One late summer evening, two copywriters sat down at their keyboards to craft sales letters for almost identical products.
They were very much alike, these two copywriters.
Both had years of experience writing every type of ad and were dynamos at selling to their core markets.
Both writers were also dedicated students of direct response marketing and were up on the latest trends and techniques for making their clients (and themselves) ever larger profits.
But while one writer spent an entire week on writing and edits, his leisure-loving colleague cranked his final draft out within hours of sitting down that first evening.
And here’s the capper.
The ad that was written in mere hours buried the week-long effort by many multiples.
What Made The Difference
While one writer spent days building the perfect lead, piling layers of proof into his ad and extracting every conceivable hot button to boost response…
The other writer had a hunch that a good, old-fashioned story was called for to sell the dickens out of his particular product.
And he was right.
But where did he get such a brilliant idea?
Glad you asked.
No doubt you detected the above story wasn’t conjured up by me but by the legendary copywriter, Martin Conroy, whose direct mail letter about “two young men” sold over a billion dollars worth of Wall Street Journal subscriptions over the course of three decades.
Conroy could’ve just as easily taken a mainstream, “quant’s” approach to selling The Journal, using the kind of cold hard data and statistics the paper is famous for.
But he didn’t do that.
Because he knew the first few seconds the prospect was into the piece would have told him in no uncertain terms…
This Guy Is Trying To Sell Me Something!
Just think of how many times a day people take “evasive maneuvers” when thrown into a sales situation.
The average prospect has a little voice inside screaming: “En garde!”
And it’s very difficult to sell once that’s happened.
One way around this is to tell a story.
And the great thing about telling stories is they don’t necessarily need to relate to the product we’re selling.
Look at Martin Conroy’s ad.
Nowhere does the ad state that the successful man was a Journal reader and the other wasn’t.
And just as importantly as getting our prospects to read our ads without their sensors buzzing, storytelling has almost magical powers of suspending disbelief.
A good story — and hopefully one that’s also relevant to our product — sails past left brain logic and scrutiny and into that much more welcoming realm for selling of right brain feeling and imagination.
When prospects read Martin Conroy’s mail piece, they didn’t need any facts, surveys or studies showing conclusively that Wall Street Journal readers out-earned and out-performed those who didn’t.
They were left with only one thought: I want to be like the successful guy in the ad!
I’ll let you in on a little secret.
As triumphant as Conroy’s ad was for The Journal, he didn’t come up with the story of “two young men” any more than I did “a tale of two copywriters.”
As a matter of fact, he lifted the story line from another famous 20th Century ad man, Bruce Barton.
Barton wrote a space ad in 1919 for his long time client, The Alexander Hamilton Institute, the premier self-help and business development entity of the early 20th Century.
The headline for the ad was “The Story of two men who fought in the Civil War” which opened like this:
“From a certain little town in Massachusetts two men went to the Civil War. Each of them had enjoyed the same educational advantage, and so far as anyone could judge, their prospects for success were equally good.
One man accumulated a fortune. The other spent his last years almost entirely dependent upon his children for support.”
If you look at Martin Conroy’s and Bruce Barton’s openers side-by-side, it’s clear they were created from the same mold.
But guess what?
Just as Conroy was inspired by Bruce Barton — Barton took his plot cue from a successful ad written the year before — with what should now be familiar deck copy:
“The story of two clerks in New York City who started together a few years ago, side by side, each earning $12 a week.”
This 1918 ad sold the memory course du jour, the Roth Memory Course, and told “the story of two clerks.”
The clerk “with the memory” went on to become the head of a giant publishing enterprise. The other became “a petty bill collector.”
So much for creativity!
The memory ad hails from the ad agency of Ruthrauff & Ryan, which was a veritable all star team of copywriters, including on staff at various times: John Caples, Maxwell Sackheim, Victor Schwab, Wilbur Ruthrauff and Lillian Eichler Watson of Book of Etiquette fame.
We may never know who among these world-class writers actually wrote the ad.
And it really doesn’t matter.
Story Telling Is In Our D.N.A
It’s likely the “story of two young men” was originally etched on a Sumerian cuneiform tablet.
And it’s made its way down our human story chain over the course of centuries.
