(Written in 2008 as part of a free-lance copy voice development assignment for a home-furnishings catalog. Most of the headlines analyzed are ones I had written when I was the head writer for Frontgate between 2000 and 2003.)

First and foremost, understand the drawbacks. Not everyone “gets” wordplay. Every individual has a unique sense of what’s funny and what’s not, what’s charmingly irreverent and what’s downright offensive, what’s disarmingly witty and what’s too clever by half.

The mainstay of wordplay is punning. There are two basic types of puns: homophonic, based on similar word sounds; and homonymic, based on multiple meanings of a word.

For our purposes, there are also two ways to pun: reflexively and referentially. A reflexive pun is one that points only to itself as a joke; a referential pun points to the product. Avoid using reflexive puns in catalog copy. Mainstream magazines, and some catalogs, are filled with examples of reflexive puns such as “A View to a Frill,” “All the Beige,” “Knots in White Satin,” “Log Heaven,” “Spring Preening,” “Tux Be a Lady Tonight” (all these examples appeared a single issue of InStyle magazine). Facile and meaningless, reflexive puns try the patience of many readers. More important, they do not highlight features and benefits in a compelling manner. They lend credibility to the pun’s reputation as the lowest form of humor.

A referential pun, on the other hand, uses humor to kindle a reader’s positive interest in the product. The humor is never at the expense of the customer, the product or the brand. Take, for example, this catalog headline for a Panasonic electric shaver: “Shave a few seconds off your personal best with the world’s fastest razor.” The reader doesn’t have to get the homonymic pun (shaving time off an athletic feat/shaving your face) to get the message about the razor’s distinguishing feature (it’s the world’s fastest). A homophonic pun like “speed razor” may resonate with people who enjoyed the series or movie Speed Racer, but it could confuse others, and it does not tell the customer as much about the product.

Here is a headline from a home furnishings catalog description for a Detecto Physician’s Scale: “Just what the doctor ordered.” It plays off the product in several ways–all good. It has the word “doctor” in it, which establishes an immediate connection between the product photo and the copy (customers will have seen it in a doctor’s office). “Just what the doctor ordered” is an idiomatic expression for something that makes one feel good, which casts a positive light on the product. Even at the literal level, the statement is accurate because the scale is truly a thing that doctors everywhere have ordered, so the pun reinforces the product attributes of trust and reliability.

Idiomatic expressions tend to make good referential puns. A useful brainstorming resource for wordplay is a Dictionary of American Idioms. Titles, famous quotations, and lines from movies, songs or works of literature also make good puns, but the reference needs to be broad enough not to exclude, and innocuous enough not to offend.

Another way to add wordplay to copy is to use binary opposites (e.g., long/short, night/day) to combine two benefits, as in: “Here’s a bench that seats you closer to the fire—and stands up to the elements.” Or, for a retro turntable, “Looks like the 1950s—sounds like a million bucks!” 

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