By Drayton Bird
I met Charlie Chaplin (very briefly) in 1966 while working on publicity for the film Fahrenheit 451. Then I was lucky enough to work with David Ogilvy for eight years.
Ogilvy still exerts enormous influence in the marketing business, and if you haven't read Ogilvy on Advertising, you should have your wrist slapped.
But there is one remarkable person I never met but wish I had. I surely would have learned a lot from him. That's because he started not one but two groundbreaking businesses - the Franklin Mint and QVC.
That man is Joe Segel. With the Franklin Mint, he pretty much invented the mail-order collectibles business. It was for years pre-eminent in the field, though it has since been bought, sold, screwed up, and run into the ground.
I worked for the Franklin Mint in London in 1976. At the time, many people thought I was the bee's knees at direct-response copy. But I learned a valuable lesson - one you should bear in mind whenever you write or review copy.
A Near-Impossible Task
My first job at The Mint was a letter to sell some medallions celebrating the achievements of the Kings of Belgium. This was quite a challenge. At least one of them - Leopold II - was a mass murderer and slave trader, and few of the others were that impressive.
After laboring on it for a week, I placed the carefully typed product of my consummate genius in front of my client.
He started reading it out loud in sonorous tones. After the heading and first paragraph, he paused, gazed at me over his bifocals, and asked:
"What do you suppose the reader would like to know next?"
Well, you know what? I was flummoxed. I had been writing copy for, oh, nearly 20 years. I had been creative director of a big London agency. My copy had sold a bodybuilding machine called the Bullworker all over the world.
Yet I had never given thought to one simple fact: The minute you have written something, you must ask yourself what is going through the reader's mind.
Good Copy Is Like a Conversation
The great novelist Evelyn Waugh put it very well. He was writing to his wife, complaining that her letters were dull. (Hardly surprising. Unlike him, she was not a literary genius.)
"A good letter," he told her, "should be like a conversation."
Same goes for a good sales letter.
When you write good copy, you "say" something. Then you imagine the reaction in the reader's mind - and respond appropriately.
That was what I failed to understand until my client at the Franklin Mint pointed it out to me.
As my friend Joe Sugarman has said, the only purpose of each line of copy is to make the reader read the next one.
This is immensely important, particularly when it comes to the MOST important sentence in your copy. That sentence is the first one. The headline in an ad. The teaser on an envelope. The start of the sales letter. The opening line in a commercial.
Too many get the reader's attention - but they are "stoppers," not "starters."
Five Good Examples
What sort of lines force you to read on? Take a look at these:
- "Have you ever seen a bald sheep?" (Charlie Kasher's opening to a 30-minute radio spot for a hair-growth product)
- "Do you lock the bathroom door behind you - when there's nobody else home?" (Bill Jayme's envelope line for Psychology Today)
- "Cash if you die. Cash if you don't." (WWAV agency's line to sell an insurance product)
- "Do you believe in life after death?" (About the only decent envelope line I ever wrote - for Save the Children)
- "If the list upon which I found your name is anything to go by, this is not the first, nor will it be the last, invitation you will receive to subscribe to a magazine..." (Ed McLean's opening for Business Week - the first direct-mail letter he ever wrote)
Two Old Tricks
Your copy must flow logically. Mine doesn't always.
I've found that it helps to sum up each paragraph with a few words in the margin, and then see if they make sense in sequence.
Another thing that helps has to do with verbal technique. "Carrier" words and phrases - like And, Also, Moreover, What is more, In addition to - at the start of sentences keep people reading. So do questions at the end of paragraphs.
Why is this?
Because you have to keep reading to get the answer.
(The above two sentences just demonstrated what I mean.)
While I was drafting this essay, I spent some time watching QVC. I suggest you do the same. And take notes. Pay attention and write down all the techniques they use. Then see if you are using those techniques in your sales copy.
Here are some things I noticed in just the first few minutes:
- They demonstrate - and nothing makes a stronger sales pitch than a good demonstration.
- They're friendly and helpful - not loud, aggressive, or in your face.
- The whole deal is on the screen throughout the spot.
- There's tons of information. They're not afraid to talk at length or repeat themselves.
- They use persuasive references - e.g., the fact that a Diamonique designer had created something for Hillary Clinton.
One last thought...
David Ogilvy once told me that the secret of success in the marketing business is charm. And what makes you think someone is charming? They seem interested in you. They listen to what you say. They pay attention.
You must be genuinely interested enough in your readers to try and imagine what is going through their minds - and respond to it.
Then you will charm them all the way to the order form.
Bad copy does not do that. It is written from the writer's point of view, not the reader's.