Bullet 23

The One Word That
Teaches Almost Everything

Dear Marketing Top Gun:

The legendary copywriter and my friend Gary Halbert has passed away.Even reading what I just wrote, I feel it can’t be true, because he was so full of life and tiptoed off the stage so softly, so unexpectedly—not his style at all. I understand that he passed away in his sleep, Sunday night, April 8, at his home in Miami.

As always in these Bullets, I’d like to share a marketing lesson in this issue. But given this sad news, let me do it by sharing just a bit of what I learned from Gary Halbert, the renowned Prince of Print.

In fact, I was thinking about Gary and his newsletter just a few weeks ago. I had noticed something unusual about my reaction to it. I subscribe to numerous marketing ezines. But I noticed that, under the crush of hundreds of emails a week, I found myself deleting almost all of them unopened…except for The Gary Halbert Letter. I would always open his, usually as soon as it hit my inbox.

Your One-Word Teacher

Whenever I notice an anomaly like that, I ask the most instructive word in the English language: Why?

“Why?” is the world’s best teacher, a one-word university more valuable than a king’s library. As far as learning is concerned, a day without raising a good “why?” is a wasted day.

“Why,” I asked myself, “have I always opened every new issue of The Gary Halbert Letter, while most marketing ezines go unopened from my inbox to the trash?”

In light of his passing, let me share my thoughts, each one a tribute to the man, his writing style, and what we can all learn from him…

1. Gary shared news. Sometimes he was the news, sometimes it was a dramatic turn of events in his tumultuous life, but often enough, he shared news of a technique or strategy that would make your response and profits soar. You couldn’t afford to miss even one of these gems, so you had to open every issue.

Example: In one issue, he urged us to capture as many physical addresses of our online prospects as possible. Why? He said that if you can collect the physical addresses of your online prospects (ezine subscribers, for example), you can then send them a direct mail promotion and generate up to 400% higher sales than with the same copy delivered only on the Web. What a tasty little tidbit that is! And Gary generously shared hundreds of such gems.2. Gary was interesting. Like coming upon a letter in a bottle washed ashore, you would never know what you’d find inside an issue of Gary’s letter. Its contents were totally, wildly unpredictable.

What can we learn from that? Why is unpredictability essential to getting your copy read?

When I was a copy cub at BBDO, John Caples, who also worked there, told us that if we wanted to learn how to write great headlines, we should study the front covers of the Reader’s Digest. In those days, and up until fairly recently, the front cover of Reader’s Digest would list every article inside the magazine. Today it just features a few highlights, not every article.

But if you read through the entire list of article titles, you would see instantly that a few would exert a powerful magnetic pull on your interest, so much so that you would want to stop everything you were doing and read that article immediately.

Yet most of the other article titles, even on subjects that might generally interest you, would leave you unpulled.

What made the difference?

To Write Great Headlines,
Remember This Formula:
I = B + C

In pondering this, I realized a great truth about headlines: your level of interest is directly proportional to the presence of two factors: benefit and curiosity.

Either one without the other is a devastating weakening. I = B + C.Interest equals Benefit plus Curiosity.

For example, even if a headline is well-written, promises a benefit, and also has the look and right words of a “classic,” strong headline, if I suspect that I can predict what the article will likely say, I will skip the article. Predictability kills curiosity!

On the other hand, when an article promises something of interest and the title leaves me wondering, “How could this be?”—in other words, when its content is unpredictable—it inflames my curiosity and I have to read it.

Make a practice of reading the contents pages of your own favorite magazines and you’ll see what I’m saying is true. When you encounter a title or headline that combines both benefit and curiosity, it pulls on you like an irresistible force field. But if either is missing, you’ll feel little or no pull.

And that was a fascinating aspect of Gary’s writing. He would give you a big benefit wrapped in a headline that would also feature a certain “curiosity factor” that intrigued the devil out of you.

For example, look at some of these great Halbert headlines and see if you don’t agree—they not only promise a benefit, but also ignite your curiosity by being so unpredictable:

“How Does An 84 Year Old Woman With Extreme
Arthritis, A Fractured Knee…And…A Torn Rotator Cuff
Humiliate Young, Expert Golfers By Hitting Every
Tee Shot Out Of Sight Straight Down The Fairway?”
— — —”The Amazing Fighting Secret Of
A Very Deadly Mexican Who
Doesn’t Want Anybody To Ever See His Face!”— — —”How To Make People Stand In Line And
Beg You To Take Their Money!”— — —”The Amazing Facelift In A Jar
Used By Hollywood Stars
Who Don’t Want Plastic Surgery!”

