Direct Marketing, Mail Order, and E-commerce News from the National Mail Order Association

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When Breaking Copywriting Rules Reaps Rewards
by Robert W. Bly


"Be concise."

"Use short sentences."

"Put a benefit in the headline."

"Use colloquial language."

"Avoid jargon."

If you take a class, attend a lecture, or read a book or article on copywriting, you'll hear
these and other copywriting "rules" repeated again and again.

Following the rules makes you a better advertising writer, because the rules work 90%
of the time. But the top copywriters succeed because they know when to break the rules.

They know that short sentences usually work best - but not always. They know that
technical jargon turns most readers off - but some audiences like it. They know that
putting a benefit in the headline is usually the best way to get your message across -
but sometimes another technique can increase ad readership.

When do you stick with the rules and when do you break them? There's no easy answer.
I can't give you a laundry list of do's and don'ts or 10 easy tips or five simple steps. Using
and breaking rules effectively requires a writer's ear, a firm command of language, and
years of practice; it is the essence of the copywriter's craft.

Then why this article? Two reasons. First, knowing that rules can and occasionally should
be broken will improve your advertising program immensely. Too many of us take
advertising's rules (such as those of Ogilvy, Caples, Hopkins, and the Copy Chasers) as
commandments - they are tools designed to help writers produce more effective copy.
If breaking the rule improves the copy, then the rule should broken.

Second, I can help you feel more comfortable with this idea by showing you some
samples. So here are a few of copywriting's "sacred cows" along with examples of when
they should be put out to pasture.

SACRED COW #1:

BE CONCISE

This is a favorite rule among not only coywriters, but all writers (except experimental
novelists and counterculture journalists). "Omit needless words!" writing instructors exclaim,
urging us to cut copy to the bone.

But I can think of at least three situations in which conciseness is not a virtue, and extra
words can make the writing better.

The first situation is when you need to explain something that may be clear to some
readers but not to others.

Let's say you're writing a computer catalog and you want to describe the machine's internal
memory. The most concise description would read, 128K RAM.

Do most people today know what RAM is? My wife does, but my mother doesn't. So, to
make it clear to both I add words: 128K of internal memory.

But is 128K a number people can visualize? Does it mean anything to them? If not, you
may need to add even more words to make the benefit clear: Features 128K of internal
memory - enough to run the most sophisticated business software and store as many as
40 pages of text!

The second reason to use extra words is to add emphasis - to ensure that the reader
understands you.

For example, mail-order copywriters are fond of emphasizing the "free gift" you'll receive
when you join a record club or subscribe to a magazine. Any grammarian can tell you that
"free gift" is a redundancy - a gift by definition is free, so the adjective "free" is superfluous.

But the copywriter's job is to sell, not to write compositions for an English class. And as a
copywriter, you realize that the consumer's natural reaction is to think that the gift comes
with strings attached. So you add the word "free" to emphasize that there are no strings
attached - that the gift is indeed just that: a gift.

The third situation where more words work better than less is in highly personal copy...
copy that speaks to the reader's needs as an individual, not a businessperson. An
engineer is probably dispassionate when it comes to pump selection, but shopping for
a life insurance policy is an emotional purchase as well as a rational one. The most
concise approach to writing an ad for life insurance would be to list the monthly payments,
amount of insurance, and criteria for acceptance. But the successful ad will talk about the
emotional issues - caring for one's family, planning for the future - on a person-to-person
level. That takes extra words, but the words are well spent.

SACRED COW #2:

AVOID JARGON

Every business writing text warns us to avoid jargon and write in plain, simple term.
But jargon, if properly applied can make copy more effective.

The most common exception to the "avoid jargon" rule is in copy aimed at special
audiences - farmers, chemists, architects, warehouse managers. Jargon can strengthen
your link to these specialists because it shows them that you are "in the know," that you
understand their business and empathize with their problems. If you don't speak their
language, or if your copy defines terms that they already know, the readers suspect that
you lack expertise in their business.

Jargon also is useful for introducing an unfamiliar concept. The technique is to use the
term in quotation marks first, then definite it, as shown in this example: The heart of
SYSCOM II is its unique SYS-II "operating system" - built-in software that controls system
operation and allows SYSCOM II to run thousands of popular business applications.

Finally, jargon sometimes can make a product seem more impressive or more valuable.
Listerine (trademark name), we are told, is the only mouthwash that kills "halitosis."
Sounds impressive, until you realize that halitosis is a word concocted by the Listerine
people to sell more mouthwash.

SACRED COW #3:

PUT A BENEFIT IN THE HEADLINE

If you believe David Ogilvy when he says that 80% of your audience skips the body copy
and reads the headline only, this rule makes sense. And it does - most of the time.

One exception is in ads aimed at readers who already want what you're selling. For
example, the Institute of Children's Literature has had great success with an ad selling a
home correspondence course in how to write children's books and stories. The ad's
headline, "We're looking for people to write children's books," does not contain a benefit.
Nor does it promise a reward. Instead, it selects a specific audience - people who want
to write and publish children's books.

These people want to be authors. Their dream is to publish a book. So there's no need
to sell them on the benefits of writing. Instead, the ad breaks the rule by grabbing the
attention of a select, highly motivated audience and then building their interest in the course.

