Good Ideas from Copywriters

Advertising is an ancient art.

In the Babylonian seaports, merchants hired barkers to announce the arrival of wine, spices, and fabrics.

Citizens in Greece hung “Lost” posters in hopes of being reunited with children, jewelry, or slaves.

And elaborately painted signs (billboards) sprung up throughout Pompeii to announce plays, carnivals, and races.

Same as it ever was

The first printed advertisement in English was a 3-by-5 inch handbill that offered a prayer book for sale. The year was 1477.

But it wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s that advertising came into its own. As the profession evolved the positions emerged to meet the demand:

  • Advertising agent
  • Commercial illustrator
  • Researcher
  • Account executive
  • Copywriter

And it was the copywriter who would come to dominate the field.

Commenting on the ads of the Roaring Twenties, Sivulka says, “It was obvious that the copywriter was the most prominent member of the advertising team since illustrations and photography seem almost interchangeable.”

Why you should care about advertising history

You should study advertising history for the same reasons you would study military history, political history, or economic history.

You’ll learn critical ideas like:

  • How to understand and guide the never-changing human psyche
  • The marketing fundamentals you forgot
  • Fresh publicity insights you never thought possible
  • Ways to make testing decisions that will save you time and money
  • The wrong ways to organize a campaign
  • Unusual copywriting tactics that still work
  • And straightforward, strategic thinking of proven marketing directors

1. Decide the effect you want to produce in your reader — Robert Collier

Depending on what circles you run in — self-help or direct-mail copywriting — you’ll likely remember the name Robert Collier (1885 – 1950).

But he’s probably best known for his 1926 book The Secret of the Ages.

This book sold more than 300,000 copies during his lifetime. His focus was on abundance, desire, faith, visualization, and becoming your best. He’s a legend in that field.

He’s also a legend in another:

What was his secret to so many successful sales letters?

Before you put pen to paper, before you ring for your stenographer, decide in your own mind what effect you want to produce on your reader — what feeling you must arouse in him.

~ Robert Collier

Once you’ve decided upon the emotion, then write in such a way that brings that feeling to the surface.

2. Show your product in use — Victor Schwab

Victor Schwab (1898 – 1980) started out as a secretary for Maxwell Sackheim when Sackheim was at Rathrauff & Ryan’s. He did such a good job improving Sackheim’s copy that he was promoted to copywriter. From there he went on to be “the greatest mail-order copywriter of all time.”

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It has also been demonstrated that, when picturing the product in your advertisement, you will get more attention by showing it in use: doing something, accomplishing something for the reader. That, as W. S. Townsend said, “makes it live and breathe and serve right in front of the eyes of the prospect.”

~ Victor Schwab

good ideas3. Open like a Reader’s Digest article — John Caples

The Great Depression was hard on ad agencies. Except for those agencies that “got” advertising.Before the Depression, it was looked down on as a hard-sell mail-order shop with layouts that mimicked tabloids and boldly warned the world of sensitive issues (body odor, for example) in soap ads.

John Caples (1900 – 1990) learned and perfected results-oriented mail-order copy at Ruthrauff & Ryan. It was there that the account from the U.S. School of Music was put on his desk … a company selling a correspondence course on piano playing.

One of the early lessons I learned from that book was how to open a sales letter. He says to study the Reader’s Digest. What do you see when you do that?

  1. They are fact-packed
  2. They are telegraphic
  3. They are specific
  4. There are few adjectives
  5. They arouse curiosity

This is not unlike opening a blog post, where:

  • Your opening sentence should be short — even as short as one word
  • The wrong quote can repel readers
  • A great story begins in the chaotic middle
  • You borrow liberally from your swipe file

In Caples’ famous headline, you see these elements playing out.

A favorable, specific image is projected, which teases.

4. Tap into one overwhelming desire — Eugene Schwartz

Mr. Schwartz (1927 – 1995) was not only a successful direct-mail copywriter — launching careers and corporations with headlines like “Give Me 15 Minutes and I’ll Give You a Super-Power Memory” — but he also channeled his experience and wisdom in books, including the legendary Breakthrough Advertising.

As Schwartz said:

Tap a single overwhelming desire existing in the hearts of thousands of people who are actively seeking to satisfy it at this very moment.

~ Eugene Schwartz

5. Make the advertiser the character — Maxwell Sackheim

Maxwell Sackheim (1890 – 1992) was born in Kovna, Russia. In 1915 he founded a New York advertising firm with business partner Harry Scherman. This was 1926.

Sackheim eventually sold his share in the club and worked with the Brown Fence and Wire Company during the war (eventually becoming president) before returning to advertising to start his own agency.

The ad ran for 40 years. Most businesses don’t last forty years. The success of this headline has been deconstructed thoroughly.

The way this played out in advertising was that his advertising letters would come from the mouth of the client.

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