Bowie’s “Space Oddity” vs. your copywriting

5 Sep

Andrew Kolb's Space Oddity

Ambiguity is a hallmark of many great works of art. They present us with many potential meanings or layers of meaning, and no interpretation can be said to be the “right” one.

If you’re a copywriter, ambiguity is not your friend. You want clarity. You need it from your clients so you can communicate their messages effectively, and your readers need it from you so they can understand what you’re telling them and what they should do about it.

What’s the difference between the ambiguity of art and the clarity of craft? I’m so glad you asked. Take a moment, if you will, and enjoy David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” with me:

Now try and answer these questions:

  • What does Ground Control think of Major Tom?
  • How does Major Tom feel about his mission?
  • What does Ground Control think of the newspaper reporters?
  • How does Major Tom feel about being in space?
  • How does Major Tom feel about his wife?
  • How does Major Tom’s wife feel about him?
  • What happened to Major Tom out there in space, and why?

Dude, I don’t know either. Ground Control’s apparent detachment, the vapid interests of “the papers”, and the line “she knows” (instead of “she loves you too”) always suggested to me that Major Tom is completely alienated from the world, and when he took his spacewalk he just decided to keep going. But there are potentially many other ways to understand it, which is what makes it such a classic song.

Recently, illustrator Andrew Kolb created a wonderful picture book based on the lyrics. Read it here, and then try and answer all those questions again.

Look! Clarity! I know exactly what’s going on, what everyone thinks and feels, and  — very important here — how I should respond emotionally. The voice of Ground Control has a person behind it, and the anguish in the line “SHE KNOWS!” is absolutely heartbreaking.

Kolb is taking an idea, settling on one interpretation, and then illustrating it so that I immediately get it.

Your job is not to be weird and challenging: Bowie has that covered. You have Kolb’s job. Set your sights on doing it as awesomely as he does.

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