AN INTRODUCTION TO COPYWRITING
“A copywriter is a salesperson behind a typewriter.”*
That quote comes from Judith Charles, president of her own retail advertising agency, Judith K. Charles Creative Communication. And it’s the best definition of the word copywriter I’ve ever heard.
The biggest mistake you can make as a copywriter is to judge advertising as laypeople judge it. If you do, you’ll end up as an artist or an entertainer—but not as a salesperson. And your copy will be wasting your client’s time and money.
Let me explain a bit. When ordinary folks talk about advertising, they talk about the ads or commercials that are the funniest, the most entertaining, or the most unusual or provocative. Geico commercials with the talking lizard, Budweiser’s “real men of genius” radio spots, and the annual creative TV commercial extravaganza broadcast during the Super Bowl are the ads people point to and say, “I really like that!”
But the goal of advertising is not to be liked, to entertain, or to win advertising awards; it is to sell products. The advertiser, if he is smart, doesn’t care whether people like his commercials or are entertained or amused by them. If they are, fine. But commercials are a means to an end, and the end is increased sales—and profits—for the advertiser.
This is a simple and obvious thing, but the majority of copywriters and advertising professionals seem to ignore it. They produce artful ads, stunningly beautiful catalogs, and commercials whose artistic quality rivals the finest feature films. But they sometimes lose sight of their goals—more sales—and the fact that they are “salespeople behind typewriters,” and not literary artists, entertainers, or filmmakers.
Being artistic in nature, advertising writers naturally like ads that are aesthetically pleasing, as do advertising artists. But just because an ad is pretty and pleasant to read doesn’t necessarily mean it is persuading people to buy the product. Sometimes cheaply produced ads, written simply and directly without a lot of fluff, do the best job of selling.
I’m not saying that all your ads should be “schlock” or that schlock always sells best. I am saying that the look, tone, and image of your advertising should be dictated by the product and your prospects—and not by what is fashionable in the advertising business at the time, or is aesthetically pleasing to artistic people who deliberately shun selling as if it were an unwholesome chore to be avoided at all costs.
In a column in Direct Marketing magazine, freelance copywriter Luther Brock gave an instructive example of creativity versus salesmanship in advertising. Brock tells of a printing firm that spent a lot of money to produce a fancy direct-mail piece. The mailing featured an elaborate, four-color, glossy brochure with a “pop-up” of a printing press. But, reports Brock, the mailing was less than effective:
They got plenty of compliments on “that unique mailing.” But no new business. That’s a pretty expensive price to pay for knocking ’em dead. The next mailing the firm sent was a simple two-page sales letter and reply card. It pulled a hefty 8 percent response. Same pitch but no frills.
As a creative person, you naturally want to write clever copy and produce fancy promotions. But as a professional, your obligation to your client is to increase sales at the lowest possible cost. If a classified ad works better than a full-page ad, use it. If a simple typewritten letter gets more business than a four-color brochure, mail the letter.
Actually, once you realize the goal of advertising is selling (and Luther Brock defines selling as “placing 100 percent emphasis on how the reader will come out ahead by doing business with you”), you’ll see that there is a creative challenge in writing copy that sells. This “selling challenge” is a bit different than the artistic challenge: Instead of creating aesthetically pleasing prose, you have to dig into a product or service, uncover the reasons why consumers would want to buy the product, and present those sales arguments in copy that is read, understood, and reacted to—copy that makes the arguments so convincingly the customer can’t help but want to buy the product being advertised.
Of course, Judith Charles and I are not the only copywriters who believe that salesmanship, not entertainment, is the goal of the copywriter. Here are the thoughts of a few other advertising professionals on the subjects of advertising, copywriting, creativity, and selling:
My definition says that an ad or commercial has a purpose other than to entertain. That purpose is to conquer a sale by persuading a logical prospect for your product or service, who is now using or is about to use a competitor’s product or service, to switch to yours. That’s basic, or at least, it should be. In order to accomplish that, it seems to me, you have to promise that prospect an advantage that he’s not now getting from his present product or service and it must be of sufficient importance in filling a need to make him switch.
—Hank Seiden, Vice President, Hicks & Greist, New York
For years, a certain segment of the advertising industry has been guilty of spinning ads out of whole cloth; they place a premium on advertising’s appearance, not on the reality of sales. The result: too many ads and commercials that resemble third-rate vaudeville, desperately trying to attract an audience with stale jokes and chorus lines. On its most basic level, [the advertising] profession involves taking a product, studying it, learning what’s unique about it, and then presenting that “uniqueness” so that the consumer is motivated to buy the product.
