Great Moments in Advertising Part 5
John Caples Explains it All

  • Three Steps to Creativity
  • Three Classes of Successful Headlines
  • Five Rules for Writing Great Headlines
  • The Three Kinds of Copy to Avoid
  • The 14 Most Effective Sales Appeals
  • 9 Ways to Increase the Selling Power of Your Copy
  • 34 Ways to Write a Headline
  • And MORE!

Dear Business-Builder,

In 1926, the Twenties were Roaring … Claude Hopkins’ masterwork on copywriting – Scientific Advertising – was the three-year-old bible for copywriters everywhere … and a raw young copy cub sat down to write an ad for The U.S. School of Music …

The 26-year-old copywriter’s name was John Caples and to this day, his headline for that ad, “They Laughed When I sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!” is considered by most to be the Stairway to Heaven of the copywriting world.

After this ad ran, things happened quickly for John Caples. Within one year, he had been recruited by the advertising giant BBD&O, where he spent the next 56 years creating world-beating ads. In 1973 Caples was elected into the Copywriters Hall of Fame and four years later into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

How to Write Like John Caples

Now, when asked to write an ad selling home-study courses to would-be musicians, most young copywriters would begin with the obvious. They’d create a simple, straightforward benefit headline – like: Master the Piano at Home in 30 Days – Without a Teacher!

But Caples instinctively knew better. He understood that mastering a musical instrument is hard, time-consuming, frustrating work – and that nobody really wants to put themselves through that drudgery.

“So,” I can almost hear the young Caples asking himself, “Why DO millions still take piano lessons every year?”

And I can almost hear him answering himself: “Because mastering an instrument makes people more popular … wins them the admiration and envy of friends … and ultimately, brings them happiness.”

Mr. Caples recognized that his product was not a piano course – or even the ability to play. Those things were merely the means to an end. His real product was the admiration and respect of others. He was selling popularity and happiness!

In short, Mr. Caples recognized that people buy for emotional reasons – not practical ones … and that by appealing to his prospects’ most dominant resident emotions, he had a shot at driving response to his ad through the roof.

Now, even after coming to this amazing conclusion, Mr. Caples could have still chosen to write a straight benefit headline – like: “How to Be the Most Popular Guy at Any Party!”

But again, Mr. Caples understood that simply describing how popular musicians are wouldn’t have the same emotional resonance as a vividly visual, first-person “true story” about how a goofball – a buffoon nobody ever dreamed could play – left his friends amazed … breathless … spellbound … and applauding wildly.

Everyone reading the ad wanted to be that guy!

And so, Caples …

  1. Takes fully HALF of his ad space to seduce his prospects with an intriguing, visual story of his personal triumph …
  2. Presents his product as doing all the work for the prospect … without the laborious drudgery of practicing scales, in half the usual time – “Just read the list of instruments in the panel,” he says, “decide which one you want to play and the U.S. School will do the rest.” …
  3. Removes a possible objection by dispelling the myth that you need a special talent to play …
  4. Adds a credibility element by mentioning that the U.S. School of Music has taught 350,000 people to play their favorite instruments …
  5. Trivializes the price (without mentioning it) by saying it’s only a few cents a day …
  6. Offers a free “music test” and demonstration lesson, “no cost – no obligation” …
  7. Adds an urgency element, saying this is a special offer for a limited number of new students and urges prospects to respond “before it’s too late.”

Caples on Caples

Lucky for us, Mr. Caples left us a treasury of his ad-writing wisdom in Tested Advertising Methods (Prentice Hall Business Classics) (1932), Advertising ideas (The History of advertising) (1938) and Making Ads Pay (1957).

One thing, though – they won’t do you one damn bit of good until you study them! So if you haven’t read these bibles of direct response and copywriting – or if it’s been a while since you immersed yourself in Caples’ wisdom – I urge you to order them NOW!

