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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hunt

5 copywriting lessons...by order of the traitors

Why language makes the BBC's latest reality hit so compelling



If you're anything like me, and over five million UK viewers, the second series of The Traitors has become your most recent compulsive viewing.


Filmed in the Scottish Highlands, The Traitors sees 22 contestants completing missions in order to win up to £120,000. But standing between them and this prize money is a group of duplicitous traitors who work together to vote off contestants, evade suspicion and take home the entire prize pot.


While the atmospheric backdrop of Ardross Castle and missions featuring grave robbing and creepy scarecrows might first grab our attention, language also plays an important role in making this update on Wink Murder appointment viewing.


So what copywriting lessons can we learn from this reality hit? And how can you use these tricks in your own writing?


Lesson 1 - Sticky vocab matters


In The Traitors, we don't have 'Team A' and 'Team B'. We don't have 'the Reds' and 'the Blues'. We have 'the faithfuls' and 'the traitors'.


And these faithfuls and traitors don't face off across any old table, it's 'The Round Table'. Contestants don't compete for 'immunity', they hope to secure a 'shield' to protect them from a 'death warrant' from the traitors - note that they aren't sent 'a note', 'a letter', or 'a memo'.


This isn't confusing, vague jargon or a maze of newly coined terminology invented for the programme. There's no ambiguity here. The language cuts through because it is both arresting and familiar. It's unique to the programme but it's also grounded in our previous understanding of these words.


How to use this in your own writing


Using concrete language that's understood by your readers means they'll understand what you're trying to say. Customers don't have the time or the inclination to wade through dense, technical wording or tricksy, overly clever copy to unpick the key message. Make it easy.


Use tangible words and memorable, quotable phrases. Ask yourself what one thing you want customers to do. What sticky copy can you use to help persuade them to do just that?


Lesson 2 - The power of word association


Think about everything the word 'faithful' brings to mind: love, families, marriage, religion, history, war, spies, loyalty, friendship - even pets. And 'The Round Table' and 'shield'? They conjure images of Arthurian legend and the knights, chivalry and magic that comes with it.


The Traitors cleverly uses these loaded words to efficiently communicate so much more than just a single noun or adjective ever could. Without these associations, would faithfuls cleave so strongly to their titles or declare with so much passion that they are absolutely, definitely '100% faithful'?


How to use this in your own writing


No word lives in a vacuum. Vocabulary is more like a spider's web of links that our minds jump around in without us even knowing it. That's why 'Smash' is ideal for instant mashed potato but may not be the first choice for double-glazing manufacturers.


To maximise the power of word association, analyse the words you're using as a brand. Create a word bank of words to use and words to avoid. What associations do they have? Will they make customers think about heritage, value or innovation? Will the sounds make them feel energised or relaxed? Are there alternatives for words they'll associate with your competitors?


Even individual nouns make a difference. Think about which websites might use 'blog' and which might use 'journal'. Neither is better or worse, right or wrong - it's all about context and the brand you want to create.



Lesson 3 - The impact of punchy verbs


Would the stakes feel as high if contestants were 'voted out' or 'asked to leave' rather than 'banished' or 'murdered'? Definitely not. Here, the programme uses verbs that stop us in our tracks. There's no doubt that this is a win-or-lose, make-or-break environment where small mistakes have big consequences.


How to use this in your own writing


No one wants to read something that's dull or boring. Injecting energy into your copy keeps customers reading. And bold, active verbs play a key role in this - especially in your headlines and calls to action. So, start strong and grab people's attention.


Scan your work for overly formal vocabulary or alienating jargon and switch it out for something you'd use in everyday speech. Take out 'utilise' and swap in 'use'. Opt for 'start', not 'commence'. 'So', not 'consequently'.


Make use of emotive words like 'protect', 'empower', 'go', 'let's'. Remember, your customers' decisions are emotional as well as rational.



Lesson 4 - Building a world


Everything about The Traitors works together to create atmosphere, spread unease and crank up often-unbearable levels of tension. The brooding castle, the unsettling missions and the cloaked traitors roaming dark stone corridors all fit together to create the world of the programme. Would it make sense if the traitors had to pick off one of the faithfuls with a 'cheeky cuddle'? No, they have to use a 'poisoned chalice'.


How to use this in your own writing


Copy, design and photography work best when they're all in sync. That's why it makes sense to get teams working together early on in projects rather than dropping one element in at the end. Mood boards are a great resource for writers as well as designers.


And it pays to get an overview of every customer touchpoint, so they have a consistent experience from social media and emails to editorial and customer service. Before you start writing, think about what your reader will have already seen, what they haven't seen, and what they'll see next. Give them the right information at the right time.



Lesson 5 - It pays to be yourself


Would The Traitor's death warrants or round tables work so effectively if they were transplanted to a sun-kissed island or the Australian jungle? No, because the programme doesn't copy its competitors. It's setting, design, advertising and language is confident and unique. It understands its own brand so its communication is single-minded and never hedges its bets.


How to use this in your own writing


Too often, copy starts to sound generic and repetitive across an industry. How many gadgets promise to 'supercharge' whatever it is you're trying to do. How many retailers have Christmas 'all wrapped up'? And how many brands let you do things 'your way'?


Finding an original way to say something means customers are more likely to pay attention. It helps your messaging and your brand stand out from the crowd. Identify the cliches in your industry and find a way to turn them on their head. Can you find an unexpected way to say something familiar?



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