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The Curse of Know-Nothing Marketers

A profusion of ads with blind headlines and no headlines

Vol. 7, Issue No. 8 | June 7, 2011 By Denny Hatch
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“FINALLY after 50 years our patients have a choice.”
If you have an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation not caused by a heart valve problem ask your doctor about PRADAXA.

—Headline and deck, full-page broadsheet ad for Pradaxa
The New York Times, Friday, May 13, 2011
What triggered this column was a full-page advertisement in The New York Times for Pradaxa, a drug designed to treat a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which has just been cleared for launch into the marketplace.

The stakes are huge. One pharmaceutical analyst predicted that by 2018, Pradaxa will generate blockbuster revenues of $1.38 billion.

The headline of the ad and deck are shown in the IN THE NEWS box at right.

It is immediately obvious that Pradaxa hired rank amateurs to create its print campaign.

Clearly, neither advertiser nor agency nor creative people had a clue what they were doing. The ad breaks the most basic rule of advertising, which means that it was flat out missed by many of the very patients it was aiming to reach.

Direct Marketing Today: An Industry Relying on On-the-Job Guessing
At a dinner with Russell Perkins—founder of InfoCommerce and one of the savviest people I know in the communications business—we got talking about the twenty-somethings who were hired during the dot-com expansion years without ever having learned the rules of marketing, copy or design.

During that period, a vast army of new hires never had proper mentoring—either because the potential mentors were absorbed in other things or didn’t know the rules either.

As an example, Perkins cited a recent, heavily-attended marketing conference where the speaker described a remarkable discovery he had made.

He got the idea of testing two offers—one against the other—to see which was the better offer.

Splitting his test list into two equal sections, he called one half the "A group" and the other half the "B group," he told the assembled attendees.

"Then I made one offer to the A group and the other offer to the B group. One was a winner, so we went with that." He added, "I called my new discovery the A-B Split Test."

Russell looked around and saw everybody busily scribbling down these hard diamonds of wisdom coming from the dais. A-B Split Test! Wow! That's brilliant! was the reaction throughout the room.

The A/B split has been around for 100 years. It is the very first thing a direct marketer should learn—either in school or on the job.

"The Holy Grail of direct marketing," wrote entrepreneur-consultant Don Nicholas, "is the single variable test."

Takeaways to Consider

  • "The headline selects the reader.” —Axel Andersson, direct marketing guru, founder of the Axel Andersson Akademie, Hamburg
  • “The headline is the ‘ticket on the meat’. Use it to flag down readers who are prospects for the kind of product you are advertising. If you are selling a remedy for bladder weakness, display the words BLADDER WEAKNESS in your headline; they catch the eye of everyone who suffers from this inconvenience. If you want mothers to read your advertisement, display MOTHERS in your headline. And so on.” —David Ogilvy
  • “On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your advertising dollar.” —David Ogilvy
  • “Avoid blind headlines—the kind which mean nothing unless you read the body copy underneath them; most people don’t.” —David Ogilvy
  • “The wickedest of all sins is to run an advertisement without a headline.” —David Ogilvy
  • “Always make it easy to order.” —Elsworth Howell, founder, Grolier Enterprises, Howell Book House
  • “God protect us from amateurs.” —Henry Castor, book salesman
  • Why are so many of today’s marketers and creatives—who don’t know squat and are taking money they don’t deserve—not only unapologetic but also arrogant?
  • “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.” —Benton & Bowles motto in the 1930s and 1940s


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