“Ads That Sell!” by Robert W. Bly

NOTE: This article is an excerpt from the author’s book, Ads That Sell: How to Create Advertising That Gets Results.

Ever since Volney Palmer opened the world’s first advertising agency in 1843, marketing professionals have been arguing, debating, and searching for the answer to the question. “What makes a good advertisement?” That this debate has never been settled is obvious to anyone who has ever created an ad for a client’s approval—or tried to get top management to approve a piece of copy.

Despite the billions of dollars spent by American business in creating, running, testing, and measuring advertising effectiveness, no one has discovered a magic secret that will ensure a winner every time. If such a secret existed, the person who knew it would be a multi-billionaire.

At the same time, we recognize that some ads are successful, while others are not. We see that certain companies and copywriters hit the mark more often than they miss…

…while others don’t. We will explore the techniques, methods, and principles that can help improve the odds that the next ad you create will be a winner—one that generates the immediate sales results you desire.

Through long years of experience, advertisers and advertising agencies have uncovered some basic principles of sound advertising strategy, copywriting, and design. Following these suggestions won’t guarantee you a winner. But it can help to prevent you from making costly mistakes that could destroy the selling power of a potentially lucrative ad. The following are ten rules that I have gleaned from years of experience in the field:

1. The Right Product For The Right Audience
The first step is to make sure you are advertising a product that is potentially useful to the people reading your advertisement. This seems to be a simple and obvious rule. Yet, many clients believe that a great ad can sell anything to anyone. They are wrong.

“Copy cannot create desire for a product,” writes Eugene Schwartz in his book, Breakthrough Advertising. “It can only focus already-existing desires onto a particular product. The copywriter’s task is not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it.” For example, no advertisement, no matter how powerfully written, will convince the vegetarian to have a steak dinner at your new restaurant. But your ad might—if persuasively worded—entice him or her to try your salad bar.

Charles Inlander, of the People’s Medical Society, is a master at finding the right product for the right audience. His ad, “Do you recognize the seven early warning signs of high blood pressure?”, sold more than 20,000 copies of a $4.95 book on blood pressure when it ran approximately 10 times in Prevention magazine over a three-year period. “First, you select your topic,” said Inlander, explaining the secret of his advertising success, “then you must find the right place to advertise. It’s important to pinpoint a magazine whose readers are the right prospects for what you are selling.” In other words, the right product for the right audience.

2. The Importance Of The Headline
Next to the selection of subject matter and the placement of your ad in the proper publication, the headline is the most important element of your ad.

The main purpose of the headline is to grab the reader’s attention and make him stop long enough to notice and start reading your ad. You can achieve this in several ways. For example, here’s an attention-grabbing headline from an ad published in my local newspaper.

IMPORTANT NEWS FOR WOMEN WITH FLAT OR THINNING HAIR

This headline is effective in gaining the attention of the prospect for two reasons:
(1) it promises important news, and

(2) it identifies the prospects for the service (women with flat or thinning hair). 

Incidentally, this ad persuades more than 1,200 readers a month to clip a coupon and send for a free brochure on a hair conditioning procedure.

3. The Visual Works With The Headline
The ad should be illustrated with a photograph or drawing that visually communicates the main idea in the headline.

Together, the headline and visual should get the gist of your sales pitch across to the reader. “Every good ad should be able to stand as a poster,” writes Alastair Crompton in his book, The Craft of Copywriting. “The reader should never have to dip into the small print in order to understand the point of the story.

Often simple visuals are the best visuals. “We tested two different mail order ads selling a collector’s reproduction of a watch originally manufactured in the 1920’s,” said Will Stone, of the Hamilton Watch Company. “One ad used a large dramatic photo showing the watch against a plain background. The other visual had less emphasis on the product and focused on a scene depicting the ‘roaring twenties’ period during which the watch was originally made. It showed flappers and a 1920’s car. The ad with the straight product photo—’product as hero’—generated three times as many sales as the other version.”

