What Words Sell Best?

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” – Joseph Conrad

For several years, car manufacturers have been proactively marketing sales of used vehicles with ads touting “certified pre-owned vehicles.” These are used cars that have been thoroughly inspected and come with a warranty equivalent to that of a new car (or close to it).

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio commercial for Toyota, which has jumped into this market. But instead of calling their used cars “pre-owned vehicles”… they call them “used cars”!

Now I admire plain-speaking people and honest, forthright language… and “used car” fits that bill better than “pre-owned vehicle.” On the other hand, there’s a reason Montblanc sells “writing instruments” – and the reason is, no one wants to pay $100 for a “pen.”

So what do you think? Will Toyota’s honesty be rewarded by consumers with more sales? Or are they shooting themselves in the foot by not advertising “pre-owned vehicles”?

I don’t know the answer. No one knows the answer to any marketing question until they test it. But there’s one thing I do know…

The words you choose for your marketing copy can make a big difference in how well it performs.

Or, to put it another way: Semantics sell.

Here’s a great example…

A number of years ago, when Clinton was still in office, I was driving in the D.C. area, where I almost always get lost. As I desperately tried to find K Street, I heard a radio commercial for American Spectator, the conservative magazine. The commercial said that if you called a toll-free number to subscribe, you would get a free premium – a special report titled “Inside the Clinton White House.”

I didn’t call, but I am pretty sure that American Spectator, as is typical of magazines, put together this special report by assembling reprints of a few articles they’d done on Clinton during the year.

Listen to the words. “Special report” sounds important and exclusive… like something you’d want to have. And the title – “Inside the Clinton White House” – sounds juicy.

On the other hand, what if the radio commercial had closed with, “So call toll-free today to subscribe… and we’ll give you a bunch of past articles ripped out of old issues of the magazine and stapled together”?

I can’t imagine the phone ringing off the hook for that one.

Another example of the power of words in marketing is the old comic book ad with the headline “Enter the wonderful world of amazing live sea monkeys… open a bowl full of happiness – instant pets!”

The ad pictured a happy underwater family of cute, friendly creatures – a mom, dad, and kids – cavorting outside the family castle… presumably in a fish bowl… as a human youngster and his human parents (who had purchased the sea monkeys) look down in delight.

Well, if you took the bait and mailed in your money, what you got was a plastic vial full of dried brine shrimp eggs… with instructions to hatch them in warm, salty water. When mine hatched, they looked nothing like the handsome sea monkey family in the ad. They were little dots moving around in a bowl of water.

Yes, words have power. And the words you choose for your advertising decide a lot about what people think of you, your company, your product, and your offer… especially whether they want to buy or try it.

No one wants brine shrimp eggs. But “instant pets” and “amazing live sea monkeys”? I’m in!
One last example…

My colleague Gary Hennerberg was called on by a company in Texas that sold mail-order fruitcakes. Fruitcakes weren’t selling like hotcakes (big surprise)… and they needed to boost orders.

Gary asked the bakery what ingredients were used, and, to his surprise, he found that these fruitcakes contained pecans. Not only that, but they were grown locally in Texas, on the banks of a river, where the moisture made them particularly flavorful.

Gary told the company to test a mailing calling the product “native Texas pecan cakes” instead of “fruitcakes.” They followed his advice… and fruitcake sales soared by 60 percent

Semantics, I guess. Go figure.

[Ed. Note: Master copywriter and best-selling author Bob Bly is the editor of ETR’s Direct Marketing Masters Edition. a program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. Sign up for Bob’s free monthly e-zine, The Direct Response Letter, and get more than $100 in free bonuses.]