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  Category: Articles » Careers & Jobs » Article

Learn to write ad copy

By Alex A. Kecskes

You've always wanted to learn ad copywriting, to make big money writing ads, radio and TV spots. Here are a few closely guarded secrets to successful ad copy. What to say and what to avoid. In short, how to craft a compelling ad that sells.

It's hard and it's easy. That is, once you learn the basics and practice, practice, practice, it's not that difficult to write effective ad copy. I learned my craft in an ad agency, listening to the experts, and talking to consumers in stores and shopping malls. I also learned some very important lessons in the least likely of places--a screenwriting class on dialog writing. The class stressed three things I'll never forget: How to write the way people talk; how to convey convincing information; and how to do all this using the least number of words. Mastering all three at the same time was tough. It took years of practice. But the results were worth it. I now write ad copy for ad agencies and Fortune 500 companies. I make good money. And I enjoy every minute of it. If you want to be a successful ad copywriter, you'll have to start with the following basic principles.

The 80-20 rule

Simply put, 80% of the people only read the headline of your ad (and maybe a caption, if you have one). That doesn't mean they won't read your long-copy ad. One McGraw-Hill study looked at 3,597 ads in 26 business magazines. What they discovered was that ads with 300 or more words were more effective that shorter ads in creating product awareness, inducing action and reinforcing the decision to buy. Another ad for Merrill Lynch crammed 6, 450 words into a single New York Times page. It pulled over 10,000 responses—even without a coupon! The truth is, the reason people read ads has nothing to do with copy length.

Tell customers what they want to know

Impressive sounding features are fine to motivate your sales force, but your customer is only interested in one thing: "What's in it for me?" This offense is particularly egregious in business-to-business advertising, which is infamous for its addiction to phrases like "the XP90 does it all" or "now with Duo-Pentium Processor"—without a hint of what these features do. Also contaminating many of today's ads are such chest-pounding headlines as "Taking the lead," "The promise of tomorrow, today," or "A tradition of quality." They sound good but say nothing.

Don't be boring

You've got to break the boredom barrier—big time. Many ad gurus say blend in, be one of the pack and survive. No wonder so many ads look alike, proudly showing big pictures of their products, or worse yet, featuring a giant photo of the company's CEO—usually with a caption that's been scrubbed clean of originality or compelling information. If you want people to stop and read your ad, you have to make the ad more interesting than the editorials in the publication you're in. Give them real news, a fresh new way to look at what you're offering them. Stand out from the crowd. Start trends, don't follow them. One of the most interesting car ads I ever saw showed the car only sparingly; instead, it featured an animation of a human heart beating furiously to the soundtrack of an accelerating engine. Breakthrough stuff.

Make human contact

They're not reaching readers on an emotional level. We all want to be liked, appreciated and loved. We want to feel secure in our lives and our jobs. So be a mensch. Create ads that touch the soul. Use an emotional appeal in your visual, headline and copy. Don't just show a car on the road; show the guy captivating his sweetheart with the car. If your buyers were on the moon, would they care about your car's styling? No. They'd get an ugly, crawly vehicle that got them from crater to crater. Selling computers to business? Show the guy getting a raise or promotion for selecting your latest model. You're selling the emotional end result, the human need-based bottom line, not a box, or vehicle with four wheels and an engine.
About the Author
Alex Kecskes offers an online course in advertising, which includes valuable critiques of your writing. Visit for more information and samples of his work.

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