The following comes from a five page story entitled, “The Creators,” in The Capitalist Reporter circa 1975. The article covered three of the world’s greatest mail order copywriters. Paul Michael and Joe Karbo were the other two writers, besides Gene Schwartz.
When copywriter Gene Schwartz decided to go ahead with the promotion of the book Sex May Be Dangerous to Your Health, his staff, he says, “wanted to throw me out the window.” And just how bad they felt about the spreading about such a rumor is evidenced by the fact Schwartz’s offices are 11 floors above Madison Avenue.
Schwartz grinned, took another gulp of coffee and said he didn’t concur with the thesis of the book either. “My staff and I were in agreement. We all think sex is marvelous”.
“The point is, if a person has an idea which is kooky, not correct, who’s to say he has no right to be heard?”
Along the lines of that belief, Schwartz has written promotional copy for, and published books by past presidents of the American Medical Association and by chiropractors – who are mortal foes of one another indeed.
Schwartz was discussing one of the oldest questions about advertising and about those who, like himself, write advertising copy: is it ethical and what are his own ethics?
First, he says, he won’t do anything illegal. “Controversial, yes. Illegal, no”
Then, he won’t write ads for bad products – or ads that in themselves are bad. The latter he compared with being an athlete who to win must stay in shape. It’s just the same in copywriting, he says. If you loose your honesty – and if you break these rules you do – you can’t write good ads again, any more than an athlete who allows himself to get out of training can hope to win a gold medal.
It was not all that long ago that Schwartz was broke and his ethics put to the test: He was offered $7,000 to write promotional material for a land deal. He turned down the offer he says, because he didn’t believe in the proposal put forth by the man with the $7,000.
Schwartz isn’t broke anymore of course. His copywriting skills have been rated as about the best in the business, and included among his fans is Paul Michael. He commands considerable fees. “Before I pick up a pencil I get $3,500,” he says. And if the piece he creates pays off, the client shells out an additional $4,500. Among his triumphs: a campaign for a self propelled fishing lure, which purportedly made $500,000 for his client, and his ads for a newsletter called Boardroom Reports (“Read 300 Business Magazines in 30 minutes), which helped to sell 60,000 subscriptions at $36 a year.
Although he has been involved in a variety of mail-order products – “You name it, we’ve sold it” – Schwartz specializes in marketing information on self-help topics such as health, dieting, memory-aids, and money making. He runs a group of companies that sells this information in a variety of forms, including books, pamphlets, newsletters, audio cassettes, and video tapes. He says he most enjoys “mail order money machines – successful products that generate equally successful spin-offs. As he explain it, a book can lead to a newsletter, the testimonials for which can lead in turn to a catalog, all of which produce mailing lists of names which can be rented.
The practice of taking a book that has sold poorly in stores and promoting it successfully through mail order is now commonplace, but Schwartz claims to have originated this technique in 1961. How to Get Thinner Once and For All had sold only 7,500 copies in book store. After his mail order campaign sales rose to 150,000.
Back in the 1960’s Schwartz became involved in what he remembers as one of the greatest experiences of his life. Appalled by the fact that a group of black children who were bussed to a school on New York’s Eastside couldn’t read, he went to Harlem to teach remedial reading and also to find out why such a problem existed with obviously intelligent children. Typically, he found the answer, and later published, How to Double Your Childs Grade in School. Although he didn’t publish a book about it, four years of teaching these kids gave him a chance to teach three, white, middle-class teachers a parallel lesson; he took them through a course in advanced algebra which left the three feeling how dumb they were, a major problem is why the kids couldn’t read. Then he explained how algebra worked, and the teachers self assessed dumbness vanished.
Schwartz’s working days fall into three different parts. In the afternoons, he goes to the office and runs his corporations. In the mornings he stays home, thinking up concepts and writing copy. Sometimes at night, even, he will leap out of bed, rush to his book lined den and scribble down the ideas and themes which woke him. He keeps a diary in which he records such themes; on the second day of the month, he already filled out half a page.
Schwartz believes that mail-order’s “get-rich-quick” reputation is a fair one. “This is still one of the most accessible and easily entered of all businesses. Anybody can do it. All you have to know are the techniques and traps,” he says. He says it’s impossible to lose unless you go crazy – and yet at the same time believes that an element of craziness is necessary to be really creative. But, “you don’t have to be intelligent to be brilliant,” he says. “Brilliance can be taught and learned.”
Schwartz and his wife, who is a successful interior designer, live in a sumptuous apartment on Park Avenue. Their home is filled with their collection of modern American Paintings and Sculpture and in fact was decorated to complement the art.
Being broke is a memory even though Schwartz doesn’t believe that he himself is any different today even though he is one of the country’s top-paid copywriters. He points out that his father always said he had no money sense – and died disappointed.