The Importance of Cultural Literacy

Last week I saw a brilliant headline: “Dreamliner Deferred”

The headline alluded to Boeing’s troubled 787 Dreamliner. The FAA recently grounded all 787s currently in service due to multiple problems, most notably fires caused by lithium-ion batteries.

But if this was all you knew about the headline, you’d still be missing a big part of it. That’s because the headline also alludes to one of Langston Hughes most-famous poems titled “A Dream Deferred.” It goes like this:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic, but I’d bet money that 90% of the people who saw the “Dreamliner Deferred” headline completely missed the reference to Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem.


Right now, I’m reading Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield.

On page 70, there’s this brief passage:

What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still, small voice inside our heads. At last we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny.


Motorcycle maintenance.

Founding a clinic in the slums of Sao Paulo.

This, we acknowledge at last, is what we are most afraid of. This is what we know in our hearts we have to do.

Here we have another literary allusion. This time it’s to the 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

Maybe you’ve heard of this book. But have you read it?


And so there’s this idea of “cultural literacy” — a loosely defined collection of literary works, authors, music, artists, events, catch-phrases, phenomenons, and such that each person ought to have at least a passing familiarity with.

Cultural literacy provides a richness to life. When you are culturally literate, just two words at the top of a newspaper can now take on a completely different context and meaning.

But lacking this cultural literacy, the world is much duller.

It is the difference between seeing in three dimensions versus seeing in only two.

-Ryan M. Healy

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like,, and

Joseph Ratliff - February 7, 2013

Ryan, yes.

Culteral Literacy is SOOO important, it’s not funny.

Without it, I would add, the world becomes “misunderstood.” I think, if you were to measure this concept of “cultural literacy” on a scale of 1 to 100, currently… the score wouldn’t be as high as it was, say, 50 years ago.

I think we all need to work very hard on improving our cultural literacy.

    Ryan M. Healy - February 7, 2013

    I would agree. And much of cultural literacy comes from reading books… an activity that’s not very popular today.

Kevin Francis - February 7, 2013

Great post Ryan.

Two issues, I’d suggest…

1) What is the current state of “cultural literacy”?

2) What are the implications of that?

From a purely copywriting and direct response marketing point of view, only the first issue is directly relevant. It’s part of the Robert Collier concept of “the conversation already going on in the mind of the prospect”. More broadly, it’s about being able to communicate through shared reference points.

In some ways, your example of “Dreamliner Deferred” is a BAD example of copy because 90% (I’d suggest more like 95%+) of the readers won’t get it. If it was deliberate, the writer is being “clever”. I guess it doesn’t matter too much in this case because the line works on two levels.

So what’s important is what’s meaningful to the audience (hey, I know you know this!).

Now it may be disappointing to people like us that the current “cultural literacy” revolves more around the SuperBowl, American Idol and Jersey Shore, rather than the classics, but from a sales and marketing perspective it’s irrelevant what WE think.

From a broader perspective, the current lamentable level of both educational standards and cultural literacy is a disaster for the Western World…but that’s another topic!

Thanks again for the post!

    Ryan M. Healy - February 7, 2013

    Yeah, the only reason I went down to 90% is because I figured those still reading print newspapers would be an older (potentially better read) crowd.

    All your points are quite valid, Kevin.

    In a marketing context, the headline would indeed be “clever,” which is rarely a good thing when trying to make sales.

    I would never suggest putting a bunch of cultural references into a sales letter unless they were highly relevant to the audience. :-)

      Kevin Francis - February 7, 2013

      Hey Ryan…I know you know this stuff as well as (if not better than) I do!

      Reading the post, it occurred to me that there was risk that people who didn’t know better might think that you were suggesting that going all “cultural and literary” would be a good thing in copy.

      As you say, what’s important is what’s relevant to the audience.

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