Here are just a few of the gems you’ll discover in John Caples’ books …

Caples’ Three-Step Approach to Creativity

  1. Capture the prospect’s attention. Nothing happens unless something in your ad, your mailing, or your commercial makes the prospect stop long enough to pay attention to what you say next.
  2. Maintain the prospect’s interest. Keep the ad, mailing, or commercial focused on the prospect, on what he or she will get out of using your product or service.
  3. Move the prospect to favorable action. Unless enough “prospects” are transformed into “customers”, your ad has failed, no matter how creative. That’s why you don’t stop with A/I/A (Attention, Interest/Action), but continue right on with testing.

Caples on Headlines

“If the headline doesn’t stop people, the copy might as well be written in Greek.

“If the headline of an advertisement is poor, the best copywriters in the world can’t write copy that will sell the goods.

“They haven’t a chance. Because, if the headline is poor, the copy will not be read. And copy that is not read does not sell goods.

“On the other hand, if the headline is a good one, it is a relatively simple matter to write the copy.”

Caples’ Three Classes of Successful Headlines

“Advertisers who work with keyed copy find the majority of their most successful headlines can be divided into three classes:

“1. Self-interest. The best headlines are those that appeal to the reader benefits. They offer readers something they want – and get from you. For example:



“2. News. The next-best headlines are those that give news. For example:



“3. Curiosity. The third-best headlines are those that arouse curiosity. For example:

LOST: $35,000


Caples’ Five Rules for Writing Great Headlines:

“1. First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write. Make your headline suggest to the readers that here is something they want. This rule is so fundamental that it would seem obvious. Yet the rule is violated every day by scores of writers.

“2. If you have news, such as a new product, or a new use for an old product, be sure to get that news into your headline in a big way.

“3. Avoid headlines that merely provoke curiosity. Curiosity combined with news or self-interest is an excellent aid to the pulling power of your headline, but curiosity by itself is seldom enough.

“This fundamental rule is violated more often than any other. Every issue of every magazine and newspaper contains advertising headlines that attempt to sell the reader through curiosity alone.

“4. Avoid, when possible, headlines that paint the gloomy or negative side of the picture. Take the cheerful, positive angle.

“5. Try to suggest in your headline that here is a quick and easy way for the readers to get something they want.

“In using this last suggestion – as mentioned previously – be sure to make your headline believable. Here is the headline of an advertisement that was tested by a correspondence school:


“This seems to sum up in a few words what people have wanted ever since the world began. Yet the advertisement did not bring many replies, probably because the headline was unbelievable. It seemed too good to be true.

Caples on the Three Kinds of Copy to Avoid

“1. Poetic Copy: There is a type of copy so poetically worded that the chief impression the reader receives is, 'The person who wrote that piece is certainly a master word juggler.'

“2. Affected Copy: There is a type of copy that sounds as if it were written by a college sophomore in order to produce an intense effect on the reader. This copy depends on extravagant phrases rather than on real thought or feeling.

“Here is an example taken from a jeweler’s advertisement for star sapphires:


Soft Sapphire … It is like a cup of night blue, dazed with moonlight and soft shadows, and it bears a promise of the sky. For in its depths stir the six arcs of a veiled silver star … eager to fling their beauty to the night.

3. Unbelievable Copy: Copy that strains the credulity of the intelligent reader is not as effective as it was years ago.

“Most of the advertisers who procured sales through exaggerated and unbelievable claims have been reduced to using 60-line space in a few of the cheaper publications, or they have gone out of business entirely.

Caples’ Most Effective Sales Appeals

“Here are some appeals that continue to increase sales:

  • Make more money
  • Save money
  • Retirement security
  • Better health now
  • Health care security
  • Security in old age
  • Advance in profession or trade
  • Prestige
  • Enjoyment
  • Easier chores
  • Gain more leisure
  • Comfort
  • Reduce fat
  • Freedom from worry

Caples’ 9 Ways to Increase the Selling Power of Your Copy

  1. Use Present Tense, Second Person
  2. Use Subheads
  3. Give Free Information
  4. Arouse Curiosity
  5. Make Your Copy Specific
  6. Use Long Copy
  7. Write More Copy Than Is Necessary To Fill The Space
  8. Get Help From Others
  9. Make Every Advertisement a Complete Sales Talk

