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Turning the Truth Into Powerful Copy

My wife and I get an average of five catalogs a day. Most look and sound the same. But recently, while glancing through The Baker’s Catalogue from the King Arthur Flour Co., I came across a blurb about the company’s shipping charges. It read in part:

“When you take a package to the post office or UPS, they weigh it, check where it’s going, and charge you accordingly. We do the same thing — as well as gather the items in your order and carefully prepare them for shipping. Our shipping charges are based on how much it costs us to ready your order for shipping, how much it weighs, and where it’s going. Period.

“Most catalogues base their shipping charges on the price of the merchandise; and most make a substantial profit on shipping. We base our shipping charges on the weight of the merchandise, and where it’s going; we barely break even on shipping.

“Honesty, even when it’s not particularly profitable, has been the cornerstone of the King Arthur Flour Company for over 210 years. So, as you look through this catalogue and examine our products and the service we promise, remember this: We will never waiver from our company’s goals — a top-quality product offered at a fair price, and honest commerce with our customers. We thank you for your business.”

That’s powerful stuff. And it derives its power from something in short supply today: truth. Under pressure to sell, sell, sell, too many people in our industry ignore the ethics of what they do. Padded shipping and handling charges are a pet peeve of mine.

But it’s just one example of how unethical practices can so easily become business as usual. And it shows how telling the truth loud and clear can make you stand out.

Without getting into a diatribe on ethics, let me just propose that truth in advertising shouldn’t be seen as a barrier but as a benefit.

Why? Because telling the truth can help you:

See the true value of a product. An entrepreneur invented a grocery coupon organizer that works like a rotary file. But statistics show that most people hate to organize coupons. Instead of working around that truth, I explored it and realized that this product actually eliminates the need to organize. My headline: Say goodbye to “coupon clutter” forever!

Find buried benefits. An ad agency called me in to create a direct mail package to sell extended automotive insurance. Buried in the legalese was a deductible of $25. Why hide it? On the cover of the brochure, I told the truth in a big headline: Guaranteed. You will never pay more than $25 for any mechanical repair.

Devise creative solutions. I was asked to create a direct mail package to sell a family magazine to teachers. But the publication was never meant for teachers. A problem? No, I just told the truth with the envelope teaser: It’s the fun magazine teachers were never meant to read … Now it’s YOURS! And the first issue is FREE!

Deal with unpopular features. A large regional bank decided to stop returning checks to customers. But instead of glossing over this truth in a letter, I turned the negative into a positive: Like most people, you’ll probably never need any of those canceled checks piling up in your closet, filing cabinet, or drawer. And if you do, finding the right one could take hours. So, as a special exclusive service, we won’t mail your canceled checks to you every month … we’ll record them on microfilm and file them for you. If you ever do need one, we can locate it quickly and provide a copy.

Plus, telling the truth can help you:

• See your prospects as real, individual people, not just faceless targets.

• Make a genuine effort to help people rather than just sell them to Decrease your reliance on random techniques.

• Increase your chances of finding meaningful appeals that hit real hot buttons.

• Ensure more long-term business by avoiding tricks and deceptive ploys.

• Develop a more realistic, practical approach to copy and design.

• Turn empty jargon into meaningful messages.

Mark Twain once commented on why telling the truth was so much easier than lying. He said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” I think there’s a creative formula there for all of us. Because if you’re dedicated to selling good products and satisfying your customers in every way, you won’t have to work so hard at hiding flaws. Your ads will seem to write themselves.

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