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.
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
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the book is “decades out of date”.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.
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.
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.
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
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
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]
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 (storypublishers.be) and Amazon
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