Modern Copywriting Tips and Tricks (from the 1800s)
Marketing and advertising professionals love to talk about ‘authenticity’. Every few months some authoritative industry source holds forth on the value of communicating honestly in an authoritative industry publication – the industry then acknowledges the problem, takes the insights on board, and promptly forgets all about it.
It’s because while many love authenticity in theory, they subscribe to the Don Draper/P.T. Barnum school of thought in practice – where marketing is essentially equivalent to BS.
Products that deliver modest improvements in efficiency are called ‘disruptive’; products that simply and effectively imitate market competitors are called ‘innovative’. Copywriting is basically reduced to a series of energetic, but misleading adjectives; the art of selling a urinal cake by saying it’s a lemon drizzle.
But authenticity is an important value, and it can also be a profitable one. Look to Volkswagen, which rebuilt its brand image by openly admitting the ugliness of its cars – and inviting its audience to look deeper. Look to Oasis, which rebuilt its brand image around the fact that, well, they had sales targets.
And look back even further, to John Emory Powers – the grouchy, alarmingly honest 19thcentury creative genius who almost single-handedly built the Wanamaker’s brand, and changed the course of marketing in the process. Though he died almost a century ago, a lot of his wisdom is just as applicable today.
So, without further ado, here are three modern-day copywriting tips and tricks from the 1800s.
1. “Fine writing is offensive.”
Look, I’m a copywriter. Nobody understands the onanistic thrill of a needlessly fancy word, phrase, or sentence more than me. It’s tempting to use the word ‘equitable’ when you mean ‘equal’; ‘fiscal’ when you mean ‘financial’; ‘anthropomorphic rodent’ when you mean ‘Rastamouse’. But beyond the fact that these words aren’t strictly equivalent, they can also be off-putting for your target audience.
Powers’ claim that ‘fine writing is offensive’ is probably his definitive maxim, and he’s not wrong. Of all the copywriting tips and tricks, one of the best is simply to do less copywriting, not more. When your target audience doesn’t know what you’re on about, you either make them feel stupid, you make them think you’re trying too hard, or you make them think you’re trying to hide something. None of these outcomes are ideal.
Per Powers, the best copy has “no smartness, no brag…no fooling, no foolery.” There’s style, and then there’s showing off – for instance, saying ‘definitive maxim’ when you mean ‘most famous saying’.
Powers understood value intuitively: he knew that when it couldn’t be found in the product, it may well be found in the product-maker. A common theme of his copy was that, while people might assume they’re paying for an item, they’re really paying for the care and attention that went into creating it.
Take “The Cost of It”, one of his miniature masterpieces from the early 1900s:
In this, Powers outright highlights that the materials in the product aren’t worth the upfront price. He can’t pretend that fine varnish is comprised of top-notch ingredients, so he turns the relatively negligible quality to his advantage. He says that the constituent parts aren’t that important: it’s scientific knowledge, it’s expert skill, it’s what makes a violin more than misshapen wood.
This principle is just as relevant today. It might cost around £2 to put a video game on a disc, but it sells for £50 because visionary designers put months of work into creating it. In your writing, always sell the process, the idea, the business – not the stuff it makes or the service it offers.
3. “There’s only one way out: tell the truth.”
The final one of Powers’ copywriting tips and tricks is also the simplest – be direct. One of his Wanamaker’s ads for neckties states: “They’re not as good as they look, but they’re good enough – 25 cents.” Another says: “We are bankrupt. This announcement will bring our creditors down on our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow, we shall have the money to meet them.”
Honesty is a necessary condition of authenticity. You don’t necessarily need to insistently highlight the less desirable qualities of your product or service, but you do need to be up front about who it is for and what it can do. Don’t claim it’s revolutionary if it’s merely convenient. Don’t claim it’s market-leading if it’s market-following. Don’t claim it’s innovative if it’s a mere iteration of an existing formula.
Customers are smarter than they’re given credit for. They’ll see right through a dubious claim or any other form of BS.
Powers succeeded, and his legacy endures, because he respected these rules. Modern copywriters ought to do the same.