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A raging debate has been burning up the bits and bytes on a popular copywriting forum: Should humor be included in sales copy?

Some forum members argue that humor can be a disarming and refreshing alternative to the caveman approach to copywriting—i.e., bludgeoning the reader into shock and submission with exclamation points. Drop the hard sell and take a more friendly and convivial approach, they say. Be sociable, be charming, be funny!

Makes sense. In this economy, in this political environment, who doesn't need a good laugh?

Others go further and suggest that sales copy must have personality. And right they are. But methinks they may be confusing personality with humor. Having a personality doesn't automatically equate to being funny.

Advertising greats David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Claude Hopkins each had distinctive personalities and imbued their sales copy with plenty of the same, but I don't think anyone would accuse them or their copy of being funny.

Then comes this refrain from other forum posters: Sales letters all sound the same these days. And they go on to cite letters that open with an over-the-top benefit, an unbelievable offer, or a rags-to-riches, failure-to-hero story.

They make a valid point. The marketer, via the copywriter, must differentiate himself—and his product. But do you do that by making 'em laugh? Here's the problem...

Laughter is serious business

How many times have you gone to a comedy club, or watched a late-night or primetime comedian fall flat on his face after delivering a punch line? Humor is an art form that's extremely difficult to master.

It takes years of developing and practicing timing, rhythm, and phrasing. And even then, when the curtain finally goes up, there's no guarantee you'll make 'em laugh.

So, if you're planning on using humor in your sales copy, at least answer the following question first...

What makes you think you're funny?
Maybe in person, at the dinner table, at the bar, or in the locker room... yes, you're funny. And maybe you've penned something—in a blog post, article, or a spec script you've mailed to Columbia Pictures—that struck a few funny bones once, twice, or thrice.

But funny in a sales letter, hmm? Recognize that the first and foremost goal of a sales letter is... to make a sale!

So, using all the necessary elements required for salesmanship in print, you develop a rhythm, a voice, a tone—a slippery slope—that keeps the reader interested and excited, scrolling or flipping through pages. That will ultimately bring your reader to the letter's real punch line: the submit button, or the BRC (the business response card in a direct mail promotion).

Now, what do you think will happen to the momentum you've labored so artfully to create if, all of a sudden, you slip in a joke, a bit of humor, that's totally out of character? The bubble will burst!

Having worked so hard to suspend "critical disbelief," you abruptly downshift into a Conan O'Brien or Larry the Cable Guy riff, leaving your reader in stunned disbelief and confusion, "Where the heck did that come from?"

All right, let's say your delivery is a bit smoother; you're able to manage the transition from Caples to Conan with a bit more aplomb. Answer this question: Is adding humor necessary to close the sale?

As any copywriter worthy of a keystroke knows, a sales letter should contain only what is absolutely essential to make the sale. Or, as more commonly phrased, a sales letter should be only as long as it needs to be to get the reader to say, "Yes, I'll buy!" Write any more or less, and you'll risk killing the sale.

So, whether or not you can effortlessly slip in a bit of humor becomes a question of whether it'll help you or not.

If it's gratuitous humor, and only included to showcase your personality, I say...

It's better to be smart than funny

Weigh the odds.

As it is, only a small (very small) percentage of readers will respond to even the best-written sales letter—even if written by the uncrowned master copywriter himself: Gary Bencivenga.

So, why risk lowering your conversion rate even further by including humor that some might perceive as amateurish, sophomoric, or just unnecessary?

And yet, on the other hand...

What if you really are funny... most of the time?

Well, if your readers know you, love you, and expect you to be funny, or at least come close... then you could well be distracting them from your marketing message if you switch gears and omit humor from your pitches. In other words, if humor is part of your copywriting or marketing persona, don't change it without fair warning and good reason.

But, if you're writing to a cold list, to readers who don't know you, care about you, and find your sales letter an intrusion, robbing them of time and effort... then cracking a joke in your sales letter—when you ask that they send you money—is not something I would recommend.

That's because...

Separating someone from his or her hard-earned money is never a laughing matter

Look no further than your next credit card bill for proof. Or does reading your Visa and MasterCard statement put you in stitches?

No? Well, how about if those credit card companies inserted a bit of humor next to the line that reads "minimum balance due"? Would you be rolling in the aisles and eager to pay your bill then? Didn't think so.

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Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. For more, visit his blog Marketing Wit & Wisdom.