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The Sin of Arrogant Advertising


“I know that half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” This succinct resume of the advertiser’s dilemma is often attributed to John Wanamaker, the department store pioneer. Some people prefer to give the credit to Henry Ford, the automobile pioneer, or other favourite business giants. Whoever said it first, it is certain that it has been said thousand and thousand of times since.

The significance of the observation is nothing short of astounding. These are people whose business is investing and harvesting financial assets, yet when it comes to advertising, they freely admit to wasting at least 50% of their money!

Fortunately, we have moved on considerably in the century or so since the statement was first uttered, in large measure thanks to John Caples’ book “Tested Advertising Methods”, first published in 1932 and endlessly reprinted ever since.

It is called “Tested Advertising Methods” because over a 50-year period Mr. Caples actually conducted scientific experiments to find out what really works . . . and what doesn’t. Some of his findings are very surprising and in fact explode a number of myths about advertising.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the book is “decades out of date”. Its findings are based on fundamental human nature, which has not fundamentally changed in millennia, so it is hardly likely to have fundamentally changed in less than a century.

Let’s examine some of these myths and misconceptions about advertising by looking at a summary of the book’s key advice.

1. What you say is more important than how you say it.

2. The headline is the most important element in most adverts.

3. The most effective headlines appeal to the reader’s self-interest.

4. Long headlines that say something are more effective than short headlines that say nothing.

5. Long body copy sells more than short body copy.

Some of these points may surprise you or puzzle you. So let’s look at them one at a time.


1. What You Say Is More Important than How You Say It
In other words, elegant writing that might impress a literary critic is of no value. Your objective is to be clear. If you can be clear and elegant, wonderful. But first and foremost, you must be clear.

2. The Headline Is the Most Important Element in Most Adverts
Of course we all know this, but perhaps not for the reason many people might think. The principal function of the headline—and the illustration, and all the other elements of the advert—is to get people to read the body copy. A clever headline that is admired for itself but fails to bring readers into the body copy is of no value.

3. The Most Effective Headlines Appeal to the Reader’s Self-interest
This is hardly surprising. Whenever we are enjoined to make an effort (i.e. read an advert), we almost always ask ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, “What’s in it for me?” It follows that a headline that answers this question is more likely to attract readers than one that doesn’t.

4. Long Headlines that Say Something Are More Effective than Short Headlines that Say Nothing
I would like to examine this one for a moment, because this is one area of advertising about which I have frequently had long, loud discussions.

On one occasion, I wrote a headline that contained three key sales arguments, but it was 11 words long. The client told me that I must shorten it, because it was “too long”. I had spent considerable effort trying to find a way of putting three key sales arguments into only 11 words. I therefore didn’t take this criticism very well. After a long, heated discussion, the client agreed to keep the headline, as well as a number of other controversial aspects of the advert, exactly as they were.

The result: Sales of the product increased 40% over the following year. This was in an industry where sales increases of 5-10% for this type of product would have been a major achievement.

5. Long Body Copy Sells More than Short Body Copy
I would also like to examine this one in some detail, because in my career it has also frequently led to long, loud discussions.

How many times have you heard it said, “Keep body copy short. Most people don’t read body copy anyhow.” As we have already noted, the objective of the advert is get people to read the body copy, because this is where you really sell the product. Let me propose an analogy. Suppose you are a door-to-door salesman. Your job is to go up and down the street knocking on each door to try to sell a vacuum cleaner. You know before you start that only 1 person in 20 is likely to have any interest in buying a vacuum cleaner.

What do you do when you find this person? If you are a good salesman, you go into the house, demonstrate the apparatus, and give as much information as possible in order to make the sale. What you don’t do is hand the person your business card and say, “This is the address of my shop in the centre of town. Come visit me and I will show you my vacuum cleaners.”

An advert works the same way. Maybe only 1 person in 20 has any fundamental interest in your product. But once that interest is aroused (the role of the headline), that is the time to make the sale (the role of the body copy). If the body copy does not provide sufficient information to hold that person’s interest, he turns the page and the sale is lost.

Here is a practical method for determining the appropriate length of body copy. Although it is easy to state, it requires considerable judgement to apply.

If the body copy contains one word more than needed to deliver its message, then it is probably too long.
If it contains one word less than needed to deliver the message, it is definitely too short!

Contributed By :  Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course and conducts one-day workshops in writing and public speaking in Brussels, Belgium. Contact: [email protected]

Editor's Notes: You may wish to pair Mr. Caples’ book with Mr. Yaffe’s own book In the ‘I’ of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional. This slim volume perceptively and entertainingly explains the key principles and practices of persuasive communication. In the ‘I’ of the Storm is available from the publishers in Ghent, Belgium ( and Amazon (

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