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Make a monumental discovery in your copywriting

08.08.2012

Remember the story of Archimedes in the bathtub? Hiero II, King of Syracuse (third century BC), asked the mathematician Archimedes for some sort of answer that would tell him whether a crown was pure gold.

Most of us have suddenly found the solution to a nagging problem while soaking in a bathtub. Archimedes was the progenitor of this experience. The answer leaped into his brain while he was in the tub: The water began to overflow. Hmmm.

Archimedes placed the crown in the bathwater and made a note of how much water was displaced. Then he took the crown's exact weight in pure gold and repeated the process. Oops, the numbers were different! So it wasn't size, it was density.

Supposedly, Archimedes was so excited by his discovery that he jumped out of the tub and ran home in the buff, shrieking “Eureka!” (Greek for “I found it!”) in delight. He anticipated Lady Godiva by centuries, probably with considerably less excitement.

His monumental discovery also set the stage for others by Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and, hopefully, us.

Let's contemporise
Advance your sundials from the third century BC to the twenty-first century AD. And with your twenty-first century analytical tools, switch easily from analysing pure science to analysing impure marketing.

Your first analysis, parallelling mine, compares the quantity of competing sales messages every one of us gets in the year 2012 against what had been the norm before the world wide web unleashed a storm of daily assaults that quickly morphed into a blinding blizzard when social media became so commercial they're now antisocial.

Neither we nor any marketer can hold the marketplace hostage. Giant corporate size is inconsequential because anyone can send multiple provocative emails from a corporate headquarters housed in his hat.
Even half a generation ago, we'd automatically use Act now! as a standard goad. Why? Because everybody did.

Uh-oh. Are you still leaning on that ancient crutch? Hey, there, we're deep in blizzard territory, being pelted daily by hail that turns to slush. If you think the phrase Act now! still retains even fractional salespower and don't think, Eureka!, two suggestions: 1) Don't upgrade your attitude. 2) Be my competitor.

Fractions add up
Paralleling the other columnists in this distinguished publication, I'll try to keep you from sliding away by offering information and opinions I think are useful.

The words you're reading have competition, and we both know it. Challengers for your attention, this very half-minute, lurk on your desk or on your monitor or on the next spread within these pages. So for a quick grabber: Are you exploiting the hidden but gigantic difference between If... and When...?

No, no, those two words not only aren't parallel; they're at opposite ends of the persuasive spectrum. A far-out example, just to make the point, because most word-decisions aren't this openly obvious: Suppose I'm selling you automobile insurance. Would I write, “If you have a claim...?” Or would I lead you by the hand with, “When you have a claim...”?

That's basic. Sadly, even basics escape us when it's 5pm on a Friday afternoon and our tired copy, unleavened by dynamic persuasion, just empties the fact-basket. Let's try one more, and it's even easier: Do you see anything wrong with “You'll be among the first to...”?

You should. When I say this one is even easier, I'll underscore it (at least to myself) with this dictum: For the rest of your life, plus six months, don't use among as a key word when you want to project the notion of exclusivity.

A modest proposal
Remember Jonathan Swift's sardonic 1729 essay, A Modest Proposal? The Proposal was as clear as it was satirical and mocking: impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to the rich.
In today's heartless society, Swift probably wouldn't have dared publish such irony, because within hours it would be all over Facebook and Twitter as a serious suggestion, and yahoos everywhere would heat up their cooking-pots.

So in keeping with the temper of the times I offer a suitable modest proposal seriously, on two levels. First, if you're writing copy, don't let any piece loose until you've checked over it, found at least one weak word, and replaced it. Second, if you're a copy chief or creative director, don't let any message go to print or online until you've found and replaced at least one weak word the writer has missed.

If you attend the Direct Marketing Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas this coming October, drop in at one of my sessions where I'll continue this word-use diatribe. After all, every message we excrete is supposed to underscore our basic professional tenet: The purpose of a direct response message is to convince the reader, viewer, or listener to perform a specified positive act as the direct result of exposure to that message.

Are you with me on that? Okay, agreed to a quick start? Search and destroy the word available. Oh, kill Submit too. Those tiny steps should get the creative engine under way.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises He writes copy for and consults with direct response and catalogue companies worldwide.