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Ghosts in the typewriter: 13 lessons from dead copywriters still live



Written by by Jacki Sturkie AHA! 

Truth blasts from the past

On the 28th floor of the world’s third largest advertising agency in the ‘90s, a truth emerged: The breakthrough radio spot I wrote really wasn’t. I had stumbled across a 1940s radio script for Cleartone Radio & TV Service, a radio repair shop in Columbia, South Carolina. Except for the onion skin paper, the words were nearly the same. What a letdown. I thought the copy I wrote was so original. David Ogilvy would have said I was wasting time “worshipping at the altar of creativity.”

On the sixth floor of one of the largest agencies in the Portland, Oregon, area, on a foggy day 19 years later, more truth arrived. This time from 13 Damn Good Ideas from 13 Dead Copywriters,” a blog post by Demian Farnworth, Copyblogger Media’s chief copywriter. With another sigh, I wondered, Am I still “worshipping” creativity and pining to write something truly breakthrough?Of course. But to produce fresh creative that differentiates, time-tested practices still apply. Thirteen dead guys told me so.

Look back and learn

There are reasons why the tactics and practices from 13 dead copywriters are still alive and well—they’re timeless and effective, whether you’re writing for radio or digital media. Take a look at the longevity of practices that are still alive now. Unique selling propositions? 85 years old and still essential. Content marketing? Sounds very current, but it’s actually 100 years old. Differentiation? Alive and well, but originated in the ’40s. Copywriters perform these practices each day, not realizing these ideas have earned their place in creative history. 

Just consider that these dead guys built advertising empires during the Great Depression. Magazines like Food & Wine and New York wouldn’t exist right now had it not been for copywriter Bill Jayme (1926–2001). How many copywriters can claim that their headline outlasted many businesses? Maxwell Sackheim (1890–1992) can. His headline: “Do You Make These Mistakes in English?” effectively hit a nerve—the human nature of avoiding embarrassment. The headline ran for 40 years and convinced 150,000 people to sign up for a mail-order English course.

Refresh your mind

Reading the 13 dead copywriters blog is like taking a long mental inhale of coffee beans to cleanse your copywriter palate and give you some fresh, yet tried-and-true things to think about. Here’s a quick rundown of best practices that are still like new:

  • Make people look cool: John Caples (1900–1990)
  • Lead with desire: Eugene Schwartz (1927–1995)
  • Tap into pain points: Mel Martin (?–1993)
  • Content marketing: Victor Schwab (1898–1980)
  • Storytelling: Leo Burnett (1891–1971)
  • Unique selling proposition: Rosser Reeves (1910–1984)
  • Differentiation: Albert Lasker (1880–1952) 

Let the ideas of 13 dead copywriters breathe new life into your next inspiration. Sure, they thought of the practices first. We think. Who’s to say that before these 13 writers were evenborn, prehistoric cave drawings weren’t actually early billboards selling a story: “Dinner escaped again? Spears now 33% sharper.”

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