They laughed as I sat down at the keyboard, but when I began to email…

The headline above was the title of my white paper about email marketing. I wrote it over 15 years ago in the dim dark 1990’s. It eventually evolved into my book, Email Marketing Made Easy.


For those of you who know your marketing history, the headline was a complete rip-off of John Caples’ famous “They laughed as I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play!“. I even used a similar visual. And I gave away thousands of the white papers. To quote Drayton Bird, who I believe quoted my old boss David Ogilvy, “search the world and steal the best”.

So it was interesting to receive this article from my friend Patrick Collister, publisher of that brilliant creative resource The Directory. It refers to the famous ad by John Caples – see below. Caples was an advertising pioneer – and one of the world’s most prestigious advertising award programmes is named after him. The article claims the driving force behind much of the internet’s viral content is in fact, this 1926 advertisement.

John Caples piano ad

And the article’s right. There is almost nothing new online. People are doing the same things they have always done, just faster, with more people (most of whom they don’t know) and in greater volume.

The blank screen of death

But the key to the success of the ad, is what all good copywriters know when faced with the dreaded blank screen of death as they start to write. I’ll quote the article:

“What Caples understood first was that creating the piano ad was not simply about selling piano lessons to those who did not know how to play. Rather, he captured his audience with the promise of emotional benefit; the boy in the ad feels emotion after successfully playing the piano when no one believed in him, and those reading the ad are encouraged to be proud of him and want to replicate that same emotion for themselves (“maybe I can learn how to play the piano, and that can be me!”)”

People buy emotionally and justify rationally

People always buy emotionally and justify rationally. And that applies to all purchases, whether they buy in a retail store, online or the phone. Think of what your friends or colleagues do after they buy a new car for example. For the following month they completely bore you and their FB friends to death, justifying the purchase with rational facts eg I got a great trade-in, or the dealer gave me free cup-holders, or it goes from zero to 100 mph in 3.6 seconds.

What they rarely do is say “I bought the red sports car because I think I look cool when sitting at the lights and it will help me attract chicks.” Oops I just realised I once owned a red sports car. Let’s not go there.

red sports car

The headlines on your website, in your subject line, your PPC ads, your white papers, in fact all your content marketing, must contain an emotional benefit. And it should be the benefit most appealing to only those people most likely to buy from you. Don’t try to appeal to everyone – just to someone – your best prospect.

Caples’ delivered many wonderful quotes and his book, Tested Advertising Methods, is essential reading for all marketers. Here’s some of his thoughts on headlines – and they apply equally today with content marketing as much as they did in print advertising decades ago. And a warning for you, his thoughts involve common sense, not something you’ll find in digital marketing land:

…if the headline is poor, the copy will not be read. And copy that is not read does not sell goods. On the other hand, if the headline is a good one, it is a relatively simple matter to write the copy.”

It’s a shame so many of the alleged digi-spruikers and cyber-hustlers haven’t studied marketing history. If they had, they would be more knowledgeable and in many cases stop wasting time creating irrelevant content and BS tips for online success. Almost everything they need to know to succeed with digital marketing has already been written – most of it before the internet was invented, or their parents were born.

Hmmm I have an idea for a headline: “They laughed when I said I was a social media expert, but when I began to Tweet…

Maybe I can run a split-run test with:

They laughed when I said I was a social media expert, but when I posted food photos on Facebook…

Social media unicorn

© Malcolm Auld Direct Pty Ltd 2022 | Commercial In Confidence

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