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Are You Writing for Spiders?

Meet Mel Martin, Master of Fascinations

Vol. 7, Issue No. 9 | July 12, 2011 By Denny Hatch
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I have spent the past 50 years as a copywriter. OK, I also ran book clubs, started a newsletter about junk mail, wrote eight books of fiction and nonfiction and launched this publication.

But my bread-and-butter has always been writing copy. I learned to start with a headline that grabbed the reader by the throat, and then create copy that won't let up until I get the order, inquiry or donation.

Look at the Google entries IN THE NEWS at the right. Search Engine Optimization is the current rage—grabbing the attention of spiders and crawlers in the hopes that the message will surface all over the Internet.

Yet it's flesh-and-blood people that want information, spend money on goodies and give to charity—not emotionless, pre-programmed electronic robots.

Go ahead, fascinate robots. But if your message is a bore, you are a mouse click away from oblivion.

Call me Luddite or troglodyte, but I will continue to write headlines and copy for people, not robots.

And I'll study the work of the great copywriters, such as Mel Martin.

"Mel was one of the world's greatest copywriters, and nobody has ever heard of him." Brian Kurtz, Vice President, Boardroom, Inc.

Mel who?

Mel Martin, master of Fascinations.


Fascinations. Teasers. Taking an old-fashioned teaser—usually found on an envelope—and stuffing an entire mailing full of them, nakedly appealing to the emotions that scare people and drive them to action.

The Beginnings
The tortuous trek of Mel Martin from laborer in the vineyards of advertising and publishing to rarefied heights in the pantheon of the greatest direct mail copywriters who ever lived began modestly enough at the Sussman & Sugar agency and, thereafter, at the Friend-Reiss agency.

It was at Friend-Reiss in the late 50s that he used to be called on by Martin Edelston, an aggressive young advertising salesman for Max Ascoli's now defunct Reporter magazine. Two decades later, that meeting would be to newsletter publishing what Ben & Jerry were to ice cream.

In the early 70s, Mel Martin was hired as a copywriter by Herb Nagourney, the toothy publisher of The New York Times book division whose business was built on running coupon ads in unsold space in the Times. While there, Martin created what Edelston considered to be some of the greatest book advertising ever written. "I would love to go through the Times on microfiche and find those ads," Edelston says. "Each was masterpiece."

Takeaways to Consider

  • "Go for points of maximum anxiety," Agora publisher Bill Bonner told me. In other words, figure out what is keeping the reader awake at two in the morning and go for the emotional jugular.
  • Points of maximum anxiety were Mel Martin’s specialty.
  • Mel Martin took it one step further. He created all kinds of fearful scenarios (What never to eat on an airplane; Supermarkets: shocking new rip-offs; What credit card companies don’t tell you.) that you probably never would have thought of.
  • Study Mel Martin's copy. Short, interruptive paragraphs—often with each paragraph only a sentence long. No paragraphs longer than seven lines. In it, you will find all of Bob Hacker’s seven key copy drivers: Fear, Greed, Guilt, Anger, Exclusivity, Salvation and Flattery.
  • You can't get bored with the copy; if one thing doesn't interest you, your eye flicks down to something that grabs you by the throat.
  • Knotty concerns—many of them hibernating in our subconscious—suddenly bubble to the surface.
  • What's more, Mel Martin copy gives nothing away—with the possible exception of heartburn and angst. He poses questions and teasers, but if you want the answers, buy the product.
  • The copy is like eating peanuts; once you start, you can't stop. Unless, of course, it's to order the product—which, in the case of Bottom Line/Personal, more than a million people did. Nothing subtle. Nothing cute. Nothing tough to figure out. Just pages and pages of brickbats.


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