A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
GARY BENCIVENGA
Part 3 of 6


In this special interview issue …

  • No Pain, No Gain!  The painful (and enormously profitable) secret for honing your sales copy to razor sharpness – and driving response rates through the ever-lovin’ roof!
  • "Yeah, Sure!" The two most dangerous words in your prospect’s mind – and the single best way to neutralize them …
  • Hype Doesn’t Work!  How to increase the power of your headline without triggering disbelief …
  • And much more!

Dear Business-Builder:

Wendy here.

I hope you’ve been enjoying Clayton’s interview with Gary Bencivenga.

At the end of Part 2, Gary was discussing what it was like to work with copywriter Dan Rosenthal – and he hinted at their powerful system for copywriting that just could not be beat.

He’s going to reveal what that system is today.

So, without further ado, let’s get back to the interview …

Clayton:

Did Dan have Silver and Gold Report at that time?

Gary:

Yes, yes. In fact, Dan was the owner of that company because we also would launch our own products as well as do work for other clients. So, sure, yes, he was the publisher of that newsletter.

We had so much success and so many opportunities because we were among the few people who knew what we were doing. We were like alchemists who could turn products into very successful businesses because of the direct marketing knowledge that we had. It wasn’t widely known, not nearly as well known as it is today.

Clayton:

Can you tell me a little bit about the approach or the template that you and Dan used?

Gary:

It wasn’t so much a template, it was just applying everything very religiously that we had learned from studying Claude Hopkins and Rosser Reeves and David Ogilvy and John Caples and several other great masters of selling in print. More than anything else it was what Dan would call the “CRIT” system, which was short for Critique System.

I think you’ve worked with Dan, haven’t you, Clayton?

Clayton:

Sure have.

Gary:

I’m sure you’ve heard that word, that odious little word, “Crit.”

Clayton:

Were his crits as ruthless back then as they are now?

Gary:

Yes, yes.

Clayton: He’s sadistic. He takes joy in making his crits as insulting and negative as possible just for the fun of it.
Gary:

I know. I have the scars, believe me. But it was a great system. You had to be on your toes. For those who don’t know what we’re talking about, it was a system by which the writer would distribute his copy to everybody working in the ad agency — the receptionist, the account executives, the art director — anybody else who could be persuaded to read it.

Everybody would take their best crack at ripping the ad apart. Now this sounds like a devastating experience, but you develop a thick skin after a while. Most of the time, it would be up to you to accept or reject the criticisms that were coming back at you. All the people involved in the process would do their best to rip the copy apart, to point out holes in the argument, to say, “You’re not convincing me here, I don’t believe this for a second, this offer makes no sense,” and so forth.

Every possible mistake from grammar and spelling to psychological missteps or paragraphs that didn’t connect well, paragraphs that went on without subheads, all of it noted. Everything that could make something less readable or just annoyed anybody for any reason or just made them not want to read any more. They’d say things like, “You’re boring me here” — and that would be a comment in the middle of one paragraph. You’d distribute the work this way in the copy department which is itching to vent some of the fury that they have just been put through because they recently went through the same process.

Clayton:

You nailed them last week.

Gary:

Exactly. It’s payback time. As weird and as sadistic as it sounds, it produced fantastic copy. It didn’t produce fast copy by any means, because you would go through many, many drafts this way until almost everybody in the place said, “Wow, this is singing now. I’m ready to sign up for this myself.”

So it was a very cumbersome, lengthy process. Sometimes clients would be on the phone month after month yelling, cajoling, begging, “When is my copy going to be ready?” And we’d say, “It’s being worked on, it’s being worked on.” When it was finally finished, they’d have a campaign that they could run for years and out-pull virtually anything else they’ve ever run unless they were very lucky beforehand.

This was the system we followed. We had a lot of knowledgeable people take out their blue pencils and just scratch out or question anything that they didn’t like. But then after a time you learned to internalize that process. You probably do it in a nicer way, Clayton — but I’m sure with the people that you mentor that you point out weak spots and shore up areas that need more proof or persuasive arguments or whatever. I’m sure you do that.

