Unlocking the Hidden ” Horsepower ” in Your Copy

When I was 17, I wanted to buy a car.

Not just any car. But a cherry-red 1968 GTO convertible.

Lucky for me, the very one I wanted happened to be parked in a nearby lot. And it was marked for sale.

It needed paint.

And there was a tear in the canvas top.

But under the hood, it was lovingly restored. A custom “four-on-the-floor” Hurst transmission. The Quadrajet carburetor. Extra-wide tires. And, of course, a 400 cu. inch Hemi engine under the hood, packed with a rumbling, growling, thundering 360 horsepower.

Today, I call it “the fastest car I never drove.”

It was the horsepower that was the hurdle.

For me, it was plenty. For my wise mother, who insisted on coming with me to look at the car, it was way too much.

The mechanic selling the car underscored the point: “Last guy who test drove this beauty got a ticket just taking it around the block!”

Instinctively, Mom knew that that kind of horsepower and a teenage boy with car keys was not a good mix.

How did she, who has zero interest in muscle cars, have any idea what “horsepower” meant?

I know. Seems like a silly question. Because today we all know what horsepower is. Or at least we have an immediate sense that a lot of it means a lot of power.

If you buy a motorcycle, you ask about it. If you buy a tractor or a lawnmower, you note the horsepower too.

In Germany, Japan, Italy, and France – all car-making countries – they have their own version of “horsepower.” And in each of their languages, it directly translates to the same image: power measured in “horse” units.

What’s a “horse” unit?

Sure, it has a number behind it. This is supposed to be a scientific term, after all. But could 360 horses really pull a Pontiac from 0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds? I think not. Though I’d love to see them try.

And which horses? Clydesdales can pull more. But race horses can run faster. And plow horses? Ah, not so much. You get my point.

Here’s the funny thing… “Horsepower” isn’t really so much of a scientific term after all, even though it plays one on TV. Rather, it started out as marketing. That’s right.

See, the word “horsepower” itself was cooked up by engineer James Watt in 1782. He wanted a metaphor to help him sell people on the newfound power packed into his revolutionary invention, the steam engine.

Watt had, of course, scientifically measured what the machine could do. But he quickly realized that talking about “pounds-per-square-foot” just wouldn’t light his buyer’s fire. So Watt redefined the unknown and complicated… as something most people could immediately understand and accept: the pulling power of a horse.

He got the idea while watching a mine pony lift a pulley-suspended bed of coal out of a coalmine. The pony could lift 22,000 foot-pounds per minute.

So why not “pony power?” Watt must have realized that only pre-teen girls would have been interested. So he doubled the values of his data and called it “horsepower” instead.

The gambit worked. Watt sold lots of his steam engines and other inventions, lived extremely well, and died filthy rich.

The How and Why of the “Horsepower” Secret

I bring this up because lately I’m seeing a lot of the same logic work its way into today’s marketing copy. And often with huge success.

The trick works like this…

Let’s say a concept near the core of your sales message is a little dense and unwieldy…

Or maybe it carries some emotional baggage…

Or maybe you’re just selling something so familiar, you worry people won’t hear you out long enough to see what’s different about your pitch.

That’s where the “horsepower” technique comes in handy. What it does is let you reframe the concept into something new.

It’s familiar in one way, mysterious in another. So the prospective customer can embrace it instantly. But they’re also intrigued to hear more.

A friend did this recently in a promo for an investment newsletter, where the editor’s latest favorite hot topic was geothermal energy. Knowing that term would bore the socks off prospects before he could lay down his case, the copywriter re-dubbed it “slow volcano power.” And it worked. That one promo is bearing down on $2 million in sales, if it hasn’t passed that mark already.

Another info publisher I know of uses this same technique as a starting point for almost all their new pitches – with huge success. They did $60 million in sales last year.

The same technique can add new drama to common problems that your product can solve. You might even consider a term that adds more mystery rather than clarifies.

For instance, asking your reader if they’re “Tired of suffering the embarrassment of ‘halitosis'”… is just asking them if they want to get rid of their bad breath.

But transforming “bad breath” into the lesser-known “halitosis” – the clinical term for bad breath – both ups the stakes and raises curiosity.

If this is an old technique, why talk about it now? Because prospects are hit so hard, so often with pitches that say much of the same thing for similar products, re-inventing terminology gives you a time-tested way to breeze past all that new resistance.

Call it “brain grease,” if you like. Just so long as you know that it works. And that it’s worth testing as soon as you get the chance.

[Ed Note: John Forde, a published writer and a direct-mail copywriter since 1992, is a featured expert in The Magic Button, ETR’s step-by-step guide to starting a profitable Internet business. Applying John’s proven techniques for writing promotional copy will make every customer contact an opportunity for a sale, whether it’s your company’s homepage, sales letters, emails, ads, and even editorial content.

Sign up for John’s free weekly e-zine, The Copywriter’s Roundtable.]