It’s based on the age-old plot of rivalry.
Like the “two young men” graduating college, I may not be in an actual contest with my neighbor but you’d better believe I’m checking to see if the car in his driveway is faster, shinier or more expensive than my own.
That car in his driveway is just one of life’s many score sheets.
As William James said:
There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important.
So, how do you incorporate the right story into your ad copy?
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, otherwise fiction writers would be calling the shots here, instead of copywriters.
One of the best ways is to look at successful ads that tell stories and notice how the plot relates to the product being sold.
The Wall Street Journal, The Alexander Hamilton Institute training and the Roth Memory Course were products with big promises, so the rivalry plot works well here.
Another famous ad that told a story was that of Charles Atlas, where the skinny kid in the ad is humiliated in front of his girlfriend when a beach bully kicks sand in his face. The skinny kid orders the Atlas course, gets ripped and returns to the beach to pummel the bully.
This is the revenge plot in action and it worked like a charm to sell millions of Charles Atlas Courses.
The bottom line: stories can work marvelously.
And if you really want to get into story telling for copy, here’s a great book to consider for your bookshelf.
It’s called 20 Master Plots And How To Build Them.
If you’re interested in what motivates middle aged men to watch movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid for the umpteenth time at 3:00 am…or why young children are endlessly enchanted by Cinderella, you’ll find 20 master plots in here to get you going.
Happy story telling!
Alan Petersen says
Excellent post. When writing these type of stories into an ad, is the story based on reality or a complete work of fiction? Is acceptable and ethical to make up a story for an ad? I’ve always wondered that since I first read the ad about Charles Atlas getting sand kicked in his face. 🙂
Ernest Nicastro says
Great post Lawrence! I love history and this is fascinating history and great stuff. Keep up the good work.
Hi Ernest, nice to hear from you and thanks. This was on Clayton Makepeace’s site, Issue # 1023, but no longer there since he downsized his ops at the Total Package.
Hi Alan. Whether it’s acceptable to concoct a story for an ad is a subjective topic. The main points are it’s definitely *not* legal under truth in advertising laws and moreover, customers are very sharp and can smell a rat fast.
I think storytelling is one of the elements that works in the online environment… and that Lawrence has just proved my point with this post.
Thanks for this.
(BTW, my father-in-law has mentioned the WSJ 2-friends letter to me several times during our 10-year acquaintance… to him it’s the ne-plus-ultra of copywriting!)
Interesting. I know this is late to the game, but I have a hard time believing the WSJ “two men” ad was a true story about 2 known people. Now, could 2 people be found that fit the story – Im sure they could.
Great stuff. It made me realise a story is a good way to make comparisons which I’ve always found to be the essence of selling – the advantage of owning a product v the disadvantage of being without it. It seems that’s exactly what your swipe files are doing – memory v forgetting, WSJ v no WSJ. Thanks for that.
Mike Weiss says
Once again you bring the best of the best to us. Thank you.
Along that line, here’s a link to a video by one of the great American story-tellers.
Kurt Vonnegut talks about the shape of stories in this 5-minute YouTube video. Good stuff indeed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ
Mike (Back in Vegas) Weiss
When you think about it, one of the most successful ‘get rich’-type books ever is completely based on this story – Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
I guess if a sales letter work, the next logical step is to make the product more like the sales letter.
John Forde says
I’ve read this post of yours more than once and just came across it again. What a great reminder of how stories work in copy… and, as usual, a great re-telling of the backstory by you. And thanks for the rec. on the 20 Master Plots. I’ll be sure to go check that out.
P.S. I’d love to run this in my Copywriter’s Roundtable e-letter sometime, if you’re willing…
Lawrence Bernstein says
Hi John, how you doing?
I’ve been waylaid, in a good way, for the last 6 months and have a lot of back burner content.
Glad you mentioned stories.
I began cooking up a product, “Story Ads That Sell,” in mid-2012 and haven’t had a chance to get back to it till now. If I only created it for myself, it’d be worth it since I’ve been hungering for something comprehensive related to the power of storytelling in advertising.
