How to Write Insanely Effective Ad Copy and Rake in the Millions

I feel that I don’t do enough how-to tutorials for writers here on the blog. So today, an instant lesson in writing ad copy.

You may know that being able to write persuasive copy is a very lucrative niche. In some setups, the writer earns a commission on every sale made off their copy — forever. For however long that company uses that ad or direct-mail sales letter or landing page.

Hoping I’ve got your attention now. Let’s learn how to do this!

You can learn it by reading this one ad.

It began as a simple Craigslist ad from a guy who wanted to sell a beat-up, 17-year-old heap of a car. He got a copywriter friend to write the ad.

It became an Internet sensation that brought widespread acclaim to its author, who I’m confident can now name his price at any big ad agency in the U.S.A. (It also got banned off Craigslist, giving it even more hype and exposure than it probably would have had just sitting on Craigslist.)

First, just read this ad. Then, we’ll discuss.

It is reproduced exactly, except I’ve taken off the phone number so you won’t call and bother anybody:

OK, a brief pause while you all find a tissue to dab off the hysterical laughter tears that cover your face.

Now, let’s dissect this piece of brilliance. As unconventional as this car ad is, it actually employs all the basic features of a good ad (or product landing page, for that matter). What are these elements?

  1. An attention-getting headline. We’ve heard the name of Jesus taken many ways, but tap-dancing? And what’s that got to do with a car? After you see this headline, you’ve just got to read more.
  2. The unexpected. You don’t expect to hear the Lord mentioned in connection with selling a used car.  You have to read on just to find how these two concepts are related. This ad is also a complete crackup — you don’t expect humor in a car ad, so that’s an eyeball-grabber as well.
  3. Humor. Did I mention it’s funny? It’s freakin’ hilarous. Few people write humor well, but if you can, this ad shows why you should bring out your funny whenever possible. It’s so much more interesting to read this then if it were written straight, isn’t it? This ad carries through its off-kilter premise all the way, mentioning how the owner grew a beard in his attempt to be manly and Jesus-like in order to feel qualified to drive this car. It’s just…nuts.
  4. Overcoming objections. While you might object that you don’t want to be saddled with a broken-down old Grand Am, much less shell out $700 for it, this ad describes why you need this car. This car will change your life and make you into a desirable guy. That’s certainly worth $700, right?
  5. Creating scarcity. There is only one teal Grand Am for sale here, a fact that is repeatedly stressed. So time is short to get this “deal.”
  6. Make price look like a bargain. Instead of comparing the offered price to, say, the Kelly Blue Book for this make and model, it shows the price it would be worth to get those fabulous women, $199,999. Then the actual price, $700. This is a classic example of how to cast a purchase price in a favorable light. (Reminds me of, say, how my 4-Week Journalism School class packs a $30,000 year at Columbia into a month for under $300! You can see the value there, right?)
  7. Features closely tied to emotional benefits. Instead of saying, “This car has wheels, so it can take you wherever you want to go,” it tells you you will be the most desirable male on the planet if you drive this car. Women will want you — which of course is a big selling point in many car ads throughout history. By hitting the emotional reason men buy cars instead of just plugging direct benefits like “the air conditioning will keep you cool,” the car becomes a must-have rather than a sorta-desirable acquisition.
  8. Minimizing flaws while truthfully disclosing them. Did you catch that this car has a blown head gasket? It’s really going to be a nightmare for the next owner, but look how artfully he slipped that in, after you’re already all wrapped up in the car’s greatness.
  9. Using visuals. We writers often forget that it’s not always all about our precious words. The graphics you use in an ad are powerful as well. Here, the chart that shows how all Pontiac production peaked with this model is a hoax, but still serves as a visual cue that this is the best possible car, and it was all downhill after this one. The ad also visually relates driving a teal Grand Am to flying on a unicorn, creating a positive association to a mythical creature and thereby further building the myth that this Grand Am is the dream vehicle.
  10. Offering testimonials. Yes, the testimonials here are fake. But they serve as a reminder that strong, honest testimonials from real customers often sell better than reams of copy you could write about a product.

Why did I want to take the time to teach you about writing ads? Maybe you’re thinking, “Heck, I wanna write magazine articles.”

Yes, but all writers need to know how to write ads.

Why? Because you have a writer website. What do you think your landing page is on there?

