13 Damn Good Ideas from 13 Dead Copywriters

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Advertising is an ancient art.

In the Babylonian sea ports, 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.


You shouldn’t be. The history of advertising is full of the tools, tactics, and strategies you — as online marketer — still use.

Let me show you why this matters.

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.

Shortly after that came the most sustained advertising campaign in the history of the modern world: colonizing America.

“One theme runs through all the promotions aimed at attracting investors and settlers to the New World,” writes Julian Sivulka in her book Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes. “The promise of free land.”

The word “free” ring a bell?

It holds the same persuasive power more than 300 years later.

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.”

In other words, the writer runs this show.

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

All from studying the past … which, in addition, serves as a corrective to our chronological snobbery.

See, we are often seduced by data, social media, and the intrigues of Google … mistaking tools for tactics and science for strategy.

But the history of advertising will help us get our heads on straight.

So, as part of your induction to this history, I want to introduce you to 13 dead copywriters and their best ideas.

You will recognize a few names. Some you will not.

I tried to focus on the lesser-known ideas (avoiding the obvious and the abused) … and, more important, how they can apply to you today.

You’ll run into some surprises, too. Like Bill Jayme’s heretical approach to copy. Or Mel Martin’s trick to surfacing our deepest concerns. Or the videos … lots of videos to bring the ideas alive.

So here are The 13. Enjoy!

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).

He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and as an adult he got a gig with his uncle at his publication Collier’s Weekly. He learned how to write, edit, and research there.

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:


Collier sold millions of dollars worth of books — like George Orwell’s 4-volume “Outline of History” — on the back of his copywriting. In The Robert Collier Letter Book, he shares the direct-mail letters he wrote and explains why they were successful.

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

What emotion do you want to produce in your reader: Envy? Flattery? Pride? Any one of these 50?

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

(Of course, that doesn’t usually occur until you’ve seeped yourself in research.)

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.”

Schwab believed in deep research. He tracked results with coded coupon ads. He tested headlines, copy appeals, copy length, layouts, calls to action, and split runs.

He was a content marketer before his time, creating comics for clients like Sherwin Cody (English Classic Courses), Dale Carnegie, and bodybuilder Charles Atlas.

The innovation he brought to the table was to put the product in action, as he explained in How to Write a Good Advertisement:

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

I pointed this out in copywriting exercise number 3. And this is not unlike the idea that videos on landing pages will boost conversion.

My favorite example, however, of showing a product in use has to be Blendtec blenders.

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

The Great Depression was hard on ad agencies. Except for those agencies that “got” advertising.

Ruthrauff & Ryan was such an agency.

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.

And it was inside that humble little shop that the most successful headline ever was written.

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.

Caples believed that people yearned to look cool (and not stupid), and with his talent for getting to the point quickly, he wrote this headline:

And for nearly fifty years John Caples dominated advertising.

He has an industry award named after him, and he wrote my favorite book on copywriting: Tested Advertising Methods.

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 (a topic Jerod and I dig into on this podcast), 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. That is why you keep reading.

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.

That book is a graduate-level education on direct-response copywriting. And to give you an idea of how valuable it is, the cheapest you can find it on Amazon is $95.

I channeled some of his ideas from that book in posts like:

It’s complex, scientific stuff. Headier than Claude Hopkins.

Despite the complexity, Schwartz was pushing one simple idea: write copy that satisfies one dominant desire (not unlike Collier above).

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

It’s an important step.

Get it wrong, and even the greatest copy won’t matter.

Get it right, however, and the world will beat a path to your door.

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.

Eleven years later, he and two other associates — Mr. Scherman and Robert K. Hass — founded the Book-of-the-Month Club. which according to the New York Times was the nations’s first direct-mail book club.

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.

Like Caples, he wrote one of the most famous headlines in history for a mail-order English course: “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?”

This was Sherwin Cody’s 100% Self-Correcting Course, a patented mail-order course in English that was taken by over 150,000 people.

The ad ran for 40 years. Most businesses don’t last forty years.

The success of this headline has been deconstructed thoroughly (it’s part of our Magnetic Headlines).

Less known, however, is Sackheim’s personal but effective approach of making the advertiser a “character.”

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

His “The Gloucester Fisherman” for client Frank E. Davis is his best example.

The ad shows Mr. Davis’ awkwardness in writing a letter to sell his fish. Mr. Davis confesses he’s neither a writer nor an advertiser — he’s a plain fisherman: comfortable close-hauling a sail and picking out the best fish of a catch, but not writing a letter to sell fish. (He even questions whether what he knows about fishing can benefit him in a business way).