Caples’ 35 Ways to Write a Headline

  1. Begin your headline with the word “Introducing.”
  2. Begin your headline with the word “Announcing.”
  3. Use words that have an announcement quality.
  4. Begin your headline with the word “New.”
  5. Begin your headline with the word “Now.”
  6. Begin your headline with the words “At last.”
  7. Put a date into your headline.
  8. Write your headline in news style.
  9. Feature the price in your headline.
  10. Feature reduced price.
  11. Feature a special merchandising offer.
  12. Feature an easy-payment plan.
  13. Feature a free offer.
  14. Offer information of value.
  15. Tell a story.
  16. Begin your headline with the words “How To.”
  17. Begin your headline with the word “How.”
  18. Begin your headline with the word “Why.”
  19. Begin your headline with the word “Which?”
  20. Begin your headline with the words “Who else.”
  21. Begin your headline with the word “Wanted.”
  22. Begin your headline with the word “This.”
  23. Begin your headline with the word “Because.”
  24. Begin your headline with the word “If.”
  25. Begin your headline with the word “Advice.”
  26. Use a testimonial-style headline.
  27. Offer the reader a test.
  28. Use a one-word headline.
  29. Use a two-word headline.
  30. Use a three-word headline.
  31. Warn the reader to delay buying.
  32. Let the manufacturer speak directly to the reader.
  33. Address your headline to a specific person or group.
  34. Have your headline ask a question.
  35. Offer benefits through facts and figures.

Hope this helps …

Yours for Bigger Winners, More Often,
Clayton Makepeace Signature
Clayton Makepeace
Publisher & Editor

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24 Responses to Great Moments in Advertising Part 5
John Caples Explains it All

  1. Garry says:

    The man was a genius.

    How many marketing graduates today could be bothered to read these goldmines?

    One I met described them as “old fashioned and no longer relevant in modern advertising”

    I am lucky enough to own all three. Incredibly, the Advertising Ideas” had been thrown in a rubbish skip!

    I’ve never moved so fast as when I rescued it.

    Talk about sacrilege

  2. Peter Black says:

    Clayton–and I mean in this in all sincerity–the only person who has improved on Caples is you. I read Caples assiduously for years, but never got the importance of putting emotions first from him, even though, as you rightly point out, he practised it himself. You won’t go terribly wrong just using Caples mechanically, but you probably won’t have many breakthroughs.

  3. Peter Black says:

    Clayton–and I mean in this in all sincerity–the only person who has improved on Caples is you. I read Caples assiduously for years, but never got the importance of putting emotions first from him, even though, as you rightly point out, he practised it himself. You won’t go terribly wrong just using Caples mechanically, but you probably won’t have many breakthroughs.

  4. Chad Kettner says:

    This is great stuff, Clayton. I’ve got about 30 books on my “to read” list, but Tested Advertising Methods has just jumped to the top of the list.

  5. Greg Gunter says:

    Here’s a fun little experiment I’ve enjoyed for years now:

    The next time some brand new Mass Comm or Advertising grad comes through your door looking for a job, ask them if they’ve read Caples, Hopkins, Kennedy (that one’ll get you some confused expressions), Reeves, Schwartz (Eugene AND Leo), Ogilvy, Don Schultz, Stone, Ries & Trout, and Peppers. (Throw in Roman & Maas, and Higgins, if you’re really feeling evil.)

    Then watch for the “deer in the headlights” look. 999 times out of 1000, you’ll see it.

    You’ll get the same reaction from your “Cheap-is-the-Only-Thing-That-Matters” competitors, too.

    I don’t have any of them memorized chapter-and-verse, but if you’re going to be in this craft, spend some time studying it. What you do should make a difference in your clients’ lives.

  6. Joe Swopes says:

    Great stuff man, Caples has some classic info. I have both tested advertising and making ads pay, as well as how to make your advertising make money. I don’t have the others, but I know they are good.

    Caples was the man lol.

  7. Hi Clayton,

    Thanks for posting some of the gems from one of our profession’s true masters!


  8. Susan Greene says:

    This article should be required reading for ad agency execs. I’ve worked for many agencies that felt a headline had to be cute and clever rather than have sale appeal. They were more interested in winning creative awards than generating sales.

    Thanks for the specific tips in this piece. Very helpful.

