One of the slipperiest, most interesting topics in copywriting is what can be generally described as “tone.” “Tone” means, basically, how what you say sounds. Or maybe how it rings in the reader’s ear. I realize this is hopelessly vague, by the way. Sorry.

Tone is really the impression you create. When the reader finishes whatever it is you’ve written, he/she thinks “Hmm … they’re powerful/creative/interesting/whatever.” Much of really good copywriting comes down to tone. In my opinion, tone matters more than facts. It’s also extremely hard to do, because it’s completely subjective. And when it goes wrong, it goes REALLY wrong. I plan to write several pieces about tone in the next few months, and in this one, we’re going to look at a disaster.

A friend of mine forwarded a copy of something posted in the tasting room of a winery. Without too much heavy breathing, it seems like the goal here was to make the winery, and its wines, sound hip, creative, and important. Here’s some of the copy, which has been altered to protect the winemakers, who I’m told are very nice people.

Ann and Bert celebrate estate wines, grapes grown here that evoke the history and terroir of this place. Their daughter and son-in-law, Monica and Chris, support an evolution of the concept with a revolution in modality. From steward to provocateur.

Change involves grape varieties grown on this land. True to the estate concept we respect the demands of climate plus the vicissitudes of consumer preference.

Yesterday’s Chenin Blanc is today’s Sauvignon Blanc is tomorrow’s Vermentino. Change views askance the dictates of convention. New ways may be better ways.

Revolutionary, provocative, unconventional.

This is awful. It’s awful for a lot of reasons, but the one I want to highlight here is the Cardinal Sin of tone in copywriting — it’s clearly trying too hard. Way, way, way, way too hard.

The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The first rule of copywriting is that the second your reader gets the idea that you’re striving for an effect, all your credibility drains away and you’re left flopping on the beach. And this copy is all about striving, to the point that some of it is actually meaningless.

“Change views askance the dictates of convention.” What? What does that even mean? “From steward to provocateur”? We’re talking here about a bottle of wine, folks, not someone pushing the envelope during a political debate. Virtually every sentence of this rings false because it’s clearly, obviously written for effect. The Wizard instantly stops being scary the second the little dog pulls back the curtain and reveals the man in a coat pulling levers and shouting into the microphone.

The point here, then, is that the second it looks like you’re trying too hard to create an effect, you’re finished. I have a friend who studied advertising in college. At one point, she and her little friends had to create a parody of an ad, and what they came up with was a hilarious, over-the-top fake ad for some luxury object. Their college girl tagline was “An Ease About Being Grand” which would send everyone to the floor, screaming with laughter, every time it was pronounced. It still does.

When it comes to tone, that’s not the effect you want. More on this later.