Anatomy of a Control: The Lure of the Sarcastic Intellect
Are you an intellectual and proud of it? You are if you read The New York Review of Books, suggests the five-year control mailing created by direct mail copywriter Josh Manheimer. One of the peel-and-stick response stickers that shows through the mailing's yellow outer envelope reads: "Yes! I'm an intellectual and proud of it. Send me 3 free issues!"
And, if you don't read the prestigious publication, you are essentially saying, "No, I don't like to think." The other sticker suggests, "Give my 3 free issues to someone who does."
That phrase suggests to the reader that these issues will be given away to someone else, says Donna Baier Stein, president of Baier Stein Direct, a copywriting firm and consultancy in Peapack, NJ, and causes him to think, "'Who's that someone else going to be?' If part of marketing's message is to make you, the prospect, one up on the Joneses, then why would I want my neighbor (who's nowhere near as smart as me anyway) to have an opportunity I pass up?"
These stickers combine with the outer envelope's message, "The Last Outpost for People Who Like to Think," to create elements of a long-standing acquisition control. In fact, while the response stickers and outer envelope have changed somewhat over the last several years (the outer is now white and reads "The favor of a response is requested"), The New York Review's recent mailings have retained most elements of the former control.
The "Last Outpost" message, which appears in the letter of current mailings in a Johnson Box, says Stein, "is kind of slyly making fun of direct marketing 'tricks'putting the fear of God into people, playing on the FUD factor (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Is this my last chance to feel like or be an intellectual?"
An Inside Joke
Stein has used the mailing as an example of successful direct mail techniques in copywriting seminars she has taught. "The whole tone of the package is a nice mix of sarcasm and empathy," she says. "It brings the reader into the joke [and] makes for intimacy, which leads to sales."
This intimacy with the reader was exactly what Manheimer was striving for in creating the piece. "You want to use language in a way that meets them on their emotional level ... and that rocks them a little," he explains.
"I tried to use a lot of snob appeal and a little tongue-in-cheek," he says. "I took the idea of exclusivity and turned it on its head."
The New York Review of Books, he suggests, "is not as accessible as The New Yorker. People know they're certainly reading something that other people aren't. This was a really good way of reinforcing the idea that this
audience is smarter than everyone else, and they're proud of it."
A Hook for the Content
For a magazine that has been known to run 30-page stories, "It would be a mistake to try to sell this with a lot of words," says Manheimer. "You can't get in-depth enough about the articles in a two-page letter." So, instead, Manheimer and a staff designer at The Review created a brochure built around the illustrations of the magazine's longtime caricaturist, David Levine.
The copy in the insert focuses on the most notable writers and the most interesting (and timeless) stories they have contributed. "I really wanted to have people get excited about the incredible breadth of writers, and to convey that this is the publication where leading intellectuals go to get the word out and make an impact. Other magazines were cutting story lengths to make room for more gossip, but not The New York Review," says Manheimer.
The copy in both the brochure and the letter was intentionally not focused on very timely articles, explains Manheimer, because "if you try to speak about specific articles, it gets quickly out of date."
Letter and Lift: An Eloquent Pair
The letter, like the outer envelope, plays on readers' intellect and the idea of exclusive exposure to "secret" articles. It opens with the greeting: "Dear Intellectual Dinosaur," and a first paragraph that reads: "It's the periodical in which Václav Havel, while locked in prison, published articles via the Czech underground (and which continued to publish his work once he'd moved to the Presidential office)."
The "Dear Intellectual Dinosaur" salutation, says Stein, "recognizes the downward spin of some parts of American culturethe talk shows, the 'gossip and titillating photos' of ... other magazines, mentioned in a second Johnson Box."
While recent mailings reflect a new salutation"Dear (Intellectual) Reader"the letter has remained predominantly the same.
The letter continues with its highbrow appeal throughout. The fourth paragraph reads: "It is, in short, the English language's preeminent journal of cultural discoursewhere you can park yourself amid the swirling debates over ideas and engage in a spirited exchange with the world's most esteemed writers, artists, and political figures."
The letter's eloquence matches the magazine's tone and the targeted readers' literary expectations. It uses phrases such as "if you will," and opens sentences with words like "indeed," and even contains the word "erudition," which "is fun [and], again, an inside joke," says Stein.
Alliteration is injected at appropriate moments, such as in the second Johnson Box, which reads: "... there is still one publication that remains above the slag and scum and sediment that pass for serious writing today."
The Johnson Box closes with the phrase, "Perhaps you've heard of us?"
For Manheimer, it was elements like this Johnson Box that made creating the piece so much fun. "It is one of my favorite packages," he says. "It's unusual to be able to write something like that and have them not change it; usually [other clients] will try to water it down, but they didn't."
Stein adds, "I love the reference to 'slag and scum and sediment'nice alliteration, FUN wordsthe reader wants to say them out loud. ... People enjoy reading things that are well-written."
The package also contains a lift note from the publisher with a bright-red cover featuring the copy: "Are you afraid to think?" in large, white type. Inside, the note's first sentence reads, "Who today has the courage to think? Frankly, not many."
The lift reinforces the magazine's boldness in publishing articles that no other magazines would dare run and that no other readers would have the intelligence or predilection to read. "The whole idea of the lift was that the readers have the courage to have ideas served to them in a way that challenges them," says Manheimer.
Another strong element of the lift is the description of "the typical well-educated, well-traveled, well-read New York Review subscriber," who has "purchased 37 books over the last 12 months." (In current mailings, the number of books purchased has risen to 44.) "I wanted [the lift to say to prospects], 'I know who you are, and you're smartyou read 37 books a year,'" explains Manheimer.
The lift's last paragraph hits readers hard with its elitist appeal: "For almost 40 years the Review has taken the high ground. Now it is your chance to see the view from above."
An Offer That's Hard to Resist
Aside from the incentive of holding fast to your ability to think, the mailing's offer has changed in recent years. The Manheimer control offered a free mini subscription and a subscription rate of $25.97, a savings of more than 60-percent off the newsstand price and 50-percent off the regular subscription price.
More recent mailings offer just one comp copy, plus a full year (20 issues) of the magazine for $29.97 (in 1999 and 2000) and $32 (in 2001 and 2002). They also offer a premiuma free bookwhich was not offered in the original control mailing.
In case readers aren't lured by the lyrical writing style of the letter or the lift, three testimonials (one of which has changed from Manheimer's mailing) appear just before the close of the letter, including one from New York magazine, which calls The Review " ... a beacon of intellect in the postmodern fog."
More testimonials appear on the back of the order form, from the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Spectator.
Such praise, along with such an appealing letter and humorous approach to the reply stickers, certainly made this control's offer a difficult one to resist.