The letter is disarming.

You can sense an honest man showing his vulnerability. Showing his weaknesses, his ugly side.

This guy doesn’t want to make a fast buck. He just wants to make a living. And he hopes you will help him by buying some of his fish.

Omaha Steaks and Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit are current manifestations of this tactic, and across the web this technique is ubiquitous.

These days you’ll still see CEOs showing up in their advertising. Sometimes they even star in the commercials.

6. Develop a Unique Selling Proposition — Rosser Reeves

Rosser Reeves (1910 — 1984) started as a reporter in Virginia before moving to New York City. He was another advertiser who rose through the ranks during the Great Depression.

He finally joined the Bates agency in 1940.

Like David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves was a man with many interests. He was well-read, well-traveled, and had an appetite for the best food and drink. He promoted a hard-sell approach, and, like Ogilvy, thought advertising should do one thing: Sell.

And sell he did.

Campaigns for Viceroy cigarettes, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Listerine mouthwash, and Colgate toothpaste boosted sales and put these brands on the map.

His most famous ad, however, was for Anacin, which, amazingly, promised to relieve pain, depression, and tension … fast.

He goal was to get customers to recognize a specific brand proposition.

Reeves was picking up where John E. Kennedy and Claude Hopkins left off: the no-nonsense “advertising must sell” approach.

Reeves’ Unique Selling Proposition concept focused on: “… identifying a unique and meaningful product attribute or benefit and then hammering that point repeatedly in advertising.”

No surprise he’s known as the “Prince of the Hard Sell.” (By the way, Mad Men aficionados have claimed some elements of Rosser Reeves in the character of Don Draper.)

Since then the USP has been revised and tweaked.

These days your USP doesn’t have to beat everyone else out. It just has to play nicely with the other offerings in your group. That means you can create a USP based upon the “crossroads,” a metaphor, or by making it persona-driven.

And keep in mind, restating your USP is not to be confused with simply repeating words.

7. Find the inherent drama in your product — Leo Burnett

In 1998 Time magazine named Leo Burnett (1891 — 1971) one of the 20 most influential business leaders of the 20th Century. He’s the only advertising executive named.

And his name is behind one of the world’s largest ad agencies, one he built during the Depression.

Burnett believed in finding the drama — or the story — behind your product. How do you get there?

Steep yourself in your subject, work like hell, and love, honor, and obey your hunches.

~ Leo Burnett

Of course you need the essential elements of a great story.

Sonia Simone explains what they are in her article The 5 Things Every (Great) Marketing Story Needs:

  1. You need a hero
  2. You need a goal
  3. You need conflict
  4. You need a mentor
  5. You need a moral

Burnett told great stories through his “critters” … mythical creatures that represented American values. Think Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Marlboro Man.

If you want to see a great example of this in action today, then watch this marketing story by Volkswagen: “Once More. The Story of VIN 903847″.

8. Write to one person, not a million — Fairfax M. Cone

Fairfax M. Cone (1903 — 1977) started his career in San Francisco at Lord & Thomas in 1929. By 1939 he was managing that office, and two years later he was relocated to New York City as a vice president.

He took over the Lucky Strike cigarettes account — the largest account at Lord & Thomas. Eventually, when Albert Lasker retired, Cone and two other fellow vice presidents launched their own agency: Foote, Cone & Belding.

Cone strove for clarity and honesty in advertising. In other words, he avoided the clever and cute.

He insisted on this principle, since real people with real problems didn’t want clever and cute …

They wanted answers. Now.

Good advertising is written from one person to another. When it is aimed at millions it rarely moves anyone.

~ Fairfax M. Cone

The goal is to discover who your ideal reader is.

  • Is she an executive at a non-profit?
  • A professor at a private school?
  • A car mechanic in Atlanta?
  • A programmer in Argentina?

Once you discover that ideal reader, write to her. And her alone.

9. “Reason why” copy — Albert Lasker

Arriving on his first day of work at Lord & Thomas agency, Albert Lasker (1880 — 1952) looked at the company logo hanging in the lobby and scratched his head.

It read: “Advertise judiciously.” Lasker didn’t know what to make of it.

That confusion triggered a one-man campaign for clarity, beginning with Lasker’s first assignment.

It was an ad, with the headline “Deafness,” and followed with a list of product features.

