Award-winning Myths of Direct Marketing

Mama Cass didn’t choke to death on a ham sandwich. The cotton batten in Aspirin bottles wasn’t there for sterility reasons. And Canadian Laura Secord never drove a cow through American army lines during the War of 1812.

They’re myths. However, some journalist or historian once presented them as fact and so, to this day, many people still accept them as such.

But the public domain isn’t the only place where one can find myths aplenty. The DM industry has its own, many of which have the same type of origins.  For example…

“The more you tell, the more you sell.”

Direct mail and direct response ads first proved themselves as powerful promotional techniques with mail order and, if you consider it to be a different category, magazine subscriptions. 

And the rule-makers were right — if your only chance to make your sales pitch is with your couponed ad or direct mail package, go for long copy. It lets you make numerous sales points.  It allows you to address objections that may arise. It also gives you more of the reader’s time, which should increase your chances of success.

Plus, if you’re pitching a magazine or book, you can’t go wrong by stuffing your envelope with one verbose component after another.  After all, your prime prospects are readers. They eat up copy.

Where tell-more-to-sell-more goes from being a profitable philosophy to being a myth is when it’s applied to a lot of other categories.

Take lead generation. Since the objective of lead gen is to entice the prospect to ask for more information, a short-copy approach is the logical – and proven – choice. Yet I often receive massive packages in the mail featuring every detail about a company, from when they were founded to how they treat their employees. Take the time to read it all and you know more about their president than you do about yourself.

The same goes for pitches about supposedly simple products or services. If it’s a no-brainer purchase, make it look that way with a minimalist presentation. The longer you go on about your product’s or service’s simplicity, the more complex it appears and the more self-defeating your argument becomes.

This myth receives the Mickey Rooney award for excessive verbosity.

“Vanity phone numbers should be typeset larger than anything except the headline.”

This is the mantra for many operations whose measurement of success is the number of inbound phone calls received. And it makes sense. If you want people to phone you, give them a distinctive toll-free number to call and print it in large type.

The fly in the ointment is in the translation from alphabet to numbers. For example…

Quick! What numbers do you dial for 1-800-FLOWERS? If you had to put money on it, would you bet you can dial 1-800-FLOWERS or 1-800-356-9377 faster?

Recognizing that the benefit of a vanity number ends at memorability, the majority of advertisers wisely also include the numeric translation of their tele-word. But why is it invariably printed in much smaller size type? It’s the one people are going to use.

So print your numeric phone number in the same size text as the vanity version. You’ll see your response rate blossom.

This myth receives the Dolly Parton award for those who believe that bigger is better.

“The List is everything.”

The database can be one powerful tool. It can help you make money by guiding you to your best prospects. And it can save you money by steering you clear of people who will likely have no interest in your product or service.

But it isn’t everything. And in some cases, it can really amount to nothing, as far as being a determinant of success goes.

For example, as long-distance telephone companies and credit card issuers can tell you, when you and your competitors end up mailing to the same prospects, your wisdom in selecting a certain list is negated by the wisdom of the competitor who chose the same one.

So who wins the battle for the prospect? He or she who makes the best offer or presents the offer in the most compelling way. In other words, the person who realizes that nothing in this world is ‘everything’, including the list.

This myth receives the Geritol award for those who feel listless.

“Don’t start consecutive sentences with the same words.”

That’s often valid advice. I repeat, that’s often valid advice. But there are many occasions where the power of the copy is generated primarily through repetition, as it was in one of Sir Winston Churchill’s most stirring speeches:

“We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Somehow, don’t you think, it loses something when it becomes the less repetitious, “We shall fight on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets and hills and win.”

Repeat words because you can’t think of any others to use and you’re too cheap to buy a thesaurus, and you’ll lose.  Repeat words because you’re confident you have a Churchillian skill for inspiring others, and you may just win the battle for the prospect.

This myth receives the Winchester repeating rifle award for a potentially-killer copy technique.

“Positives work better than negatives.”

It should come as no surprise that someone who writes a column entitled ‘Stupid Direct Marketing Tricks’ is not afraid of negatives. I don’t necessarily prefer negative thoughts or words; I’m just not fearful of using them when the time is right.

What does scare me, though, are people who approach negatives in strategy or copy with the paranoia one usually associates with the fear of having broccoli in the teeth when meeting the Queen of England, constantly checking that there are nothing but Pollyanna positives to be found throughout.

But why? To cite just one example, what may be the most successful direct response ad in history was based on a negative thought. I’m referring to the Sherwin Cody School of English ad with the headline, “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?” which beat all control-challengers for four decades.

Couldn’t copywriter Max Sackheim have written something like, “How to Improve Your Grammar”?  Of course. Would it have worked as well? Probably not.  As mentioned, other writers tried every combination of words going and couldn’t beat his original.

Then, too, there’s John Caples’ famous ad, “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…” It sold piano lessons by the parlorful, something that would surely not have come to pass had the marketing manager been afraid to mention the negative thought of people laughing at someone.

Consider, too, how negative phrases have even inspired people to put their lives at risk.

There’s James Lawrence’s well-known, “Don’t give up the ship.”  (O.K. The U.S.S. Chesapeake was eventually lost. But I doubt it would have been saved if, instead, his dying words had been “Keep the ship”.)

In a similar vein, there’s John Paul Jones’ defiant, “I have not yet begun to fight” which, to my mind at least, is considerably more intimidating than a positive such as, “I’ll start fighting soon”.

Or you can take something as simple as forget-me-nots.  Would they be more popular if they were called “remember-me’s”? Not to sound negative, but I doubt it.

This myth wins the Norman Vincent Peale award for the influence it’s had over people.