  9. Len says:

    Greg (Post #5) — Don’t forget Vic Schwab!

    Being Direct (by Lester Wunderman) is also a great read.

  10. Clayton,

    Thanks for condensing so many valuable Caples copywriting tips into one short article.

    Just studying this one post will put a a copywriter head and shoulders above all the others.

    Thanks again,
    Merrill Clark

  11. David says:

    When I was a student at University of California Santa Cruz, the faculty went on strike over the Vietnam War. Actually they got paid but didn’t have to teach their classes. That gave me about six weeks, uninterrupted by nonsense, to read and study all of Claude, Victor, John Caples, Robert Collier, Ogilvy, Maxwell Sackheim, Haldeman-Julius, and other favorites. You are doing a real service by boiling down these books and teachings into pithy essays.

    I keep all of Caples’ books handy. They are full of checklists that speed my writing. When I see the stupidity that passes for advertising today, I say to myself, “that person never read claude, maxwell, victor or john. What a waste.”

    When I ran a business right out of college, ad agencies would sometimes approach me about doing space ads and dm. I would sometimes ask the ad man, “which of the classic books on mail order advertisng and direct mail do you use most often?” I should have kept an album of their responses.

  12. Greg Gunter says:

    Len (Post #9) – Absolutely. I haven’t read Wunderman, but will at some point. It’s the re-reading that’s tricky to get around to.

    Some time ago, Clayton sent me his recommended reading list. Ask him if he wouldn’t mind posting it to this site somewhere, perhaps as a blog entry so readers can add suggestions. That would be a great thread to come back to.


  13. Greg Gunter says:

    Right on, Susan. (Post #8) Same here. In fact, I was VP of one. Cutesy, clever little headlines and broadcast intros & tags that didn’t have a thing to do with pulling or moving qualified buyers. I used to write a lot of that dreck myself. “High school creative.” But I have been reborn!

  14. Solomon says:

    Hi Clayton,
    I like to read all the books. Here in India, they’re not available. I’ll purchase little later, as I’m little short of money. But, I genuinely feel your interpretation of their works in view of the current situation is necessary.
    Just like this article. Keep inspiring us with your great articles!

  15. Grahame says:

    Thanks for a great post, Clayton.

    Here is another Caples classic I hardly ever see mentioned:

    How To Make Your Advertising Make Money

  16. Chris West says:

    Clayton Steps into the box,
    He swings and and its a hit high into the outfield
    its going, going, GONE

    Another Home run post.

    Thanks for Caples article – its true gold!
    And thanks for the links to his books – I am due for
    a new one.


  17. Peter Black says:

    Hey, Clayton…how do you feel about the word “revenge” in headlines?

    Especially round about now in financial markets…

  18. Garry says:

    Another great one is “Advertising Copy” by George Burton Hotchkiss. Apparently it was the text book for the advertising course that set JC on to the path to greatness

    In ” Making Ads Pay” Caples shows how a passage in that book inspired the “they laughed when I sat at the piano” ad.

    Brilliant 1920′s book (about 500 pages) and much cheaper than Mr Caples’ own books.


  19. Mike says:

    Another great post and another great reminder of things forgotten…

  20. DunCAN says:

    I love it. The summary at the end is now printed and laminated as a little ‘cheat sheet’

    Excellent info as usual on this site

    many thanks,
    “budding copy writer”

  21. Wendy Makepeace says:

    Post #12, Greg – and anyone else who wants Clayton’s recommended reading list.

    Just a reminder, that if you go to the links right at the top of this page (below the TTP masthead) under Copywriting Tools, you’ll see “Recommended Reading”.

    Everyone really should take a look at all the special links under Copywriting Tools. You’ll find a lot of great resources FREE from The Total Package.

    Want something else added? Just post me your suggestions!

  22. Clayton,

    Please read that profitable ad sent to you by Sears Roebuck.

    The guy is trying to make you richer than Warren Buffett.

    Is that second person or third person?

    Love you man.


  23. Peter says:

    This is absolute GOLD and will be posted above my monitor. You know what though? I feel after reading this that I must have violated EVERY headline rule there is on my own copy. Bad Peter!.

  24. Pingback: Business Marketing Strategies

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