As a general rule, simple visuals that show the product or illustrate some aspect of its use are better than unusual, creative concepts that can actually hide what you are selling, thus reducing the ad’s selling power.

4. The Lead Paragraph Expands On The Theme Of The Headline
The lead must instantly follow-up on the idea expressed in the headline. For instance, if the headline asks a burning question, the lead should immediately answer it. The promises made to the reader in the headline (e.g., “Learn the secrets to richer, moister chocolate cake”) must be fulfilled in the first few paragraphs of copy. Otherwise, the reader feels disappointed and turns the page.

Here is an example of how this works. This is from an ad selling a business opportunity:

QUIT YOUR JOB OR START PART-TIME
Chimney Sweeps Are Urgently Needed Now

My name is Tom Risch. I’m going to show you how to make $200 a day saving people from dangerous chimney fires…

Do not waste the reader’s time with a “warm-up” paragraph. Instead, go straight to the heart of the matter. In editing a first draft, an important question to ask yourself is, “Can I eliminate my first paragraph and start with my second or  third paragraph?” Eight times out of ten, you can—and the copy will be straightened as a result.

5. The Layout Draws The Reader Into The Ad
This is something that cannot be described in words but is experienced visually. Take a minute or two to flip through ads. Some ads will seem friendly, others inviting. And some will seem to draw your eye to the page, and make reading a pleasure. This is the type of layout you want to use in your ads. Avoid layouts that make the ad hard to read or discourage readers from even trying.

One key point to keep in mind is that your ad should have “focal point”—a central, dominant visual element that draws the reader’s eye to the page. This is usually the headline or the visual. (I often prefer to make it the headline, since a good headline can usually communicate more effectively than a picture.) But it might also be the coupon, or perhaps the lead paragraph of copy. Keep in mind that when there are two or more equally prominent visuals competing for the eye’s attention, readers become confused and don’t know where to “enter” your ad and start reading. Always make one element larger and more prominent than the others.

6. The Body Copy Supports And Expands Upon The Idea Presented In The Headline And Lead Paragraph Of Copy
What facts should be included in your body copy? Which should be left out? The decision is made by listing all the key points and then deciding which are strongest and will best convince the reader to respond to your advertisement.

Start by listing all the features of your products and the benefits people get from each feature. For instance, a feature of an air conditioner is that its energy efficiency rating is 9.2; the benefit is a lower electric bill.

After making a complete list of features and benefits, list them in order of importance. Then begin your body copy with the most important benefit. Incorporate the rest of the benefits on your list until you have sufficient copy. Now, you’ve written copy that highlights the most important reasons to buy the product, given the space limitations of your ad.

7. Be Specific
“Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water from a duck,” wrote Claude Hopkins in his classic book, Scientific Advertising. “They leave no impression whatever.”

The most common mistake I see in advertising today is “lazy copy”—copy written by copywriters who were too lazy to take the time to learn about their audience and understand the features and benefits of their product…the reasons why someone would want to buy it.

Good advertising is effective largely because it is specific. There are two benefits to being specific: First, it gives the customer the information he or she needs before making a buying decision. Second, it creates believability. As Hopkins points out, people are more likely to believe a specific factual claim than a boast, superlative, or generalization.

Does this mean ad copy should be a litany of facts and figures? No. But the copywriter’s best weapon is the selective use of facts to support his sales pitch. Here are some examples of well-written, specific, factual copy, taken from ads:

One out of every four Americans has high blood pressure. Yet only half these people know it. You may be one of them. If you are over forty, you owe it to yourself to have your blood pressure checked…

The Mobilaire® 5000. 59 pounds of Westinghouse air conditioning in a compact unit that cools rooms 12’ x 16’ or smaller. Carry one home, install it in minutes—it plugs in like a lamp into any adequately wired circuit. Fits any window 19 1/8” to 42” wide.

