Use a Swipe File to Write Promotions Better and Faster

A “swipe” file is a collection of promotions — mailed by successful marketers — that you have saved.

“A good swipe file is better than a college education,” says my old direct-marketing “professor,” master copywriter Milt Pierce.

The swipe file provides inspiration and ideas that you may be able to use in your own promotions. With a swipe file, you can overcome writer’s block and write copy better and faster.

Lots of copywriters keep swipe files of promotions in their industry. Milt, however, always preferred using promotions for products other than the ones he was writing about. If, for example, a client who was selling insurance asked him to create a direct-mail package, he would look in his swipe file for ideas — but not in the section where he filed insurance packages.


The reason is simple. “If you create an insurance package that looks like every other insurance package, you’re just being a copycat,” says Milt. “However, if you check through other types of packages, you’re likely to come up with an original approach.”

A good example is a recent ad I saw for a Stauer watch.

The ad shows a photo of the watch. The headline above it reads:

“We Apologize That It Loses 1 Second Every 20 Million Years.”

The style and approach seem to be inspired by David Ogilvy’s famous Rolls-Royce ad. The headline for that ad was:

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

If the Stauer ad were for a car, it would seem derivative. But by adapting Ogilvy’s fact-based approach to a watch, the copywriter created something new.

It’s an approach not typically used for watches… so it supports Milt’s claim that applying ideas used in one industry to another can have interesting and effective results.

One interesting footnote to the story…

David Ogilvy has been accused of stealing his Rolls-Royce headline from another copywriter. I have also heard that he found the fact about the Rolls-Royce clock in an automotive trade journal. Others now say he took it from an ad for another car: the Pierce-Arrow. And the Pierce-Arrow headline, published years before Ogilvy’s Rolls ad, is remarkably similar:

“The only sound one can hear in the new Pierce-Arrows is the ticking of the electric clock.”

Today that ad is forgotten — but Ogilvy’s is one of the classics.

The best results I’ve seen from using swipe files have come from the cross-pollination of ideas between industries.

For instance, I was looking for ideas to sell trading software.

I started with my file of options trading promotions. Nothing. So I flipped through my other swipe files. In my health swipe file, I came across a promotion for a vision supplement.

The headline: “Why bilberry and lutein don’t work.”

I knocked off the headline — and tripled my client’s previous response rate.

My headline: “Why most trading software doesn’t work… and never will.”

A non-profit organization sent a free paperback book to potential donors. The “book” was actually a promotion written to solicit donations, and it did gangbusters.

A major financial publisher copied the format (now known as a “bookalog”) to sell an investment newsletter. Their book, titled “The Plague of the Black Debt,” was one of the most successful promotions of all time.

When you swipe from another industry instead of your own, you steer clear of copycatting charges — and you are credited as brilliantly original when your ad works.

P.S. Using a swipe file is just one of the “tricks of the trade” I teach in the Internet Cash Generator program. It’s a top-to-bottom guide to starting and growing your own part-time-work / full-time-income Internet business. 

[Ed. Note: Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books. To subscribe to his free e-zine, The Direct Response Letter, and claim your free gift worth $116, click here now:]