Anyway, yeah sure, grab this with my complements for CRT, which is one of the only e-letters that does not get filtered and lands straight in the inbox. 🙂
Awesome post Lawrence. I’am your new reader, keep posting 🙂
Charles Baldwin says
Another great “story”! I will keep on reading your stuff, as long as you keep in writing it!
Funny, re-reading this about 18 months after my prev comment (totally forgot, read it like its the first time), and I’m seeing this through a new set of eyeballs.
These days I spend most of my time writing copy with Hollywood scripts as reference, thinking a lot about story arcs, the hero’s journey and charcter building. I find it to be a great framework for copy, which surprisingly coves a lot of the basics you usually learn about when you learn about direct response marketing….
Lawrence Bernstein says
Thanks. One of these years, I’ll get my Story Ads That Sell Out There!
Jon Bowes says
Great stuff. My copy comes across as very salesy, I’ve never used stories in any of the sales pages that I’ve created. (I do use stories on my blog, quite successfully though)
I think that’s mostly because I’ve been writing shorter form copy, for service based businesses and that market doesn’t respond well to long-form sales letters and traditional techniques like that.
Solid stuff, and I can’t wait till I have more opportunities to use stories in my copy.
Will Edridge says
I read this article and I think of Isaac Newton’s quote, “If I have seen further than other’s have, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
It’s exactly the same as copywriting.
As far as the legality of using stories in your advertising it’s acceptable as long as the fictional people haven’t used your product.
Let’s say John Smith was a regular guy who attended classes at a super ninja martial arts school. After six weeks the worst happened and he found himself in a situation where three guys were following him. These three guys caught up to him and tried to mug him but three kicks and three broken legs later John was walking home perfectly fine.
That kind of story doesn’t wash and would definitely fall foul of the truth in advertising laws.
However… taking it back to the example used in the article:
A Tale of Two Young Nightclubbers
Two guys, practically identical in every single way went on a night out in the city.
Both of them get drunk but one of the ends up in a fight.
The one critical difference that separated which one of these young men ended up in a fight was 10lbs of muscle.
Conventional wisdom would say that these young men should have learned self-defence in order to protect themselves.
But here’s the kicker, having that 10lbs of muscle could prevent people from wanting to fight in the first place so come and join XYZ gym.
It’s terrible copy but the difference in this story compared to the first is that you’re taking a truth, dramatising it and transitioning into a sale rather than fictionalising the results of using your products or services.
Lawrence Bernstein says
Thanks for the insightful comment, Will. I’d write more but I’m headed to the gym. 🙂
Judy Cullins says
Lawrenece, My first time here and this copy is brilliant. Your using the ads as story applied to all of us who market ourselves, our books, and our business. Thanks for your writing. I’ve been adding story to all my book coaching blogs now, and I’m seeing great results–. Got a nice request for an interview from Annie Jennings PR on podcast. This is another doable skill I can teach my coaching clients in writing their book for their ideal audience. Why not make money on your writing projects? Without pre-marketing ( I call the 10 Hot-Selling Points” that boosts success levels way beyond the few hundred book copies.without them.
Lawrence Bernstein says
Glad you got some ideas from the post.
Just remember, no working copywriter wants to hear about his “brilliant” copy — the highest praise is a silent sale. 🙂
James Steadman says
Excellent drill-down into what can be argued as one of the most famous direct-response long-from copywriting ads in history.
What I would like to know is, why aren’t you blogging more?!
Get some stuff out, I’m always keen to read and learn.
Lawrence Bernstein says
Direct question for a direct marketer!
I answered it in your more recent comment.
Great article here on the power of spoken words…
Storytelling is often underrated as everybody seems to teach it now, but you’ve covered some historic depth here. I like how you harped on the fact of our competitive nature and I’d add this is why we’ve survived as a species for over 200,000 years.
Thank you for the article, the book recommendation on plots, and shedding light on the deeper history of the famous WSJ letter.
Everything from this to the “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play!” ad all harp on fundamental storytelling abilities, competition, and status elevation. Not surprisingly, this piano ad and the Two Clerks ad came from Caples, and/or his team at Ruthrauff & Ryan.
What do you think about borrowing, Lawrence? Do you think it’s a good idea to “take inspiration” from ads like this, and form them to your own stories for your product/target/markets?
Would love to hear your thoughts,