That’s right. It’s an ad for you, and your writing services.

I’ve reviewed a heck of a lot of writer websites in Freelance Writers Den — we offer complimentary website reviews, did you know? — and I can tell you most of them are pretty bland.

So shake it up out there. Grab attention. Maybe even make people laugh. You just might find yourself riding a unicorn into the sunset while money from great-paying writing clients rains down on you from pink cotton-candy clouds.

Seen any good ads lately? If so, share us a link in the comments.

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26 comments on “How to Write Insanely Effective Ad Copy and Rake in the Millions
  1. I’m usually a bit skeptical of ads that make reference to the Lord since religion can be a touchy subject. You can never tell who might get offended, who doesn’t believe in religion, and who thinks the idea just doesn’t make sense. But I must admit, it’s a risk that worked in this case.
    Terri Huggins recently posted..One of the Most Under Appreciated Careers of All…

  2. Glen says:

    Carol,
    This is a brilliant ad. I love where this guy (or gal) is coming from. He instantly takes me to the place where I let down my guard, starting with the headline, which is obviously written by someone with a wicked wit.
    Thanks for sharing it.
    Glen

    “What? A Drummer Who Can Write?”
    Glen recently posted..A Drummer Who Can Write?

  3. Steve Maurer says:

    Great lesson, Carol!

    I’ve put reviewing my own site on my to-do list today. I really need to tweak my own ad for better results. I’m guessing that it falls into the bland category. No, it does fall into that category.

    Thanks for sharing this,
    Steve
    Steve Maurer recently posted..Are Discount Text Services Really That Effective?

  4. Kathy Kramer says:

    I’m struggling with the bio on my website. I’m probably over-thinking things, but I’m struggling between being catchy and sounding professional.

  5. Marcia says:

    Did he sell the car?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Interesting irony — at last report I saw he had not, but I’d imagine he has by now.

      Meanwhile, his friend who wrote the ad got something worth much more than $700 — a priceless piece for his portfolio that is sure to open a heck of a lot of doors.

      • Laura says:

        Oh boy… was just having a conversation about the “humor/creativity in copy” topic last night. I would say that it isn’t an irony the car hasn’t sold yet. Not even surprising. This guy apparently got so many responses his phone shut down – but he’s still trying to find someone who is actually interested in buying the car rather than applauding him for his humor.

        It’s a familiar story with high end ad agencies whose teams tend to be more obsessed with winning awards than making their clients profits. Claude Hopkins was no fool when he said, “People don’t buy from clowns.” Look into any premier copywriter of the day (and those from the past) such as Drayton Bird, David Ogilvy, Clayton Makepeace, Gary Bencivenga, etc and you’ll find they all advise refraining from making copy a comedy act.

        Carol is great, and honestly, the “guts” of this post are pertinent – I wholeheartedly agree that ads need to be eye-catching, exciting, laud benefits and lead the reader down a sensible train of thought to get them to buy (preferably with a time sensitive offer). The central framework of the ad is actually decent; but to go this far makes it into a parody rather than a real offer. Every day Mad Ave execs will be praised for having the most creative, intriguing and mystifying ads while their clients’ businesses suffer… so be extremely wary of turning your services into a joke.

        I’m sure this guy’s car will sell eventually, but I bet an old-fashioned ad centered around more realistic benefits would’ve made it go faster. If you get a moment you should check out Clayton Makepeace’s article “Advertising, Schmadvertising!” on his Total Package blog. Discusses how Nissan made the mistake of investing in a series of pretty ads that made their sales tank and how this sort of story gets repeated over and over again.

        • Carol Tice says:

          I do think this ad is an example of that syndrome — the ad became a star rather than being in service of the product. But as a writing sample to get a gig, it’s outstanding…which is worth way more than $700.

        • Sylvia says:

          I’m pretty sure Carol didn’t mean for us to turn our service websites into jokes. But certainly a little pizazz could help an otherwise BORING writer’s website.

          • Laura says:

            Totally agree on both accounts, just wanted to share a bit more on the topic since so many new writers learn from her site (it helped me immensely when I was beginning and obviously I’m still a reader now) and I didn’t want them to take this ad too literally as an example of “what works.”

          • Carol Tice says:

            That’s it exactly, Sylvia. Obviously, this ad takes it to an extreme…but doesn’t it just show you what we can do with our words? We can entertain, inspire, make people laugh, help them learn. We need to do it in a way that’s engaging.

