In season 4, episode 6 of Mad Men, copywriter Danny Siegel becomes the butt of the joke for reusing the same hackneyed line: "Greyhound. The cure for the common bus. La-Z-Boy. The cure for the common chair. Budweiser. The cure for the common beer…". We can laugh at Danny, because normally advertising executives at least try to pretend their lines are original. However when the star’s show Don Draper pitches his more aesthetic line “Eat life by the bowlful” later in the episode, the client rejects it for being “kinda smart for regular folks”. Maybe Danny was onto something. In desperation Don pitches “The cure for the common breakfast” and the client buys it, meaning he begrudgingly has to offer Danny a job, for stealing his line.
For any copy line to work, it must build on references that already exist in consumer’s minds. At a bare minimum you have to use the same alphabet as your users, preferably the same language and dialect too. It doesn’t matter how good your tagline is – it could be the cleverest line in the world – but if it’s written in Swahili, nobody will get it. On the other end of the spectrum are lines like Danny’s “The cure for the common X”. Common memes or tropes that most everyone has heard before. Draper’s line is somewhere in the middle, cleverly constructing a slang unit of measurement ‘bowlful’ (like ‘mouthful’), and echoing the concept of ‘carpe diem’ with the brand’s ‘eat life’ slogan. It was semi-original, if maybe too high-minded for his client’s simple tastes. If Draper had pitched “Smoke Lucky Strike by the Packful” in his next meeting, he’d be as hackneyed as Danny.
If originality is a spectrum, where do we draw the line? If our copy is too esoteric and artsy, only fellow advertising executives will appreciate it. We might win awards, but we won’t win customers. If the ad is too formulaic, consumers might be put off. Worse, customers may fail to distinguish what product was even being advertised, and we might be driving sales to a competitor. When Energizer parodied Duracell’s ‘drumming bunny’ in a big ad campaign, sales of Energizer batteries went down and Duracell went up. Why? The general public couldn’t care less about advertising: they saw an ad with a drumming bunny, remembered Duracell was the one with the drumming bunny, so that’s what they got to the store that’s what they bought.
The truth is we often don’t know or can’t remember where we heard something. Without a photographic memory, we might be unintentionally copying something that came before. The marketers behind uSwitch’s “Switching. Made Simple.” probably didn’t intentionally copy Ryanair's “Low Fares. Made Simple”. Regardless, they can’t control the fact that some customers will have formed an association in their minds between their brand and that of a cut-rate airline. Neither of these brands were the first to use “X made simple”, and likely won’t be the last. Like “the cure for the common X”, the line just feels right when you hear it. It works in a variety of situations. Therefore the meme will continue to propagate, whether the copywriter pitching it is labelled a hack or a hero.