What Scrooge's 3 Ghosts Can Tell Us About Copywriting

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Gotta hand it to Dickens.

When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he gave the world a story it is difficult to believe will one day cease to be told.

Centre stage is a beautifully repulsive monster upon whose selfish misdeeds we may all reflect in this season of generosity.

But the story has much more to offer.

In essence, it is an image-rich analysis of the interplay between past, present and future.

From a copywriting point of view, this is gold dust.

All narrative depends on how the present emerges from the dynamic relationship between immediate circumstance, baggage from ye olde worlde past, and visions of the future.

The present is an evergreen moment in time as far as our perception is concerned, and it is forged as the three dynamic forces swirl around in our crucible of sensation.

Experience informs judgement, judgement generates experience, their twinned pulse cycling through time as we feel and think ourselves from dawn till dusk till dawn.

So let's check in with the past and see how everything got started.

(Dickens took in the present first, but he was a master storyteller -- on which, more later.)

What is clear both for people and so-called 'brands' is that human beings place great importance on continuity of identity.

It is why we admire movie stars who have always been movie stars, sport icons at the top of their game, and even hold out a strange kind of respect for villains whose evil deeds flow from principle.

Too much random is perceived as either failure, lack of direction, or pseudo-psychopathy.

But not all identity flows from unpunctuated continuity.

The world often interrupts our dream plots, bidding us to reinvent ourselves.

If life is brutal, or we are lost, still there is a narrative, a path we must walk to preserve continuity of identity.

It is no coincidence that many successful people whose present day affluence arose from hard knocks endured early are ferociously proud of their past and wear it as a badge of honor.

There I am. That was me, all along. Pleased to meetcha.

However our own stories play out, and whatever way we view their import, the hulking belief structure around which our perception of the world orbits is not an entity to be taken lightly or overturned quickly.

In Dickens' book, the Ghost of Christmas Past scenes are some of the warmest.

Scrooge is reunited with his former self and his senses reawakened to life as it was.

But he can touch none of it, change not a single moment.

The message here?

Any copy we write must pay heed to the past's incapacity for yielding.

The past can only be viewed in retrospect, and even when future circumstance shifts the focus of the lens, the image aglow from times gone by will remain broadly consistent with what we hold to be the truth about its essence.

Rewriting history is a dangerous path to tread in this regard because spectres know their lines by heart, and they will haunt all who dare to submit rewrtites.

From your clients' past, you take consistency of identity, and restore it to life as an artifact real enough to touch.

But never presume to lay even so much as a fingerprint on it.

The remarkable property of the future is that it exists only as a concept.

(Physicists would disagree, but it is Christmas, and they are hopefully all drunk enough to stay out of the argument today.)

Here's where you can fingerprint into view any marks you wish to be seen because the future's capacity for transformation and mutation presumes infinite images.

Change lays its hat down in the future, not in the past.

Scrooge realises this with laser-sharp clarity when the Ghost of Christmas Future pulls the ultimate objection for not going with the generosity idea Dickens is selling to his readers as a theme.

Unless you sign up to the potential for change we are offering here, you are gonna die a miserable death, an' everyone is gonna hate you.

Look: here's the gravestone with your f*ckin' name on it.

(How many times do you get to swing with that ubermeister of negativity in your copy?

"Buy our product -- or you will die!!!")

The Third Ghost's pitch demonstrates real intelligence.

Like Scrooge, she has seen the continuity of identity on offer, and she is sufficiently clued up about the future's eternally transformative nature to realise that given the right persuasion anyone can take new steps into their own imminent narrative and come out a winner, no matter how their story has played out so far.

This Ghost resides in an impossible place -- the imaginary realm of the future that is forever beyond mortal grasp.

She alone has the power to reach into our past and touch her fingertips to its beating heart.

Between them, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future make a catalytic kind of appeal.

They offer hope of continuity as time burns all our days into dust.

What is so wonderful about Dickens' story is how the past is not denied its place in Scrooge's narrative, and the future is liberated from the clutches of the monster he has become.

The change is seismic, but it is also fluid.

When we write copy, we have to understand what are the limitations and possibilities.

From the past -- our research into our client's story so far -- we obtain permanence and significance.

From the future -- our ability to engage in speculative alchemy -- we offer promise of lucrative sequels to whatever is our client's continuity of identity (or so-called "brand").

I wanted to say more about the Ghost of Christmas Present, but it is Christmas Eve right now, and (unlike Scrooge) I have to down tools and go party.

In essence, the first Ghost's message is this:


Here is what is going down right under your nose as you scratch black spiders onto parchment in your icy tomb of a life.

All of this is yours if you want it.

It's like the Ghost of Christmas Future snuck in early, in disguise, and dealt her finest and most persuasive card.

Startling people with promise of their own inevitable demise only works if there is sugar to soften the blow.

(Believe me -- I have tasted the coffee in McDonalds.)

What Scrooge is offered right at the very beginning is a vision of what will become his own future if only he will sign up for what is on offer.

As readers, we do not fully appreciate this subtlety until the end of the story.

Like Scrooge, our attention is grabbed early, taken on a meaningful and transformative journey, and resolved into a smile of hope to carry us on our way.

But, like I said, Dickens was a master storyteller.

His words are punctuated continuity of narrative, and they fill us full of life's breath as we read them.

That is why we love A Christmas Carol so much, year on year.

Those are my thoughts right now, so I am gonna raise a glass, an' celebrate the Festive Season.

Then I am prolly gonna fall over.

Merry Christmas to you all.

#copywriting #ghosts #scrooge

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