Clayton: Absolutely, and it really honestly just depends on what kind of mood I’m in.
Gary:

I’m sure that’s not true. For the process to work, you have to be intellectually honest. Evaluations should not change with your mood.

Clayton: Well sometimes I look at it as a creative writing assignment, especially when the copy’s boring. Then I’ll dive in and get rather verbose with my crits. Other times, you’re right, you’re looking for credibility, you’re looking for persuasiveness, and you’re looking for specificity.
Gary: I think the biggest enemy we face today is not weak headlines or artwork. It’s the tremendous amount of clutter that you have to compete against. When you look at your e-mail this evening, you’ve got maybe 100 e-mails that need attention and each one was crafted lovingly and with lots and lots of care — and you couldn’t care less. You’re just deleting each one with a very quick trigger finger. That’s an enemy that we have to face rather than going to a very receptive audience and having them judge us paragraph by paragraph. You don’t even get a hearing much of the time these days.
Clayton:

You had a fantastic article in one of the early issues of Bencivenga Bullets on, if I remember correctly, the two most important words in advertising. You said, it’s not “you,” it’s not “free,” it’s “yeah, sure.”

Gary:

I gave a seminar at Rodale once. I had the good fortune to never have lost a split run test at Rodale against some very tough competition selling books for the book division. I competed against Gene Schwartz and most of the top names out there, and I never lost.

So they called me in to ask, “How are you doing this? Tell us the approach that you’re following.” So I ran through a whole list of headlines from their advertising, as well as many other examples from our daily lives. For example, what politicians promise every November — “I’m never going to raise your taxes and I’m going to give you universal health care” … “I’m going to get rid of crime in our schools.” And what does everybody say once that’s out of their mouths? They say, “Yeah, sure.”

That’s the biggest problem that most B-level copywriters face. They’re always looking for ways to increase the strength of their headline, and the easiest way, apparently, is to increase the hype or ratchet up the promise. But usually that’s going on in the wrong direction because you’re sounding more like the politician who is promising an even more undeliverable promise. Since everybody out there is looking for a way to dismiss you as quickly as they can because they’ve got 100 other messages to get through, as soon as they see an over-promising headline, that is the first permission that they have to just blow you off.

You’re usually much better with an under-promising headline. A great example that I learned in the days that I was working with Dan Rosenthal was for one of our clients who sold gold and silver coins and bullion. In this case it was an ad for silver. The headline was a famous headline that ran for many years, “Why the price of silver may rise steeply.” Thinking I was such a hot-shot copywriter, I said to Dan Rosenthal, who I believe was the author of that headline and the great, great ad that followed it, I said, “Why are you saying, ‘may rise’? You should test a headline that sounds a little stronger, a little bolder, such as ‘Why the price of silver will rise steeply.’ That way it sounds, Dan, like you believe what you’re predicting.”

So we tested my version and, of course, it bombed. It’s counterintuitive, but “Why the price of silver may rise steeply” outperformed “Why the price of silver will rise steeply” maybe by 200%. And the body copy was exactly the same for both versions. It went into why inflation and why a silver shortage is about to exert irresistible pressure under the price of silver to cause silver prices to go higher. It gave every reason why silver was going up. It was full of proof and full of facts and full of figures, plus an opportunity to send for a booklet on how you can profit on the coming rise in silver prices. As I say, it created land office business on the strength of that ad but I could never understand why “may rise” pulled so much better than the more forceful “will rise.”

But it’s because of that disbelief factor. Most investors are savvy. So as soon as you promise something that really is unknowable such as “will rise,” they know that you can’t predict the future. But when you build in a little bit of understatement, you suck them right in.

So I’ve learned to apply that principle in many, many headlines. One of my best headlines for Hume Publishing was “Get Rich Slowly.” I created an enemy out of all of the get rich quick investment courses and opportunities out there by saying, “Look, if you’re tired of all the hype, this is the course that you should be buying because if you got $2,000 to $3,000 to put aside each year, this is a course that could easily get you to the $1 million mark. It’s not going to happen in three, four or even five years, but if you want to retire with $1 million and can only put $2,000 aside in an IRA each year, this is how it’s done.”