Lasker rewrote the headline to “Deafness Cured” and then went on to explain the reasons why prospects should buy this product (all emotional reasons).

As Brian Clark explained, three things rest behind “reason why” copy:

  1. Why are you the best?
  2. Why should I believe you?
  3. Why should I buy right now?

Those three questions can be summed up here: “Why should I buy from you at all when I understand your competition better than you do, and there’s no difference?”

Your job is to create that differentiation. You start by finding that winning difference. One way to do that is deeply understand your own unique selling proposition. (For more on the USP, see point number six above.)

10. Go after points of maximum anxiety — Mel Martin

Recently I’ve been introduced to the “greatest copywriter nobody knows.” He helped turn the publication Boardroom into a multi-million-dollar operation.

Marty Edelston, the founder and publisher of Boardroom, feared that if his writer’s name got out he’d be snatched by another company.

Well, it’s safe to share his name now. It’s Mel Martin (? — 1993).

He’s a storehouse of superb headlines:

  • For golfers who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their game — and can’t figure out what’s wrong
  • For people who are almost (but not quite) satisfied with their cooking — and can’t figure out what’s missing
  • For everyone who has felt mad enough to write a letter to the New York Times

He worked slowly, and even teetered on the edge of bankruptcy because it took him so long to write an ad.

But those ads are a master’s-level course in fascination copy. And pretty much everything we know about seducing readers with the tease, we learned from Mel.

For example, examine some of his best bullets:

  • What never — ever — to eat on an airplane
  • What your doctor doesn’t tell you
  • Bills it’s okay to pay late
  • Why married women have affairs

From our position in history, these teases are familiar, almost routine … but no less effective.

So, go after those points of maximum anxiety. Figure out what is keeping your reader awake at 3:00 in the morning. And then paint a scenario that makes your reader’s skin scrawl.

Here’s a classic example from 1964 presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson:

11. Transubstantiate your product into something else — Bill Jayme

The late Bill Jayme (1926 — 2001) was one of the greatest direct-mail copywriters in the modern magazine industry.

He was, as he happily said, the “junk mail” star.

At Time magazine, working in the circulation department, he wrote the unorthodox “Cool Friday” letter … a letter that opened with “Dear Reader,” and rambled on about the state of the nation before he got to the point.

That letter launched his career.

From Time he worked at CBS and McCann-Erikson before ditching the corporate life to work for himself.

Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, publishers flew to California to beg him to write a subscription letter for their magazine. Clients included the Smithsonian (who alone mailed 280 million Jayme letters), Esquire, and Businessweek … offering him up to $40,000 per letter.

Copywriter Gary Bencivenga said of Jamye, “I don’t think anyone could match his record of control packages in the magazine field. He had such an erudite flair for capturing the essence of a magazine and making you want to be part of its magical circle.”


Jayme had a way of making friends with the reader. Of respecting that reader’s intelligence. Of always being fascinating. And selling ever so gently.

“Jayme and Ratalahti’s strong suit,” said Denny Hatch, “was starting magazines — getting inside the heads of the publisher, editor, and the readers.” (Ratalahti was Jayme’s partner and designer.)

His approach, however, was far from scientific. It was from the gut, based on intuition.

One magazine publisher said, “He defined the magazine he knew people would want to buy. My job was to produce the magazine he described.”

Question his approach all you want, but it’s hard to argue when a lineup of magazines like this owe their existence to your copy:

  • Bon Appetit
  • Cooking Light
  • Food & Wine
  • Mother Jones
  • New York
  • Worth

Jayme channeled his creativity and persuasion into his notion of transubstantiation: the idea that a product or service must be transformed into something magical.

For example, in a letter selling a course on mastery of personal computers, Jayme didn’t talk about drives, memory, software, coding, or programming. No, he focused on the deeper benefits of personal computing … the one people actually cared about:


Jayme’s letter begins:

You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. If you’re planning to succeed in business over the coming decade, you’ve now got just two choices left. You can come to terms with the computer. Or you can marry the boss’s daughter.

~ Bill Jayme

In other words, he’s not selling features or facts (which you need). He’’s selling a new life. And mastering the basics of computing are the gateway to that life.

12. Everybody in the world divides his mail into two piles — Gary Halbert

Gary Halbert (1939 — 2007) died less than seven years ago, in 2007. And direct response marketers knew they lost a legend when he died.

He cut his teeth on direct response, and stories abound about his early start, claiming he spent his utility bill money to buy stamps to send out an ad. That ad amounted to the “Coat of Arms” letter …

A 381-word marvel of human psychology.