— — —

“How Almost Any Man Can Get
Non-Stop Sex…While…He Is
Waiting To Meet His Dream Lover!”

— — —

“Russian Scientists Discover Simple Secret
To Younger, Healthier, Beautiful Skin!”

— — —

“How To Fly To Hawaii For Free!”

— — —

“Free Report Reveals Little Known
Secrets Overweight Women Use
To Look 15 Pounds Slimmer
Than They Really Are!”

— — —

“The Amazing 10-Minute Secret Used Religiously
By The Most Overworked People In The World…
To Have Better Sleep, All-Day Energy,
And Supercharged Brainpower!”

— — —

“Jacksonville Man Discovers Strange
New Way For The ‘Little Guy’ To Get
Rich In Real Estate!”

— — —

By combining a big benefit with a mysterious “curiosity factor,” these great headlines—like Gary’s newsletter issues—were so interesting that they truly lived up to Vic Schwab’s definition of compelling copy—they were easier to read than ignore.

3. Gary was real. Gary’s writing was often raw but always real. His Boron letters, for example, written behind bars, from a dark place in the soul where neither he nor you had ever wanted to visit, were as hauntingly real as writing gets.

But whatever he was writing about, you felt that his copy pulsated with the warm, red blood of a beating, passionate, humorous heart, not extruded like cold, homogenized milk through the sterile pipes of overly cautious copy committees.

Yes, sometimes Gary swore like a sailor, ranted like a rabble-rouser, threw bombs like a provocateur, and gleefully flouted every tenet of political correctness. He had more funny war stories than a MASH unit. He offended many female readers with blatantly sexist humor, yet found women enchanting. He reveled in being a human pin in search of pompous balloons and delighted in tweaking the noses of the arrogant and thoughtless. And all this of course added up to one more reason you had to open his letters, to find out “What on earth is he going to say now?”

4. Gary was original. His favorite saying, the one he lived by, was“Nothing is impossible for a person who refuses to listen to reason!” With that as his credo, he blazed many new marketing trails that the rest of us followed.

What does this all mean to you? Let’s sum up. If you want to pay tribute to Gary and what he taught us…

  1. Share valuable news in your advertising and ezines. It commands readership and loyalty.
  2. Be interesting. You can’t bore people into buying.
  3. Get real. Let a human personality shine through your copy.
  4. Be original. But let that human voice be your own or your client’s, not the distinctive voice of Gary, or John Carlton, or Gene Schwartz, or anyone else.

In honor of Gary, here in his own words are a few more “Halbertisms” I totally agree with:

  • “Specific claims increase believability. Do NOT write in your advertising, ‘This car gets great gas mileage.’ DO write, ‘This car gets 41 mpg in the city and 52 mpg on road trips.'”
  • “Ground yourself in the true fundamentals of marketing…heighten your awareness of what’s working NOW…and continually capture ideas, headlines, thoughts, techniques, etc.”
  • “Using negative adjectives in your headlines works like crazy. Here are some examples:
        Desperate Nerd From Ohio…

    One-Legged Golfer…

    Blind Medical Doctor Discovers …

    Half-Dead Cuban Washes Ashore In Miami With Strangest Secret That Can Double The Income Of Most Americans!”

  • “If you are sending out snail-mail sales letters, try to send them so they are most likely to arrive on a Tuesday (the best day for response).”
  • Always keep in mind that the people of America sort through their mail while standing over a wastebasket.”
  • “Stop taking yourself so seriously. You really aren’t that important. Your passing may leave a vacuum, but it will be filled faster than you would ever believe. I don’t say this to put you down. The real message here is… Get Out There And Start Having Some Fun!

Precisely because he lived lustily by that last sentence, Gary Halbertwill leave a vacuum for a long, long time.

I am so sad that he has passed. He will be deeply missed not only by his family and close friends, but by the entire copywriting fraternity.

I suspect that this marketing maverick, who believed in God but loathed religions, shared the same sentiment as Winston Churchill, who said, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

I believe in an afterlife…and if any mortal who’s crossed that river can figure out a way to get a message back to us still here on the other side, that person will be Gary Halbert. If and when he does, just as he did on earth, he’ll trigger his customary huge response.

Thanks to Joe Polish, here’s a photo, taken not long ago at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, of four marketing amigos. From left to right—Joe Polish, Gary Halbert, me, and John Carlton. In light of Gary’s passing, I’ll treasure this.

But why did he have to leave us so soon? “Why?”…the word that can teach everything…almost.

Joe Polish, Gary Halbert, Gary Bencivenga, and John Carlton

Sincere wishes for a good life
and (always!) higher response,
Gary Bencivenga Signature

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