That ad was virtually unbeatable for several years with a headline that the client didn’t even want to test, “Get Rich Slowly.” They said, “Gary, have you lost your mind? Who wants to get rich slowly?” So I said, “Look, people are so tired of ‘get rich quick,’ it’s not believable anymore.” Nobody buys without belief, so if you advertise something that can be believed, then most of the battle is already won.

Clayton: I think that’s fascinating, and I think it kind of ties into that the “Lies, Lies, Lies” package you did for Mark Skousen’s Forecasts & Strategies, which you must be tired of talking about.
Gary:

No, no, not at all. Most people probably don’t even know that package but yes, you’re right …

Clayton: That is the classic of financial newsletter promotion.
Gary:

Oh thank you. That was extremely successful and ran for many years.

Clayton:

And it was really wonderful because there’s not even a hint of a benefit in your main headline. It simply seized on a resident emotion — the skepticism and frustration of investors who had heard it all, tried it all and were continually disappointed. And then in the deck copy, you came on with “Why we investors are sick and tired of these things that are happening to us.” And then the real payoff was, “How getting richer is the best revenge.” I’m doing that just from memory — that’s how powerful it was.

Gary:

You remember it better than I do.

Clayton:

My goodness, when was that?

Gary:

It was the early 1990s.

Clayton:

Yeah, and I still remember that headline. I can still visualize the package and the wonderful cartoons they used.

Gary:

That was an example of humor actually working in copy. We took every target of anger that an investor can have — lying politicians, with a cartoon of a classic looking politician, taking an oath to the flag, and if you look closely, his fingers are crossed. And he says, “I promise never again to raise taxes.”

Clayton:

And the broker in a pinstriped suit behind a desk, smoking a cigar.

Gary:

And the guy from the IRS was Darth Vader. The cartoons were just wonderful and that added a little bit of that entertainment factor you were talking about before but in an appropriate way. It was part and parcel of the sale.

Clayton:

There were a couple of things that I loved about that. One was the little phrase, “we investors” in the deck copy. Because it immediately got Skousen on the side of the reader, it immediately made us friends.

Gary:

That’s so true. I’m so glad you picked up on that, Clayton, because that is a great technique to use. Instead of the usual “I’m trying to sell you something,” which sort of sets up immediately in the reader’s mind a you-versus-me mentality, I found a way to shift gears by saying, “it’s you and me against these other guys.” And if you can create an enemy in your copy, that’s what happens. You set up a three-point discussion and you come around from your side of the desk to be on the reader’s side of the desk and then it’s you and the reader against the enemy that you’re railing against.

It’s a very effective psychological and copy technique to use because it takes the copywriter out of the role of trying to sell the prospect something and puts them both on the same side, as if the copywriter were a friend, consumer advisor, and helper.

Clayton:

There’s another thing about that headline that’s very instructive, especially as I look back on it now. People often wonder why Rush Limbaugh, for example, is so successful. He has no real product to sell. He doesn’t make your life better in any way. There are no benefits, really, for buying his books. But the service he provides for you is that he puts your thoughts and your feelings — assuming you’re in agreement with his politics — into words. He gives you an outlet for the emotions that you’re feeling about the things that are happening in the country. That emotional release is valuable to people, and as a result, 20 million people listen to him every week on the radio and buy his books and newsletters and so forth.

I felt that the “Lies, Lies, Lies” package did something very similar and it did it beautifully. It was one of the first-rate resident emotion packages that simply went to a group of people who had strong feelings about the subject at hand and spoke to those feelings, and by doing so, validated them. But they were actionable feelings and you were able to come back with a solution, a way to assuage that frustration in those people. I felt that was so much more powerful than simply going back to them as one more direct mail package promising huge profits.

