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I recently read a discussion on Quora, not about copywriting, but about my favourite action film character, Jason Bourne. The question posed was, “Unarmed Jason Bourne and 007 get into a street brawl, who would win?”

Of course, I said Bourne and kept muttering it and nodding while reading the answers, the overwhelming majority of which agreed with me, but I couldn’t shake a thought off.

Bourne is immensely talented and versatile, and applies himself, his knowledge and talents, to a task right away, and sees it through to fruition. This reminded me a lot of my own work, copywriting, which requires hard work and talent, but lots more typing and pressing backspace, than rappelling down buildings and deadly unarmed combat. Still, the seed was planted, and with that in mind, here’s my idea of Why A Copywriter Should Be Like Jason Bourne.

1. Bourne is confident

When he needs to speak German to Swiss bank officials, he does so. When he’s spoken to in Italian, he replies in confident, correct, clipped tones, without batting an eyelid. To skip the queue outside a US embassy, he just holds up his passport (one of many), and says “I’m an American”, and is waved through.

Jason keeps moving with confidence and as such, is rarely stopped mid-flow.

The copywriter should be the same. There is a train of thought the copywriter must transmit from their head to the reader’s head, and any faltering, lack of confidence, clumsiness or poor coordination will ruin that transmission.

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A good copywriter is like Jason Bourne, he gets in there fast, does the job cleanly and directly, and then moves out.

2. Jason Bourne is invisible

“I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.” – Conklin to Jason Bourne

Like any good spy or assassin, Jason Bourne is ineffable, invisible. He does his deeds without being observed, leaving the world at large to grapple with their consequences afterwards, when he’s all done. There is no room for deviation from the plan, the task must be carried out without anyone noticing.

Now this seems a little far fetched, but a copywriter is much the same.

The copywriter’s mission is the message, and nothing must come between that and the recipient. The copywriter’s own flair, personality, taste, linguistic ability and all that, they do affect how the message is processed and received, but all of those are of secondary importance to the message itself.

A great copywriter is invisible, leaving the reader not wondering about who wrote the message, but about the message itself, whatever that was; deposit and play, buy now, spin to win, read this book, this company is the best, whatever.

A great copywriter is nothing but a highly efficient, completely invisible buffer between the message, and its intended recipient.

3. Jason just knows

“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?“

A copywriter also must know. It’s a matter of having done the same kind of thing so many times before, over and over, that it just comes second nature, nay, first nature indeed. This is why we choose words instead of others; not because there is some scientific formula, it’s because a good copywriter knows which words fit, which words don’t, which words leave a nasty flavour in the speaker’s mouth, and which ones roll off the tongue.

In a world where Jason Bourne is discovering himself, yet knows so much about his capabilities, a copywriter must also do the same; forget themselves for a minute and focus on the reader, yet without letting go of the thousands of hours of experience they have in communicating strongly, clearly and succinctly with the reader.

4. Bourne is clear

“You move, you die.”

No faffing about, no niceties, Bourne says what needs to be said in the clearest, most understandable way possible. Granted, it’s not high prose, but then again Bourne is rarely the harbinger of good news, and often is bearing dangerous, potentially explosive information that requires action, now.

The copywriter should be the same. In excellent copywriting, clarity is paramount. Of course, copywriters have the luxury of playing with language and tone, but fundamentally, a good copywriter always keeps their eyes on the prize. There is a goal here, and my target is to make you reach that goal, with as little complication as possible.

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Jason Bourne – he could probably write copy that leaves you on the edge…

And here’s a few of my favourite curt lines delivered by Bourne, in which he displays incredible clarity, and gets what he wants;

“Look. You drive, I pay, it’s that simple.”

“I will take you wherever you need to go. I will take you there, and I will leave you there. You can do whatever you want, you never have to see me again. But not here. If we stay here, we die.”

“I told you to come alone, but I guess that was too hard. So try this- I’m gone.”

5. Jason Bourne is witty

Of course he is. He’s a bloody smart fellow after all, and if he’s not funny and witty, how else would you explain the last line of the first film, when his long lost partner on the road Marie asks, “Do you have ID?”, and he replies, “Not really”?

Another example is when Bourne meets Jarda, an operative in the same CIA program, who expresses surprise at seeing Bourne;

Jarda: “Word in the ether was you’d lost your memory.”
Jason Bourne: “You still should have moved.”

Compare that to content. What is more likely to grab and hold your attention, a serious, ponderous tone, or a light, jokey, funny tone loaded with banter, such, as for example, the Legalise Marinara copy used by this restaurant? Very few things are as effective in getting an audience to agree with you and hum approval than a well timed subtle dig or barb. Even though he doesn’t often smile, probably because he doesn’t have much to smile about, Bourne still makes the viewer chuckle sometimes, simply by recounting things in a plain manner, exposing the inherent humour of the situation, and drawing the audience in. And for that alone, Bourne certainly delivers copy that kills.

And what’s your favourite action hero? Dredd? Rambo? Chuck Norris, in any of his incarnations? How do any of these relate to your profession? Drop me a line in the comments below…

Mark Debono

Author Mark Debono

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