Famous Last Words: Shooting Ourselves in the Foot (Again)
A number of years ago, a bunch of direct mail writers were kicking around the idea of giving each other awards for creativity. They came up with the Caples Awards, named for the legendary John Caples (1900-1990), author of the classic “Tested Advertising Methods,” and the iconic headline, “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano, But When I Started to Play!—”
Having a soft spot in his heart for direct marketing writers, Caples OKed the use of his name for the awards.
In the old days, the Caples Awards were funky and fun—a shoestring operation to which the freelance community contributed time creating calls for entries, judging the creative efforts and putting on the awards lunch.
Unfortunately, the big direct marketing agencies saw the Caples as an opportunity to give each other awards that would impress prospects and each other. The freelancer founders were so delighted to have this work taken off their hands that they let the big players assume control.
About the cover of the 1993 call for entries (shown here) Precision Communications CEO Thomas Lix wrote:
I found it offensive, certainly in poor taste and not very effective. It did get my attention (and also the attention of my 8-year-old who was looking for anything addressed to him). The Caples Award is an industry award. As an industry, we can do much better.
Direct mail veteran Axel Andersson, a friend of Caples, wrote me:
John Caples would turn over in his grave if he saw the brochure. Attracting the wrong audience is one of the big sins he points out in his books. “Do not inflate your readership by attracting curiosity seekers at the expense of losing customers,” he writes on page 4 of “Making Ads Pay.” So are blind headlines that require reading of the copy to decipher. “For every curiosity headline that succeeds in pulling results, a dozen will fail,” he warns on page 20 in “Tested Advertising Methods.”
The 2006 Call for Entries
This year’s effort is even more of an embarrassment and disrespectful of Caples and the art and craft of direct marketing. (Disclosure: Target Marketing is a sponsor of the Caples awards program.) The coffee-stained memo was sent to Jerold Heisler, a 45-year veteran of the business. It bore the following message in big black Pentel hand lettering: “Jerold, saved this from the trash — it seems that you’re hotter than backstage at a bikini contest.” Heisler e-mailed me the piece along with a copy of the note he sent to the Caples committee that said in part:
While I am no prude, this is one of the most tasteless mailings I have received in a long time. One paragraph reads as follows: “Legend has it that one of Jerold’s direct mail pieces was so good that the recipient’s wife left him for the mailman. In my next life I’m coming back as an envelope so Jerold can lick me.”
While I did not know John Caples, no doubt he would be ashamed to have a mailing like this go out under his name, and I believe you also should be ashamed.
Beyond this poor copy is the fact that you’re soliciting me because I supposedly have an agency that does outstanding creative work. The fact is, I do not have an agency and spent my career in the list business doing consulting and training. That’s a fact that should be readily obtainable from the DMA database.
Our industry seems intent on shooting ourselves in the foot.
At the bottom of this “cute, clever” memo is another big black Pentel message:
“They’re calling you the midwife because you always deliver!"
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter. Visit him at www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.