Next to John Caples's “They laughed when I sat down at the piano,” Maxwell Sackheim's “Do you make these mistakes in English?” is perhaps the best known in mail order history.
The ad with this headline ran for 40 years. Many of us have done take-offs on the line. In the early '80s, a control package at Standard & Poor's asked, “Do you make these common mistakes in investing?”
The fulcrum of the headline is the word “these.” Without that word, we have a “yes/no” question, and a “no” answer absolutely kills response. With “these” you absolutely must read further to find out what the mistakes are.
Recently, I made this copywriting mistake #1: in a concept presentation to a client, I used Sackheim's shell for an envelope tease. My version was “Are you on top of all these dramatic changes in employment discrimination law?”
The client never saw the word “these” and therefore commented, “I thought questions with a ‘yes/no' answer don't work as teasers.” I was sitting right across from her as she read it and was able to point out the key word. But her mind was elsewhere, and I lost the battle.
The point here is that in the age of epidemic ADD the subtlety of this Sackheim prototype headline is lost, and so the prototype should no longer be used. Even literate people skim and don't read properly because they are so busy.
“How A Man of 40 Can Retire in 15 Years”
Part of the reason the headline above is famous is that it targets its audience. Mistake #2 occurs when the marketer wants to appeal to everyone and loses sight of the real prospects. That makes the copy full of generalities instead of specifics. And loss of specifics hurts believability and response.