  6. Pinar Tarhan says:

    You had my attention way before you talked about the potential sales percentages for the writer.
    I saved the page to refer to it whenever I work on a copy – but the question I have is the same with Marcia. Did it work? Oh, and why was it banned?
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted..Inspiration Caught This Freelance Writer Big Time

  7. Sylvia says:

    WOW! That’s all. Just WOW.

    Ok, that’s not all. That writer is a genius. Of course he could never get away with that with a real client. But as you said Carol, how does our own “ad” for our writer services websites compare? Bland? Oh yeah. I set up a second website just a few days ago for my niche, business plan writing, and after reading this blog post I need to rethink and shake things up. Talk about bland. Blah. http://freelancebusinessplan.com/

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah…bland is an epidemic out there. So we should all be thinking about how we can grab people, shake them, and say, this is who I am. I’m different, better, more fun. Don’t you want to work with me?

  8. Scott says:

    Definitely an attention getter! If the car sold, I’m curious to know what the purchaser thought of the car!

  9. Thanks for this tutorial. One of the skills I want to learn is how to write sales copy. Landing pages and Sales pages are also very high paying gigs.
    Clara Mathews recently posted..DIY Website Design for Freelancers: Choosing a Theme Template

  10. Lauri meyers says:

    The sheer breadth of the ad struck me. The fact Carol could make those 10 points from one ad was the surprise. The writer might have thought the exorbitant price joke was enough. But then he says ” let’s throw in a beard theme” and…and…and… The lesson for me is when you think something is done, look for one more add to make it sparkle.
    Lauri meyers recently posted..A Princess Book for a Dirty Girl

    • Carol Tice says:

      You know, I’m glad you bring this up — several times recently in the Den I’ve found myself looking over writer websites that start to throw a snappy theme or persona together, but it’s only in the headline and then the rest of the copy is very gray…and then it doesn’t work. If you’re making a bold statement, ALL of the copy in that ad has to pull that theme through.

  11. Hey Carol,

    I read somewhere, which I found pretty authoritative, that the headline of your ad must portray the biggest benefit and should not require readership of the rest of the advertisement to be understood. Since, it’s quite possible that many people won’t bother reading a long ad unless they are hit between the eyes by the headline.
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..The Top 10 Websites That Pay You To Write An Article

    • Carol Tice says:

      Good point, and that’s definitely one basic copy test this ad flunks. But if you think of it being amidst a ton of other Craigslist car ads, you could see how this would be the one that gets read, just because it’s so different. If it were a billboard or something where it stood alone, it definitely wouldn’t be good.

  12. Josh Monen says:

    OK this isn’t an ad but it’s a relevant article. It’s titled, “Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words.” While I don’t think Groupon is good for most small businesses I do think they employ some brilliant writers who know how to use humor and copywriting effectively. Interesting to note that Google wanted to buy them for $6 billion (overvalued in my opinion) when Groupon was only 2 years old. Here’s the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/business/29groupon.html?pagewanted=all
    Josh Monen recently posted..How To Use Email Marketing Effectively (Without Being a Spammer)

  13. After I was able to calm down from the laughing, I really appreciated that you found a diamond it the rough. It seems that most ads lack the inspiration to grab us, entertain us while subtly convincing us to buy something, but when they do, it is all I can do to admire the masterpiece.

    Thank you for sharing this ad – you have really made my day.
    Carly Saunders recently posted..Proxy Server Websites

  14. Nancy Kirby says:

    While this was very funny, as others have noted, I’m not sure how effective it really was as a sales piece. It risks offending those sensitive to religious humor, eliminates females as a target audience, but most importantly, in my opinion, it comes across as unprofessional with at least three spelling errors/ typos. This guy could benefit from a proofeader! Toned down versions of this type of humor are very the hallmark of Groupon so there’s definitely a market for humor writing, which is a tough skill — hard to learn. Seems like you either have it or you don’t! Lots of young writers are especially good at this!

  15. Kevin Mark says:

    I think we should not use the Lord’s name in such instances….it is not right. People should be creative in their own way but not through dragging the name of Jesus into it….

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m sure there had to be a distinct proportion of people who had that reaction to the ad, Kevin…but clearly that wasn’t the audience they were going for in this ad.

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