view. I related to Caulfield’s character because he is different and flawed, and his unique narration style kept me entertained throughout the novel.
Copywriters must present new and disruptive ideas, because they will engage audiences in new ways. Consider the top 15 advertising campaigns of the 21st century. They diverge from what was previously considered normal, and they have been so effective they have changed the culture of advertising—and popular society. Consider all your ideas, even if they seem crazy. That is when you’ll come up with the best content.
4. Don’t Be Phony
Holden constantly encounters people and situations that strike him as "phony," a word he applies to anything hypocritical, shallow, superficial, inauthentic, or otherwise fake—anything that turns him off.
The best way to connect brands with audiences is to bring them down to earth. Don’t try to build up a fake image for a product with nice words—you will turn off your reader. Instead, focus on the benefits the product will provide the people you are speaking to. That will help them see its authentic value.
5. Let Your Writing Reflect the Culture
The end of World War II and the beginning of the 1950s was a time of prosperity in mainstream America. Families flooded the suburbs and replaced their sorrows with material products—creating an America of conformity. Holden Caulfield was the voice of a new generation; he did not have the same mainstream goals as his parents. By tapping into the psyche of American youth, Salinger created a character that masses of people could relate to, and still do.
Like Salinger, copywriters must maintain a good understanding of current culture. When you absorb the mindset of your target audience, you are more likely to connect with it.