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.

In a recent assignment for a software company, I created a fictional prospect for the product. The prospect's characteristics were typical of the marketplace. I was specific in naming the person, name and type of business, and even what the prospect wished for.

The client's first reaction was “We'll lose our readers. Females won't go for a male, and if we confine it to one type of business, what will happen?”

So all the specifics were stripped away. Fortunately, someone else on the client side said, “This has no appeal. Let's make this character real.” So all the specifics went back into the final version.

“Quick Relief for Tired Eyes”

Now there's a classic headline that still works. People living in our information-driven society indeed have tired eyes. So copywriting mistake #3 is failing to sell prospects on reading the advertising.

Copywriters have two missions. The major one is to sell the product or service and to generate response. (In lead generation, the major mission is to sell the prospect on taking the first step.)

However, first they must convince prospects about the value of the advertising itself. In other words, provide an answer to “Why should I bother reading this? What's in it for me?”

Failure to accomplish this mission is not a failure to attract attention. This glitch occurs after gaining attention and is a much deeper problem. In classic direct mail, if the envelope serves as the attention-getter, it is the content of the Johnson box or first paragraph that tells prospects why they should be interested enough to read on.

“When Doctors ‘Feel Rotten' This Is What They Do”

It was Milt Pierce who first suggested adding “C” (for credibility) to the old “AIDA” formula. A classic way to do that is with testimonials, as the classic headline above illustrates. But be careful how you use them. Copywriting mistake #4 is using testimonials in the wrong way or to the wrong market.

Don't replace your selling thrust with testimonials; use them to augment your thrust. Don't use the ones that read as if they were written by you; use real ones, ones that are believable to your particular audience.

Testimonials may actually harm response if your target is top-level executives or leaders of any type. “Pioneers” are not often influenced by other people's opinions and may resent that kind of approach. If your prospects are “emulators,” however, testimonials can be extremely effective.

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image of Lee Marc Stein

Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high tech, and B2B marketing.