BluBlockers filter out blue light making everything appear sharper, clearer and with a greater 3-dimensional look to it. Blue is the shortest light wave in the visible spectrum and focuses slightly in front of our retina which is the focusing screen in our eyes. By filtering out the blue in the BluBlocker lenses, our vision is enhanced and everything appears to have a 3-dimensional look to it. But there’s more…

8. Start With The Prospect, Not The Product
This may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not.

Your ad must be packed with information about the product. The information must be important to the reader…information that he will find interesting or fascinating…information that will answer his questions, satisfy his curiosity, or cause him to believe the claims you make. Information, in short, that will convince him to buy your product.

The reader’s own concerns, needs, desires, fears, and problems are all more important to him than your product, your company, and your goals. Good advertising copy, as Dr. Jeffrey Lant points out, is “client-centered”. It focuses on the prospect and how your product solves his problem.

For instance, instead of saying, “We have more than 50 service centers nationwide.” Translate this statement into a reader benefit: “You’ll be assured of prompt, courteous service and fast delivery of replacement parts from one of our 50 service centers located nationwide.” Don’t say “energy efficient” when you can say “cuts your summer electric bills in half.

The real “star” of your ad is the half. Your product is second, and is only of concern in that it relates to a need, desire, or problem the reader has or a benefit he wants. Your company is a distant third—the least important element of your copy, it is only of concern if it measures those prospects who want to do business with a well-known firm that has a good reputation and is financially stable.

9. Write In A Clear, Simple, Natural, Conversational Style
According to Business Marketing magazine’s Copy Chasers, a panel of judges who regularly critique advertising in a monthly column, good ad copy should sound like “one friend talking to another”.

I agree. Copy should not be pompous, remote, aloof, or written in “corporatese”. The most effective copy is written in a plain, simple, conversational style—the way a sincere person talks when he wants to help or advise you.

I think Madison Avenue has created an accepted style for ad copy that all the big agencies now use. This “style” is the type of copy that seems to deliberately remind you that you are reading an ad. It is self-conscious copy. Avoid this type of slick lingo.

Read some of the ads in the mail order, health care, financial, and lead generating chapters of this book. This is the type of style and tone you want to achieve.

10. Decide What You Want The Reader To Do Next, Then Ask Him To Do It—And Make It Easy
There are three steps for turning your ad into a response-generating marketing tool. First, decide what type of response you want. What action do you want the reader to take? Do you want your prospect to phone or write you, or clip a coupon and mail it back to you? Do you want the reader to visit your store, request a copy of your catalog or sales brochure, set up an appointment to see a salesperson, test drive your product, or order your product directly from the ad? Decide what you want the reader to do.

Second, tell the reader to do it. The last few paragraphs of your copy should spell out the action you want the reader to take and give him reasons to take it. For instance:

Just clip the coupon or call toll-free now and we’ll send you this policy FREE without obligation as a special introduction to EMPLOYMENT GUIDE.

So why not call 1-800-FINE4WD for a dealer convenient to you?

Just send in the card (or the coupon) and have some fun with your first issue. Then pay us after you’ve taken a look.

And send for DISPLAY MASTERS’ invaluable FREE booklet on Point-of Purchase Marketing, “33 Ways to Better Displays: What Every Marketing Executive Should Know About Point-of-Purchase Displays in Today’s Market.”

The third step is to give the reader a mechanism for responding. Emphasize this mechanism in your layout to simplify the process of making contact with you.

In print advertising, this is accomplished through the use of a toll-free phone number (usually printed in large type to attract attention to it) or by including a coupon or [a] reply card which is bound into the magazine and appears opposite your ad. This is an expensive technique, but it can dramatically increase replies.

Even if your ad is not primarily a response ad (and with rare exception, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want response), you should still make it easy for your reader to get in touch should he want to do business with you. This means always including an address and telephone number.

Recently, I saw a television commercial for Lilco (Long Island Lighting Company) offering a free booklet on electricity. The ad informed viewers they could get the booklet by calling their local Lilco office—but no phone number was mentioned in the commercial! This is a response-killing mentality that many advertisers embrace that I will never understand. Why make it difficult for people to get in touch with you or order your product? It doesn’t make sense.

This article appears courtesy of Bob Bly’s Direct Response Letter

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