—Alvin Eicoff, Chairman, A. Eicoff & Company
Those of us who read the criticisms leveled at advertising around the world are constantly struck by the fact that they are not really criticisms of advertising as such, but rather of advertisements which seem to have as a prime objective finding their way into creative directors’ portfolios, or reels of film. Possibly the best starting discipline for any creative man in any country is the knowledge that the average housewife does not even know that an advertising agency, creative director, art director, or copywriter even exists. What’s more, she couldn’t care less if they do. She’s interested in buying products, not creative directors.
—Keith Monk, Nestlé, Vevey, Switzerland
Of course, I have never agreed that creativity is the great contribution of the advertising agency, and a look through the pages of the business magazines should dramatize my contention that much advertising suffers from overzealous creativity—aiming for high readership scores rather than for the accomplishment of a specified communications task. Or, worse, creativity for self-satisfaction.
—Howard Sawyer, Vice President, Marsteller, Inc.
When your advertising asks for the order right out front, with a price and a place to buy and with “NOW” included in the copy, that’s hard-sell advertising, and it should invariably be tried before any other kind. Advertising is usually most beautiful when it’s least measurable and least productive.
—Lewis Kornfeld, President, Radio Shack
Viewers are turned off by commercials that try so hard to be funny, which is the present product of so many agencies. The question that comes to mind is, “Why do these people have to have characters acting like imbeciles for thirty seconds or more just to get the product name mentioned once or twice?”
Are they afraid to merely show the product and explain why the viewer should buy it instead of another like product? Possibly the most stupid thing advertisers do is allow their agency to have background music, usually loud, rock-type music, played while the person is trying to explain the features of the product.
Frequently the music is louder than the voice, so the commercial goes down the drain. More and more people are relying on print ads for information to help them decide which product to purchase. The entertainment-type ads on TV are ineffective.
—Robert Snodell, “Why TV Spots Fail,” Advertising Age
Humorous ads are troubling because you have to create a link to the product and its benefit. Often, people remember a funny ad but they don’t remember the product.
—Richard Kirshenbaum, Co-Chairman,
Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners
Direct marketing . . . is the only form of accountable advertising. It’s the only kind of advertising you can ever do where you can trace every dollar of sales to every dollar of costs. Major corporations using traditional advertising have no idea which advertising is effective. If you employ direct marketing you can tell exactly what works.
—Ted Nicholas, How to Turn Words into Money
(Nicholas Direct, 2004)
Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copywriter’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it.
—Eugene Schwartz, Breakthrough Advertising
Ads are not written to entertain. When they do, these entertainment seekers are little likely to be the people whom you want. This is one of the greatest advertising faults. Ad writers abandon their parts. They forget they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause.
—Claude Hopkins, Scientific Advertising
(Bell Publishing, 1960)
The advertisements which persuade people to act are written by men who have an abiding respect for the intelligence of their readers, and a deep sincerity regarding the merits of the goods they have to sell.
—Bruce Barton, Co-Founder,
Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO)
A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. It is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice.
—David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man
The “literary quality” of an advertisement, per se, is no measure of its greatness; fine writing is not necessarily fine selling copy. Neither is its daring departure from orthodoxy, nor its erudition, nor its imaginative conceits, nor its catchiness.
—James Woolf, Advertising Age
I contend that advertising people are too tolerant of fluff copy, too eager to produce the well-turned phrase to bother with the hard-fought sale.
—Eleanor Pierce, Printer’s Ink
If there are two “camps” in advertising—hard-sell versus creative—then I side with the former. And so do the experts quoted above.
The Copywriter’s Handbook is written to teach you how to write copy that sells. For copy to convince the consumer to buy the product, it must do three things:
1. Get attention.
Chapter 2 shows you how to write copy that gets attention. You’ll learn to use both headlines and pictures as attention-getting tools. (And you’ll learn to make them work together.)
Chapter 3 is a primer on writing to communicate. It provides rules for writing clear, concise, simple copy that gets your message across to the reader.
Chapter 4 presents guidelines on persuasive writing. It will teach you to be a salesperson as well as a writer.
