THE LEVISON LETTER
Action Ideas For Better Direct Mail,
E-mail, Web Sites & Advertising
Ivan Levison, Direct Response Copywriter
Volume: 21 Number: 8
When "Creativity" Can Kill
Over lunch the other day, a friend of mine told me a true story that
I want to share with you.
A copywriter at a well-known advertising agency recently wrote a
thirty-second TV commercial and showed it to his boss. The Associate
Creative Director read it over and said "It's a great spot, but
something missing?" "What's that?" asked the copywriter.
replied his boss. "You forgot to mention the client's product!"
That's right. The copywriter was so wrapped up in creating an
entertaining commercial that he neglected to mention what the client
The writer's teeny-weeny oversight, I believe, needs to be understood
in context. You see, packaged goods advertising is undergoing an
enormous change. Today, it is becoming less a medium of information/persuasion
than just another form of entertainment.
Of course, it's O.K. to be outrageous and "creative" when
selling beer, burgers, or jeans on the tube. And it's fine to have
when you're building a hip brand like Apple, and supporting it with
media buys. But be careful!
Self-indulgent creativity for creativity's sake can hurt you in your
advertising, direct mail, e-mail, and on your Web site. Let me give
you an example a Novell ad that recently ran some years ago
Novell obviously spent big bucks to run a two-page, four-color ad
Fortune. They could have used a graphic and headline that was relevant,
motivating, and persuasive. Instead, they used a photo of a pensive
walking around Stonehenge. The headline asks the cryptic question:
Under the photo, they ran a subhead that said:
"We're willing to bet you don't think of yourself
Believe me, this ad is as big a mystery as Stonehenge itself.
Very often, when I see an ad that uses an arcane, teaser headline
Novell's, I search the body copy for the content that should have
bumped up to headline status. Sure enough, Novell's ad finally starts
saying something in the third sentence of the body copy:
" . . . With NDS software, everyone on your network has a unique
They can access the network online to get all the necessary business
even when they're away from the office. With one password, the network
identifies which files and applications they may use while restricting
to secure or sensitive documents."
I would argue that even a headline lifted straight from the body copy
would work better than "Node?" For example, if you wanted
for a no-brainer, you could show photos of employees doing different
jobs and simply plug in the headline:
"Now, give everyone the business tools they need even when they're
away from the office."
In my opinion, even this rather flatfooted line, lifted (nearly) directly
from the body copy, would serve Novell's interests better than asking
but it's differences of opinion that make horse races.
In the very same issue of Fortune, BUY.COM ran a full page ad that
makes the simple claim "Lowest prices on earth." They backed
claim by comparing the price you'd pay at Amazon.com and
BUYBOOKS.COM for the same best-seller.
BUY.COM doesn't play games, they don't get cute, they just prove to
you, with an old-fashioned "side-by- side" comparison, that
you can save
twelve bucks on a book by shopping at their Web site.
If YOU are tempted to use a teaser headline and play it cute in an
ad, in direct mail, or on the Web, I urge you to think again. As John
the father of direct marketing advertising advised years ago:
"Avoid the 'hard-to-grasp' headline -- the headline that requires
and is not clear at first glance. Remember that the reader's attention
for only a single involuntary instant. People will not use up their
time trying to figure out what you mean. They will simply turn the
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