When Copywriters are Handed Lemons,
They Make Lemon Ice Cream

When you’re confronted with a copywriting problem, don’t despair. It could present an opportunity to convert trouble into an advantage.

You may have heard the classic tale of the mail-order marketer whose apple crop was damaged by a hailstorm. The apples at first appeared impossible to sell—until he hit upon the idea of advertising the hail marks as evidence that the apples were grown at a high altitude and were thus superior. It worked!

Decades ago, before the detailed “Nutrition Facts” labels that are now on every supermarket product, manufacturers were required only to identify the ingredients. Undoubtedly, some complied grudgingly. But one foodie entrepreneur had a brainstorm. He added the following words to his labels: “We are proud to list our ingredients.”

“Copywriter’s Roundtable” guru John Forde told me about the time he was assigned to write a direct-mail package for an investment advisory newsletter. The curmudgeonly advisor refused to recommend specific stocks, preferring to write more generally about market trends. Investors crave stock picks, so this was a potential catastrophe.

But rather than attempt to disguise the situation, John found an elegant solution. He positioned the advisor as being so wealthy and sophisticated that he didn’t need to “lower” himself to the level of touting stocks. The copy promoted the value of the master’s trend advice, which was paired in the newsletter with relevant stock ideas from the editors. The package pulled spectacularly.

I once pulled off such an alchemical coup myself …

When I was a full-time copywriter, a major client was Soundview Executive Book Summaries, a monthly print newsletter consisting of encapsulated versions of business books for time-pressed executives. (It’s now published online; details at www.summary.com.)

At the time, a prime source of new subscribers was space advertising in business media.

One day in 1997, marketing director Rob Carter reported a problem. In our ad, we quoted The Wall Street Journal’s accolade: “A Draconian answer for the prose-burdened executive … to what is becoming an increasingly irksome management problem: too much to read.”

But the Journal suddenly decreed that we couldn’t use the quotation unless we included the date it was published.

Soundview didn’t want to risk legal action or the loss of the Journal’s goodwill. Yet we were concerned that adding the date to the testimonial would make it appear obsolete. After all, the article containing this statement had appeared a while back—17 years earlier, in fact!

I had an idea. I wrote a new lead-in sentence:

In 1980, shortly after the debut of Executive Book Summaries,
The Wall Street Journal called it …

This adroit phrasing not only satisfied the Journal’s requirement but created a benefit, to boot. It implied that the publication must be good, because it had been around for such a long time.

The moral: Never be discouraged by disaster. A problem may well contain the seeds of its own solution. And as the above examples demonstrate, with a bit of ingenuity, you might even turn it into a triumph.

[Ed note: Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. In his AWAI program, The Versatile Freelancer, Don shows you, step-by-step, how to share what you know … and get paid for it! You can branch out into numerous lucrative and fun areas: consulting, copy critiquing, corporate training, public speaking, and more. Opportunities are everywhere, and the potential benefits are huge! Learn more.]

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: January 11, 2011

2 Responses to “When Copywriters are Handed Lemons, They Make Lemon Ice Cream”

  1. "But the Journal suddenly decreed that we couldn’t use the quotation unless we included the date it was published."

    Um, what?

    Quotations can and have always been ok to use.

    Guest (perry )

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