Chapter 5 presents step-by-step instructions that can help you prepare effectively for any copywriting assignment.
In chapters 6 through 12, you learn how to apply these copywriting principles to a variety of media both online and offline.
In chapters 13 and 14, we discuss the copywriting business, both how to get a job as a copywriter, as well as how to work with copywriters if you are a client.
And in chapter 15, we discuss the role of the copywriter in graphic design and layout.
HAS THE INTERNET CHANGED COPYWRITING?
The major event that has taken place since the publication of the first edition of The Copywriter’s Handbook is the rise of the Internet as a marketing medium and channel of commerce.
Many readers of the first edition have asked me, “Are the copywriting techniques The Copywriter’s Handbook teaches still applicable in the Internet era in general, and particularly to writing for the Web?”
The answer is a resounding “Yes.” The Internet has revolutionized marketing because of its speed, accessibility, ease, and low cost: sending an e-mail marketing campaign is faster, easier, and far less costly than distributing the same promotional material through the mail or running it as magazine ads or on TV.
But the important point is that the Internet has not changed human nature, nor does people’s buying psychology change simply because they are reading your message online instead of offline. As Claude Hopkins wrote in his classic book Scientific Advertising (see appendix D):
Human nature is perpetual. In most respects it is the same today as in the time of Caesar. So the principles of psychology are fixed and enduring. You will never need to unlearn what you learn about them.
The good news for you is that virtually all of the copywriting techniques and selling principles you’ve learned throughout your career, including all of the ones in this book, are still as relevant as ever.
Has the Internet changed anything? Yes, and here are the changes I see. They are minor, but important, and where necessary, I have modified advice in this book to reflect them:
1. The Internet, computers, video games, and other electronic media have caused a reduction in the human attention span. Being concise has always been a virtue in writing, but now it is even more important. This does not mean that long copy doesn’t work, that people don’t read anymore (as some erroneously claim), or that all copy should be minimal. It does mean you must follow the wise advice of Strunk and White in The Elements of Style and “omit needless words,” keeping your copy clean and concise.
2. Readers are bombarded by more ad messages and information overload than at any time in human history. As Yale librarian Rutherford D. Rogers has stated, “We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.” That means you must strive to make your copy relevant to the reader, understand what keeps him or her up at night, and address that need, desire, want, or fear in your ad.
3. The Internet has made consumers more savvy, training them to shun promotion, more easily detect hype, become increasingly skeptical, and prefer educational-type advertising material: advertising that respects their intelligence, does not talk down to them, and conveys information they perceive as valuable in solving their problem or making a purchasing decision.
4. Your prospects are busier and have less time than ever. Convenience and speed of delivery are big selling points today, as is time saving.
5. Marketers now have the option of putting their product information in print material, online, or a combination of the two.
In modern society, copywriting is a more critical skill to master than ever before—both online and offline. Why? Consumers today are better educated and more skeptical. Thanks in part to the Internet, they have easier, faster access to product facts and pricing for comparative shopping. There are more products and brands to choose from than ever before, and also more advertising messages—commercials, e-mail, pop-up ads, mailers—competing for our attention.
Take direct mail, for example. With postage, printing, and list costs continually climbing, and response rates down, it is more difficult than ever to get a strong control in the mail—one generating a good return on investment (ROI) and likely to last a year, two years, or longer.
Worse, our prospects are bombarded by more communications than ever. There are literally millions of Web sites they can visit, and over eight hundred channels of television they can watch. Not to mention all the pop-up ads and spam they receive each day.
With all that information competing for the prospect’s attention, you have to work extra hard to make your mailing—whether print or online—stand out and grab the prospect’s attention. And of course that means one thing primarily: strong copy.
Yes, lists and offers are tremendously important. But you can identify, fairly quickly and easily, those lists and offers that work best for your product. Once you’ve found the right lists and offers, then the only additional leverage you have for boosting response is through—you guessed it—copy.
Writing is critical to success on the Web, too. As Nick Usborne points out in his book Net Words, “Go to your favorite Web site, strip away the glamour of the design and technology, and you’re left with words—your last, best way to differentiate yourself online.” In marketing, whether on the Internet or the printed page, copy is still king.
*Yes, I know you use a PC, not a typewriter. But we were using typewriters when Judith said this back in 1982 or so, and I’ve decided to let the quote stand as is. Substitute “PC” for “typewriter” in your own mind, if you like.