There’s an old story, usually attributed to David Ogilvy, about a copywriter whose daily walk to work takes him past a blind beggar on a street corner. His sign reads, “I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.” Every day, the beggar is largely ignored by the passers-by. One sunny morning, the copywriter stops, takes out a marker pen and scribbles three words on the sign, then moves on. From that day, the blind man’s cup is stuffed with notes and overflowing with change. The copywriter has adapted the sign to read: “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND. PLEASE HELP.”
It’s a lovely story, which has been making copywriters feel good about themselves ever since (and possibly making blind people feel somewhat patronised). It’s usually quoted in the context of how important the ‘emotive sell’ is when pushing the latest commercial message into the minds of unwitting consumers, which is what copywriters generally do when they’re not being selfless superheroes.
Anyway, I mention this because a video version of the story has recently gone viral, attracting 6 million hits on YouTube. It’s a promotional video for online agency Purplefeather, titled ‘The Power of Words’. But, regrettably, the story isn’t quite the same. It’s been what you might charitably call ‘adapted’, or less charitably call ‘unforgivably mutilated’.
You can watch the video yourself if you want to add to the viewing figures, but suffice to say the key moment comes at the end, when the copywriter (a woman this time) takes to the sign with a marker pen. This time though, instead of elegantly adapting the existing text, she turns the sign over and writes: “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.”
This is seriously what she writes.
The copywriter ignores the existing text written by the hapless blind man, and writes her own line on the reverse, thereby removing any of the wit and charm of the original story.
But she goes further by spelling out what was implicit in the original line. “IT'S SPRING AND I'M BLIND’ is a spare statement of fact that leaves the reader to fill in the emotional gap. This is where it gets its power. “IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND I CAN'T SEE IT” is the same line rewritten by the Ronseal copywriting team. In fact, it doesn’t even have that level of disarming directness, because the writer has forgotten to include the call to action. Without the ‘Please help’, it’s all a bit pointless.
And there’s another problem. What if it isn’t a beautiful day? What if it’s raining tomorrow, or in a couple of hours? Ogilvy thought of this – ‘spring’ is nicely open-ended (although you have to hope he adapted the sign come summer). Does this new copywriter have a stack of signs covering various weather conditions? “IT'S DRIZZLING SLIGHTLY AND I CAN'T SEE IT.” “IT WAS NICE A MINUTE AGO BUT HAS SINCE CLOUDED OVER A BIT AND I CAN'T SEE IT." (If you watch the video, you can see it appears to be a grey and damp day, even though the woman copywriter is bizarrely wearing sunglasses. Almost makes you wonder which of them is blind.)
It’s testament to the power of the original story that this bastardised version nevertheless retains enough impact to garner 6 million hits. But it’s also disheartening. We copywriters only have a limited supply of industry folklore to keep us going. If you’re going to use this story to make your agency promo, at least get the line right. Redrafting David Ogilvy isn’t something to undertake lightly, especially when your video is all about the power of words.
Anyway, if I ever fall on hard times, I’ve already planned my sign, which, if nothing else, should raise a smile from the odd passing copywriter – “IT’S SPRING AND I’M BLIND DRUNK. PLEASE HELP.”
I just hope that woman doesn’t come along and change it.