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:
Patients are administered a local anesthesia, consisting of an injection of anesthetic in the muscle (not a spinal block). Then, with the help of x-ray fluoroscopy and a magnified video for guidance, a small specially designed endoscopic probe is inserted through the skin of the back, between the vertebrae and into the herniated disc space. Tiny surgical attachments are then sent down the hollow center of the probe to remove a portion of the offending disc …
I was reminded of a story told to me by Seattle direct marketing whiz Bob Hacker, who was called in by a group of eye surgeons that practiced radial keratotomy. Their new brochure had bombed big time, and they couldn't figure out why. Hacker glanced at the copy, and he spotted this deal killer of a line: What's more, when we cut into your eye, it doesn't hurt nearly as much as you think it will.
So what should the message be from the New York Back Institute? I would "steal smart," citing research from MayoClinic.com:
Most people will have back pain sometime during life. And 90 percent of these people will get better, without treatment or with conservative therapy for four to six weeks. Only 5 percent remain disabled longer than three months.
At the New York Back Institute, you will receive a thorough examination including, if necessary, an MRI, to determine precisely what the best treatment is for your specific kind of back pain.
In short, would I trust the New York Back Institute?
Not on your tintype.
Denny Hatch is a freelance direct marketing consultant and copywriter, and author of the e-mail newsletter, Denny Hatch's Business Common Sense. Visit him at www.businesscommonsense.com or www.dennyhatch.com, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.