Lessons from a Direct-Marketing Legend, Part 1

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Albert Einstein

Gene Schwartz was a direct-marketing legend. One ad that he wrote sold 1.98 million copies of a single $25 book — resulting in sales of nearly $50 million. Gene also wrote the ad that launched Boardroom, one of the most successful direct-response businesses of all time. The headline read:

“Read 300 Business Magazines in 30 Minutes.”

Gene probably wrote more winning direct-mail packages than any other copywriter in direct-marketing history. One of my favorites is his classic direct-mail package to sell a book on Chinese medicine. Maybe you remember the headline:

“How Modern Chinese Medicine Helps Both Men and Women. Burn Disease Out of Your Body lying flat on your back, using nothing more than the palm of your hand!”

Or how about these classic Schwartz winners?:

  • “71-Year-Old Man Has Sexual Congress Five Times a Day!”
  • “I’ll Make You a Mental Wizard in One Evening! Here at Last Is Your Chance to Gain the THINKING-MACHINE MIND You’ve Dreamed About . . .”
  • “You Are Twice as Smart as You Think! And These Seven Simple Actions Will Prove It to You in a Single Weekend — by Doubling Your Power to Learn!”
  • “Hollywood Plastic Surgeon’s Amazing New Book Shows How Any Woman Over 30 Can Look Years Younger, Pounds Lighter in 10 Short Days!”
  • “Why Haven’t TV Owners Been Told These Facts?”

What can Gene Schwartz teach today’s marketers about writing effective headlines?

Like David Ogilvy and many other experts, Gene believed the headline is the most important part of an ad. But his belief about the function of the headline may surprise you. Unlike today’s Madison Avenue ad agencies, Gene didn’t believe the purpose of the headline has anything to do with either branding or product awareness. And, unlike many copywriters, he did not believe that the purpose of the headline is to sell the product.

In his best-selling book “Breakthrough Advertising”, Gene wrote:

“Your headline has only one job — to stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence of your ad.”

Here are a few of Gene’s suggestions for writing stronger headlines:

  • State the claim as a paradox. (“How a Bald-Headed Barber Saved My Hair!”)
  • Use numbers and measurements. (“Who Ever Heard of 17,000 Blooms From a Single Plant?”)
  • Connect the method or mechanism to the benefit it delivers. (“Float Fat Right Out of Your Body!”)

On the first page of Chapter 1 in “Breakthrough Advertising,” Gene emphasizes the fundamental truth about marketing that so many businesspeople don’t understand:

“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. That is the copywriter’s task: not to create this mass desire — but to channel and direct it.”

It’s for this reason, for example, that Omaha Steaks, the mail-order marketer of high-end meats, never tests the mailing list of “Vegetarian Times” with a letter that says, “Don’t be a vegetarian; meat tastes great; you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Find out what your customers want and show how your product can fulfill that desire. Don’t create a product that provides a particular benefit no one is asking for and run ads trying to convince the world that they should want that benefit. It never works.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business.)