It was wonderful and it opened the way for me and also for every other copywriter I’ve talked to, to begin thinking about how much more powerful emotions are than a mere intellectual argument in terms of making a sale.

Gary:

That’s a very astute analysis, Clayton. I think what helped me to create that package — and this is something I do before I start any assignment — was to ask, “What are we really selling?” And you try to come up with different answers to that question. We’re not really just selling a newsletter, which is 12 sheets or eight sheets of paper a month. What are we really selling? If it’s just a newsletter, everybody had always answered, “We’re selling investment tips.” But since there was so much competition from other copywriters and other publishers selling the same kind of investment tips, I reasoned if we change the answer to the question “what are we really selling?” we can open a whole new way to talk to our market.

Let’s think about it. What are we really selling when we sell a newsletter from an investment advisor who wants to advise you on the most important financial decisions of your life? Well you’re really selling a set of values, a partnership with somebody that you have to trust. The best way to come to trust somebody is to see that they do share your same values.

I call this the “Credo Technique of Copywriting.” The first issue of Bencivenga Bullets is about this technique. In fact, in that bullet I say what I believe about advertising. I believe advertising is designed to sell and not to win awards and applause. I believe you can always sell with integrity. I give the other beliefs, very strongly held beliefs that I have about advertising and that accomplishes a couple of things.

Number one, it tells what I’m about and if you have the same values, then we’re a match. So I sell you on me before I try to sell anything else. If you sell not only the end product that the advisor or the person behind the product of service is offering — whether it’s the chiropractor who’s selling his services or attorney or whoever it is — but also mention the person’s values that you also feel very strongly about, you sort of bond with them in a way that’s much more powerful than any list of how-tos or other types of bullets purely based on information. You’re bonding with them on a level of trust, which makes you different from every other person out there who is just trying to sell something because they want to sell it.

Clayton: You probably don’t remember, but in the early 1980s, you and I had a telephone conversation. I was with a company called Security Rare Coin.
Gary:

Oh yeah, that’s coming back to me now, yes.

Clayton:

You are my mentor, by the way.

Gary:

Oh, I didn’t know. Well thank you, what an honor.

Watch for Part 4 next week …

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7 Responses to A Conversation With
the Legendary Copywriter
GARY BENCIVENGA
Part 3 of 6

  1. Thanks  Clayton and Gary. Hmm…I can go ‘back to the drawing board’ on my latest copy piece, and 1. Look at whether my headline is actually believable…and 2. Get on the otherside of the table so I am with my target market. Great post…again!

    John

  2. Gary Fisher says:

    “What are we really selling?”
     
    That is so fundamental, and so easy to miss! Thanks to Mr. Bencivenga for sharing some of his tremendous experience and intuition, and thank you Clayton for providing this venue and for your excellent interview questions.

  3. I have been selling online for more than ten years.

    I have seen every course out there and bought most of them…

    First let me say the Clayton is my mentor…

    I love his work…

    This is the single most important thing I have ever read online. Bar NONE!

    All the experts can learn a thing or two from these guys.

  4. Robert Schwarztrauber says:

    Two of my favorite marketing mentors, together. Brilliant stuff.
    I feel like I’m a kid again, at the top of the stairs, listening to the adults talk down below. Back then I just picked up a few bad words that would get me into trouble later. Here I pick up GOLD! Thanks Clayton and Gary for sharing your wisdom…FREE.  It is  priceless.

  5. Andrew Ikeda says:

    Greetings Clayton and Gary,

     Thank you so much for this article and sharing some gold nuggets on copywriting for the stock and financial markets. I’m going to use this information in this article to rework the copy for my website.

     Keep up the great work! 

     All the best, 
     
     Andrew

  6. peter webb says:

    Hi Clayton

    I live in Australia

    and really appreciate all the effort you and the ‘Redhead’ go to in providing such excellent information

    You definitely ‘leave a footprint’ on so many people you will never meet like me but who regard you so highly

    Take care & stay Well both of you

    peter

  7. Bencivenga is a genius!

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