That letter not only put Halbert on the direct marketing map … it led him up to the throne. Many have called him the Prince of Print. The King of Copy.

On the back of that letter, Gary created a business that eventually sold to Ancestery.com.

After that there came a dozen more such legendary ads. In later years he shared his marketing lessons in the Gary Halbert Letter, a print newsletter which is now online.

Among the most notable lessons that Gary brought to the direct response culture was a sense of how junk mail is sorted:

You are now about to learn the most important thing you will ever learn on the subject of direct mail. I have a similar lesson to teach you about newspaper and magazine advertising, but that will come later in another letter. Right now, we will talk only about direct mail.

Whatever. Professor Halbert is now going to give you his semi-famous “A-Pile/B-Pile Lecture.” It goes like this: Everybody in the world divides his mail into two piles which I call the A-Pile and the B-Pile. The A-Pile contains letters that are, (or appear to be), personal. The B-Pile contains everything else: Bills, catalogs, brochures, printed announcements, envelopes that obviously contain a sales message, and so on.

Now listen up: The most important thing you can ever do when creating a direct mail promotion is to make sure your letter gets in the A-Pile!

Here’s why. Everybody always opens all of their A-Pile mail and only some of their B-Pile mail.

~ Gary Halbert

In the age of the Internet, that analogy has transformed into maxims like this: your competitors are just a click away … and you have just four seconds to grab their attention.

Halbert would tell us the same thing he told the junk mail crowd: do whatever you can to get noticed.

Get attention … and keep it.

13. Do not worship at the alter of creativity — David Ogilvy

There is no shortage of love for David Ogilvy (1911 — 1999) at Copyblogger. Just take a peek at a few of our articles.

There’s good reason for that love.

Ogilvy remains one of the most famous names in advertising. In 1962, Time called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry.”

He also wrote two fascinating books Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man.

Books we highly recommend.

And with his British accent, polished manners, and sophisticated look (complete with suspenders), the aura around his ads and their headlines are of casual elegance. They are almost like art:

  • At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the clock
  • The man in the Hathaway shirt
  • The Guinness guide to oysters
  • How to create advertising that sells

But don’t let that elegance or brevity fool you.

When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.

~ David Ogilvy

In his famous India video, speaking to direct-response advertisers, he says “You know what kind of advertising works. And you know it to the dollar.”

He then goes on to say, “Do not worship at the alter of creativity.”

What did he mean by creativity?

There’s a clue in point number eight from his How to write advertising that sells ad: “Successful advertising sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

He hammers this idea home in point number 38:

Repeat your winners. Scores of great advertisements have been pulled before they’ve begun to payoff. Readership can actually increase with repetition — up to five repetitions.

~ David Ogilvy

It’s clear …

What Ogilvy meant when he said “creativity” was this: don’t change an ad if it is still generating revenue for change’s sake, for creativity’s sake. If it’s bringing in significant revenue six weeks from now … keep running it. Twelve months? Keep running it. Fifteen years? Keep running it.

In addition, he’d tell you to stick with the fixed principles. Don’t get cute and create new ones (unless they are backed, repeatedly, by results).

Neither is he against innovation. He says, “Start trends … instead of following them.”

According to Ogilvy, if you are going to worship at any alter, worship at the alter of direct response. That will save you from the “manifold lunacy of general advertising.”

Remember: your job is to sell.

And if this kind of selling (known as direct response) is new to you … we’ve got 15 free ebooks that will help you master that learning curve.

Excuse me: where are all the women?

You probably noticed a few names missing from this list … names like Claude Hopkins, Raymond Rubicam, Bill Bernbach, and John Powers. (If you don’t know about Powers, you’ll love him when I do introduce him to you.)

Well, there’s a reason for that.

Actually, there are two.

But I can’t tell you either reason right now. It will have to wait until I’m ready.

You might have also noticed there’s not a single woman mentioned in this list.

That, too, is by design.

Not because I’m a misogynist, but because I made an incredible discovery recently about women copywriters during the 75 years prior to 1950.

And I’ll be sharing that little surprise with you, too, in a future post.

First, however, I want to take some time to offer you a series on native advertising. Which I’m thoroughly looking forward to. I hope you are, too.

Talk to you soon. And please … share your thoughts in the comments.

Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

The post 13 Damn Good Ideas from 13 Dead Copywriters appeared first on Copyblogger.

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