Cringe is power
Why copy sometimes needs to fly close to the sun.
One of the stranger things about being a copywriter is that the more you do it, the less you know. While the breadth of experience and knowledge increases all the time, I’ve found that formulating that sense of what I consider ‘good’ copy gets increasingly unclear. Central to this has been understanding (or at least trying to) the differences between my own sensibilities as an individual, and those of others. In other words, realising what you might consider to be subjectively good can be very different from what objectively works.
Which is annoying, and sometimes mortifyingly obvious. Like when you write a suite of ads and the one you think is fire gets indifference, while the one you thought was the most basic seems to be the one that’s most liked. Or when the line you have spent hours on, gradually layering up multiple conceptual meanings until it’s finessed to within an inch of its life, is replaced with something akin to ‘please buy this thing.’
Now, I realise that there’s quite possibly a lesson in all of these hypothetical examples around simplicity, directness, economy, blah, blah, blah. And that’s definitely true. But even so, it’s not everything. It can’t be. There’s a multitude of other stuff at play, and I for one love a bit of unscientific cultural theorising about what that might be.
One of those theories is embarrassing. It’s literally centred around embarrassment. On one hand it’s about Charlie XCX. About Mike Skinner, Kanye West, PC Music, Love Island, First Dates, Ricky Gervais and a million other things. But really it’s about the specific emotions generated by pop culture, things I, you and we love and hate, and, most of all, the power of cringe.
Cringe is a feeling I doubt I need to explain (you know, the rush of desperate embarrassment that makes the corners of your eyes crease involuntarily; or wince as though pierced by a thorn; or covering your eyes/ears/face; or diving for the remote control and mashing it) but I probably do need to explain why I’m about to give it so much significance. For me, it’s the sheer potency of it. It’s an intensity of feeling that can only really happen when something’s got to you, reminded you of something (or someone), pressed one of your buttons, needled one of your insecurities, triggered one of your fears. Sometimes the cringe itself is just a fleeting sensation, sometimes you can laugh it off, sometimes not; but either way, it’s real, visceral and uncomfortable in the moment.
It’s only when I started thinking about it in this context that I began to realise that this definition shares pretty much the same emotional objectives of any/all creative effort. The intensity, the button pushing, the sense of trying to generate an emotional response. Is that not what creativity of all descriptions is ultimately shooting for? Therefore, could cringe actually be an awkward ying to a wider emotional yang; a byproduct of something or someone getting close to the bone, but then just missing (painfully)?
Jabbing at the threshold.
My theory is that when people have the greatest emotional response to content (and especially in regards to the content they either hold most dear, or hate most vehemently) ties into their own individual cringe threshold; that it’s the content, or art, or whatever else, that butts up against that threshold that triggers the most acute emotional response, for good or for bad. It’s as though there’s a paper thin, almost bipolar, line between the things you consider greatness, and things you consider totally unbearable, with the precise position of that line oscillating and shifting according to a series of really personal variables that might be as transient as your mood that day, or the article you’ve just read.
But all this needs context. And examples. And probably some sense of what’s led me down this odd road. The context for me was being increasingly confused (and interested) by the strange closeness of things (books/TV/music/film etc) I really like, and things I don’t. Take Charlie XCX. I think she’s pretty much the best pop star around. But my experience of listening to her (and the same applies to other acts like 100 Gecs, AG Cook and virtually all PC Music for that matter) often has a familiar three stage process. The first listen is an outright cringe. The second listen dulls the cringe just enough to actually hear the track. And then by the third listen, I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard – made somehow all sweeter by the weird, mind-changing journey.
The way I make sense of it is that her music must be jabbing away at my personal cringe threshold, nearly always starting on the wrong side of the line and then hurdling over to the other along the way – and almost totally inverting my opinion in the process. The thing is, there’s plenty of music that I really like that doesn’t do any of that. But it’s occurred to me that, in most cases, I don’t like it quite as much as the stuff that does.
Mass market pop culture cringe.
That’s just one extremely personalised example, but I wonder if less overt variations of something similar don’t happen all the time with all sorts of mass market pop culture. Take Love Island, or indeed First Dates, or any number of reality TV shows where the entertainment is predicated on watching live social interaction. Generally speaking, I can only face watching this through the prism of Gogglebox. I absolutely cannot handle the constant spectre of awkwardness/embarrassment hanging over virtually every conversation. But clearly that potential is the precise currency of the programme. It’s the reason people tune in. They feel that sense of cringe, but they can handle it, get a kick out of it. And those that do, I think, therefore must have a cringe threshold that’s calibrated differently to mine. And whereas I might recoil, they can enjoy.
Another example that’s interesting to think about is The Office. Most people agree that it’s brilliant. But people often disagree about whether it’s enjoyable. To some it’s excruciatingly exquisite, to others it’s just excruciating. I’m just about the former, but even so, I found it far, far easier to watch and enjoy the second time round, when the edges have been slightly blunted, there’s the safety of predictability to cling to, and you can admire it rather than feel the moments quite so acutely. Obviously, this example is slightly different in the sense that it’s scripted; by its very nature, inauthentic. But I think it works in exactly the same way as the previous examples, not least because the mockumentary realism thing is so well executed as to really trigger the full gamut of cringe responses.
Cringe risk vs copy reward.
But what does any of this have to do with writing copy? Well, quite possibly nothing. It may make no sense whatsoever. It may be the work of an addled mind. If it isn’t, then the takeaway might be the bravery to risk people hating your work. To go back to those hypothetical examples I mentioned approx waaay back at the beginning, maybe the reason things like that happen are because the copywriter (i.e. me) has written some nice words, idioms and puns, but has not risked dabbling in any significant emotional cues or triggers – simply for fear of being seen to miss the mark.
With that in mind, might it be that in order to really do the most affecting, effective work, you need to embrace the prospect of embarrassment; and somehow get comfortable with the prospect of being responsible for making people cringe as they read? Not because that’s ever the aim, but because cringe seems such a close neighbour of the emotional impact that you really do want to deliver. So while it might mean that every now and then you knock on the wrong door, it also means you’re absolutely on the right street – and maybe just a picket fence away from something brilliant.