SACRED COW #4:

USE SIMPLE WORDS

Simple words are the easiest to understand. And, because copy is written to communicate,
short words are best - usually. An exception to the rule is when you want to use a big word
to make your subject seem more important or impressive.

For example, let's say you're selling expensive, top-quality reproductions of antique pistols.
The simplest description of the product is "guns." But "firearms," though a bigger word,
sounds more distinctive. And that's why it works better: the reader might pay $295 for a
firearm but not for a mere "gun."

Sometimes, giving a product a more impressive title can convey an image of added value.
Recently, I received a brochure promoting a "selling system." The system turned out to be
an in-plant seminar. But somehow the term selling system sounds more impressive than
calling it a course, seminar, or training session.

SACRED COW #5:

USE SHORT SENTENCES

Advertising copywriters are crazy about short sentences. And that's OK, because short
sentences are usually the best sentences.

But not always.

Sometimes, you want to express complex ideas or thoughts that are interconnected. Putting
them in one sentence makes the connection clear. Breaking them up into many short
sentences clouds the message by cutting the connection.

Here's an example:

We back you up with the support you need - from engineering assistance to training and
worldwide field service - to ensure ongoing network performance.

Written in the copy style of the modern Madison Avenue agency, this would read:

We back you up. With total support. From engineering assistance. To training. And
worldwide field service. All to ensure ongoing network performance.

As you can see, too many short sentences, sentence fragments, and sentences
beginning with conjunctions sound unnatural and stilted - not at all the conversational
tone the writer thinks he's achieving. Rudolph Flesch, author of "Why Johnny Can't Read,"
calls this type of clipped copy "machine-gun style" and warns us to avoid it.

SACRED COW #6:

AVOID NEGATIVES

The logic behind this rule is: People have imperfect memories. If your headline reads,
"New cherry fizz contains no salt," they're likely to remember it as, Cherry fizz contains salt."

But some situations call for a negative. Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, recently
began selling chicken nuggets. One logical argument for buying Kentucky Fried's nuggets
instead of McDonald's Chicken McNuggets is that Colonel Sanders already is an expert
at chicken, Which McDonald's isn't. The television commercial begins with a negative
concept: You wouldn't buy a taco from a Chinese restaurant, or an egg roll from an Italian
restaurant, so why buy chicken nuggets at a burger joint when you can get them from a
chicken pro - Kentucky Fried Chicken?

A radio commercial for a New York furniture store begins with this harsh warning:
"Don' buy furniture today!" That makes you stop and listen, because it's unusual to hear
an advertiser tell you not to buy. The commercial goes on to say that you can save
hundreds of dollars if you hold off until the big furniture sale this coming Saturday.

SACRED COW #7:

DON'T KNOCK THE COMPETITION

I learned this rule in Advertising 101: Don't mention the competition in your advertising
because it gives them free exposure. Goodrich commercials used to say, "We're
Goodrich, not Goodyear"; everybody remembered Goodyear and forgot Goodrich.

This rule makes sense when there's no clear leader, no No. 1 brand. Everybody's
competing against everybody else, so you can win customers by selling the advantages
of your product over all the others.

But in business-to-business markets where there's clearly a leader in the field, you've
got to convince people to switch from the comfortable favorite to you, the up-and-comer.
And often, the reason is that you're similar to the leader but you do one thing better. To
get that message across, you can't avoid talking about - and comparing yourself with - No. 1.

Examples abound: Express Mail ads are explicit about the cost savings of Express Mail
vs. overnight-delivery leader Federal Express. MCI commercials stress MCI's 30% to 50%
lower long-distance phone bills vs. AT&T. Texas Instruments commercials give a
side-by-side demonstration of TI's computer vs. the IBM PC to prove that TI is better and
faster. The C&C Cola people know they can't outdo Coke and Pepsi in the image
department, so they advertise good taste at half the price. Chameleon bills their
microcomputer as almost the same thing as an IBM PC but priced at only $1,995.

SACRED COW #8:

GO STRAIGHT TO THE POINT

The question then becomes: What is the point? In a product ad, should you spend a
paragraph describing the reader's problem before you get to the product and how it
solves the problem? Or should you go straight to the product pitch?

Normally, it's best to get right to the meat of the ad; otherwise, you'll lose your reader.
But, the reader may not be aware of the problem the product solves, or may not think
of it too often.

Here's the lead paragraph of an ad that "warms up" before getting to the point:

"Sugar entrained in evaporators and pans means sugar lost in condenser discharge streams.
And if it isn't bad enough that wasting sugar costs you money, the sugar you dispose of in your
refinery or factory wastewater decomposes. This results in biological oxygen demand, a
depletion of oxygen in the water that's a major source of pollution."

A waste of space? No, because many of the people running sugar refineries don't realize that
entrainment is this serious. The copy has to point to the problem and highlight its adverse
effects before the ad can begin to sell the solution.

On the other hand, an ad stressing a product's energy efficiency should begin with a talk about
energy savings. Copy that explained the negative consequences of wasting energy would be
wasting words, because buyers already know how precious and costly energy is.

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Editors Note: Want to learn more on how to write great advertising and direct mail from the master Bob Bly?
Check out the NMOA bookstore for training, classes and books: http://www.nmoa.org/catalog/index.htm#copywriting
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