Copywriters: How to Steal For Fun and Profit
“I have kleptomania. But when it gets bad, I take something for it.”
– Robert Benchley
– Robert Benchley
Way back, great copywriter John Caples got invited to give a speech about his career.
Don’t quote me on this, but I think it was at his own eponymously named “Caples Award” dinner.
He, of course, started off by telling the story everybody wanted to hear…
About the crafting of his most famous headline ever and the one that pretty much launched his career.
You know the one… say it with me, in a glorious chorus of instant, adulatory recall…
“They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play! –”
The legendary ad then goes on to tell the story of Jack — “up to his old tricks” — who wows the crowd that had no idea he could tickle the ivories.
Praise and glory are his, by the bucket. And lucky for us, the course that made him great is for sale.
Years later, our buddy in crime and future entrant into copywriting Valhalla, Clayton Makepeace, would on to call that ad the “Stairway to Heaven” of all copywriting.
It would also be the piece that earned Caples a 56-year-career in advertising.
But then, Caples went on to tell the rapt crowd, there were other successes, such as…
“They Grinned When the Waiter Spoke to Me In French, But the Laughter Changed to Amazement at My Reply…”
“They Thought I Was Crazy to Ship Live Maine Lobsters As Far as 1,800 Miles From the Ocean…”
HE WENT ON, BUT DO YOU NOTICE THE PATTERN?
In 1926, when Caples had to sell that piano course, he realized that the best way to do it was NOT to sell a course on how to play the piano.
Rather, it was to sell the feeling of how great it would be to win great and instant respect, as Jack did, when he sat down and stunned ‘em all.
He did the same again in the ad selling a French language course, which also followed with the story of a presumed clod who… it turns out… wasn’t, in a French restaurant.
And again, when his ad about shipping Maine lobsters turned out to be — surprise, surprise — a great, respect-winning idea.
The biggest thief of Caples work — in other words — was Caples himself.
That’s probably not true anymore.
In fact, others started ripping off Caples almost immediately. just four years after his piano ad ran, in 1930, this came out for a public speaking course:
“They Snickered When I Got Up To Speak” – But from the First Word, I Held Them Spellbound”
Since then, you can barely throw a rock without hitting some copywriter that’s trying, yet again, a “They laughed…” rip-off.
(And when you throw that rock, throw it hard — because, sorry folks, that line is so oft-borrowed it’s now cliché. Then again… test, test test, right?)
But, I know what you’re thinking…
IS THAT REALLY OKAY, TO “BORROW” GREATNESS?
Caples wasn’t the only advertising legend willing to borrow an idea — his or otherwise.
Take David Ogilvy’s great ad:
“At 60 Miles an Hour, the Loudest Noise In This New Rolls-Royce Comes From the Electric Clock…”
It takes exactly what Rolls-Royce is all about and elevates it to a “showing” moment. You’re instantly in that car seat, experiencing the craftsmanship, in your mind.
So how did he come up with it?
In the first line of the ad copy itself, he credits it to an article he read about the car. And then, he says so again, in a 1977 interview:
“I didn’t write that headline. It’s a quotation from an article which appeared about 20 years before in an English automobile magazine.”
Ogilvy’s great feat was spotting the hook when he spotted it. A perfectly respectable accomplishment.
And it takes away nothing to point out, that he’s not the only one who made it.
See, Ogilvy wrote that ad in 1958.
The magazine he mentioned did come out long before that, but — as it happens — the writer behind the article was ALSO inspired by something he’d seen elsewhere.
Here, in a 1933 ad for the Pierce-Arrow, is the headline:
“The only sound one can hear in the new Pierce-Arrows is the ticking of the electric clock…”
Keep in mind, even if Ogilvy had known there was a more direct route — skipping the article and looking back, instead, at the original ad — that 25 year gap would be just like you or I going back and looking at which ads worked in 1990, back when there was still only one Iraq War… one President named Bush… and before we all had any concept of email, iPhones, or the Internet.
In other words, Ogilvy too would have been simply studying a swipe-file classic to see what might work.
As did Ford, in this ad that they ran seven years after Ogilvy had already come and gone with the his piece…
“The 1965 Ford Rides Quieter Than the Rolls Royce!”
Or how about this ad for the Zippo Lighter…
“Pulitzer Prize author, MacKinlay Kantor, has used this Zippo lighter since 1951. It still works today.”
And this one…
“The amazing story of a Zippo that worked after being taken from the belly of a fish.”
Both ads went on to tell the story of a Zippo Lighter which, against incredible odds, keeps on working.
Both ads were by Ogilvy. Of course.
Roll back to childhood and ask yourself, how many variations of the “Timex: Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking” ads do you remember?
If you’re younger, just think about all those “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” ads and you’ve got the same idea.
Or how many variations have their been of the famous “Tale of Two Men..” ad, the one by Martin Conroy that sold $2 billion worth of Wall Street Journal subscriptions?
There’s not the space to show it here, but in all those cases, it’s not just the opening shot that’s copied… but the whole battle plan. That is, the structure of the piece from start to finish.
Isn’t this… illegal… or something?
The right answer is… it depends.
That is, if you’re lifting an ad word for word from somebody else, so as to do no work of your own… and then selling it as your own creation… that’s at least against the laws of nature, if not against some other kind of law.
But looking to other great ads to get the feel for a tone… to reverse engineer a skeleton on which your own copy can hang… even to riff on a brilliant past headline, provided you’re not the umpteenth person to do so…
All the above is not only “just fine,” it’s why we keep swipe files in the first place.
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