Famous Last Words: Right Subject, Wrong Message
"The headline selects the reader," said direct mail guru Axel Andersson.
The headline of this ad selected me. My lower back had gone out, and I was lying on the floor in pain with The New York Times— a cumbersome broadsheet format that is not easy to read in the supine position. When I spotted this advertisement, I read every word twice and got the message:
If you have back pain, a nameless board-certified neurosurgeon out of Yale will happily perform a kind of newfangled surgery on you.
I know about back surgery. In 1992, a piece of bone split off my back and pressed on my sciatic nerve. I was in excruciating pain for several weeks. After an MRI, I was carried into Stamford (Conn.) Hospital and following arthroscopic surgery, walked out on my own three days later. It was a miracle!
My wife, Peggy, and I moved to Philadelphia, and some years ago her back went out. Our general practitioner put her in touch with a back surgeon who wanted to operate. We were ready to go along with him, when a doctor friend urged us to see Dr. William Staas, president of the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's Magee Rehabilitation facility. This marvelous, gentle and brilliant man determined that surgery was not necessary.
The first thing he did was prescribe powerful painkillers. When the pain was under control, Peggy went to the Magee rehab facility a mile from our house. In six weeks after working with therapists and trainers, her back was fine.
"If the guy had operated, what would he have done?" I asked Staas.
"Back surgery is like going into a delicatessen," Staas replied. "You'll always find something."
Out of curiosity, I went on the New York Back Institute Web site, and here is what I learned: