From the October 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

One of the most heinous crimes you can commit against your small business--even worse than answering the phone with a chirpy, "You're number one at Murray's Mattress MegaMart, home of the SlumberKing. How may I direct your call?"--is to create boring, routine, pedestrian advertising. This is true whether you're a retailer, a wholesaler, a consultant or a columnist.

"Pedestrian," of course, has another meaning besides "easy target in a crosswalk." And I probably don't need to tell you you'll find just such advertising every single day in newspapers and magazines, on the radio and television. I'm talking about the narcolepsy-inducing, cookie-cutter ads that big companies spend millions to produce, but that barely get noticed or, worse, annoy the hell out of you. I don't know if it's a result of naivet,, conservativeness, incompetence, tunnel vision or burnout, but it's amazing how much advertising created today is instantly forgettable.

However, deep-pocketed corporations with fat marketing budgets can spend $40,000 on a full-page ad in a national magazine without batting an eye or breaking a sweat . . . especially if it's a so-called "image" ad whose impact on sales can't be directly measured. Small-business owners, on the other hand, take a deep breath and look heavenward when they write a check for a precious $1,200 for a onetime insertion that has to pull in orders for cash flow.

This doesn't mean you should resort to the kind of advertising famous ad-man David Ogilvy described as "irrelevant brilliance." That is to say, don't feel compelled to create ads that offer up a headline or a visual so funny, punny or surprising that the prospect remembers the gimmick but can't recall the product or service it promoted.

Recently, I saw a well-intentioned, well-produced TV commercial showing a man sitting on the floor in a business suit while performing such bodily contortions as wrapping his legs behind his head and assuming other pretzel shapes. The accompanying announcer's voice-over was talking about the various flexible uses of some business product, but the contortionist's maneuvers were so riveting I didn't pay attention to a single word of the sales message and certainly can't remember the name of the product.

This is the advertising equivalent of asking viewers to pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. This commercial was a total waste of the thousands it took to produce and run it. And many full-page print ads have the very same effect.

That said, there is definitely a middle ground. You can create an unexpected headline or visual that has impact but that also has a clear, memorable and relevant payoff for your prospect. That's my message to Roberta Carson of Newton, Massachusetts, who wrote recently.

Carson is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE), someone skilled in the science of equipment and job design to reduce cumulative stress injuries (such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome) brought on by highly repetitive motions and bad posture. Carson sent me the current ad she is running for her firm, ErgoFit Inc., in an employee health and safety newspaper. She asked if I had any suggestions on how to improve on its poor response. The answer is yes.

Professional Pizazz

First, I want to advise Carson that it's possible for highly credentialed consultants like herself, that is someone with a certificate on the wall and a pedigree after his or her name--in her case, MSIE (Master of Science in Industrial Engineering) and CPE--to be "promotional" without compromising his or her professional integrity. Carson's current ad is a little too antiseptic and unintrusive . . . more of a miniresume than a riveting sales message.

My suggestion is to get a little more gutsy, with headline language that will cause some eyebrow-arching in the restrained and proper environment of the health and safety newspaper where her ad runs but is nevertheless within the subject area. My headline suggestion "How to Prevent `Murder' in the Workplace" is followed by copy that starts out "Cumulative trauma injuries don't kill, but they can certainly be murder on productivity . . . not to mention strangle you with medical claims. Possible OSHA fines can be a killer, too. All good reasons to proactively seek ergonomic solutions from ErgoFit. . . . " The headline is an attention-getting play on words, but there is also a clear linkage to the subject at hand.

As you can see, I also display a proposed BODYimonial with a subheadline that would be drawn from comments from actual clients. In this instance, I pulled out "You made a difference . . ." followed by the full endorsement from which it came. This gives Carson's message extra credibility and relevance for the reader. Incidentally, it always helps to pull out a juicy phrase from a BODYimonial and use it as a subhead leading into the full BODYimonial. That way, if the impatient reader is merely scanning the major areas of the ad, he or she will at least get the gist of the BODYimonial from the bold lead-in.

Headline Time

As I've discussed many times before, the main headline on an ad or on a mailing can make or break your promotional effort. No matter if you've crafted the most compelling sales message ever written, if the headline doesn't bring readers to a screeching halt as they're racing through a publication or the morning mail, your ad gets as much notice as a lemonade stand without a sign.

How much time should it take to create a headline that's up to the task? An hour? Two hours? Two days? I've spent as many as four full days (and part of those nights) obsessing over the headline for a single ad. And I'm someone who is used to flexing my headline-creating muscles on a regular basis. If this is an exercise you're not used to, you may spend up to eight days coming up with just the right wording.

I say "up to" because it's entirely possible that a powerhouse of a headline could come sooner rather than later. It could occur to you 10 minutes after you start thinking about it. That's happened to me on some of my best headlines. But others have taken an eternity. However, I must reiterate, the quest for the perfect headline--whether it takes you two weeks or two minutes--is an essential one. Nothing is more crucial to your advertising success.

I also strongly recommend tucking your chosen headline out of sight for 24 to 48 hours. Then, go back and look at your masterpiece with new eyes. If the words still appear potent to you, chances are you're onto a good thing.

Another useful screening technique is to ask a few people (not just one) whose opinions you respect to give you their immediate first impression of the headline. I say "immediate" because their first reaction--without deliberation--will approximate the instant reaction a prospect has on first encountering your advertising.

If you're inspired, send me a world-class advertising headline you have encountered so I can share it with other readers for inspiration.

Contact Sources

ErgoFit Inc., 21 High Rock Terrace, Newton, MA 02167, (617) 332-4797.