From the September 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

A few years ago, as a prank, a national humor magazine sent a small "rebate check" under a fictitious business name to a famous multimillionaire. The amount of the check was something like $1.06. The idea was to see if this extremely wealthy individual (whose name you'd recognize in an instant) would actually cash such a puny check. And, sure enough, he did!

What that said to me is that no matter what one's station in life, the lust for a discount--any discount--is so indelibly etched on our psyche that it is never completely erased. Is it any wonder that we've made the terms "sale" and its benefit, "save," the most ubiquitous in all of marketing and advertising?

These terms, in their various forms, have had a long, successful run--a testament to their near-hypnotic power to motivate buyers. Psychologists could have a field day dissecting that sense of satisfaction we all feel when we think we've paid even a dime less than the going price for anything. Of course, over the years, merchants have developed embellishments on the original theme to boost interest. Generally, despite how much money they have, people still crane their heads at a one-cent sale. My wife has a weakness for spring sales. Then there's the white sale, the anniversary sale, the Labor Day sale, the Washington's Birthday sale . . . and, of course, who can resist camping out overnight to be first in line for the 7-hour sale?

A few effective synonyms for the event have come thundering into the marketplace as well. "Close-out" has certainly gotten the turnstiles spinning, as has "Everything must go," "Liquidation in progress" and the powerful "Buy one, get one free!" A couple years ago, a computer superstore chain in my city started using the term "Blowout" to lead off its busy, sidewalk-sale type of Saturday newspaper ads. Apparently, sales exploded with the use of that term, and it began appearing at the top of virtually all their ads. Then, inevitably, a bunch of copycat ads began appearing in various other retailing areas, which, in turn, caused the pollination of such headlines as "sales explosion" and "sales blast." Maybe such pyrotechnic phraseology is raining down on your city as well. But, suffice it to say, any way you can creatively communicate the fact that you're offering the prospect a special deal is probably the best way to maximize results at the cash register.

I say "creatively" because the term "sale" has so saturated advertising that giving it a fresh context usually helps grab attention. That's my message to Dan Bowers of Hunt Valley, Maryland, who wrote recently. Bowers operates Fitness Trading Company in his city, an outfit that deals primarily in used and "scratched and dented" exercise equipment. This is a great product category for steep-discount believability. It's also a great marketing niche because this stuff can be pricey bought new, and Bowers offers an affordable way to get in on some of the most popular items, such as treadmills, steppers, bikes, cross-country ski simulators and so on, without spending a fortune. And let's face it: Many of us have a small graveyard of discarded fitness equipment, tossed aside from dissipated interest. So it behooves the new exercise zealot to think about low-cost used equipment as an initial purchase. Bowers offers warranties on all equipment to overcome any concerns that the products may be worn out from use or abuse.

Unfortunately, Bowers' advertising is not working--even though he's pitching big discounts. He feels one of his problems is trying to include all the relevant information in a small-space ad. He says when he attempts to fit it in, the ad gets so cluttered and indistinguishable from other ads that even he sometimes skips right past it when he's looking for the ad. Not a good sign. I think there are ways to improve it.

Pumping Up The Pitch

Bowers' centerpiece of salesmanship in the ad is a graphic "burst" with the savings range in it ("Save 20%-75%"). There's no argument that this is a major button to push. But the argument needs more flourish, garnish and relish.

My recommended headline is: "Get just as fit for half the money!" And I'd make it dominate the ad because it is the purest rationale and motivation for jogging into Fitness Trading when you're ready to take the plunge and buy a major piece of exercise equipment. My subhead would read: "Accomplish your goal with previously owned equipment, and save 50% or more. Full warranties available."

As for Bowers' concern that he can't seem to shoehorn all the relevant information into the ad, my suggestion is not to try. Pique their interest with a pithy headline and brief supporting copy and then get them to visit or at least call for elaboration. And since Bowers also does business as an equipment trader--meaning he operates not just as a seller but as a buyer, trader and consignee of fitness equipment--I highlight that information in the ad as well.

Another of Bowers' challenges is that there's a seasonal lull in sales during the summer months when everybody is getting their exercise outdoors. So selling such gear is probably akin to trying to peddle Christmas ornaments in July. What to do? What kind of sales event can the trusty "Advertising Workshop" sale-naming computer come up with to solve the problem? Its response: A contrarian "Who Buys Fitness Equipment in Summer?" Sale. This would be followed by the subhead "Astute shoppers who know they get the steepest discounts off-season!"

Bowers' advertising efforts--and sales--should benefit from a few of these ideas.

Making Headlines

Wowing readers without being weird.

Veteran copywriter Victor Schwab made this observation: "Many a headline fails to stop readers because its vocabulary is so hackneyed. No word or phrase in it has any attention-arresting element of surprise. There are no words, expressions or ideas not commonly used or expected in the headline of [such] an ad."

We often forget that the public is so inundated with, and overstimulated by, advertising messages that it requires unexpected ideas or wording to get its attention. Advertising has a great challenge because people aren't predisposed to sitting down and soaking up ad copy as a form of pleasure. You have to make it more attractive for the reader to stop at your ad than to read beyond it.

Of course, being unconventional doesn't mean you have to be bizzare. Weirdness can cause confusion and sabotage your good intentions. Look at your headine with a fresh pair of eyes 24 hours after you've written it, and think which one, two or three words could be changed--even just slightly--to make them a bit more interesting. It could make the difference between life and death for your advertising's effectiveness.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via America Online at Jerry228@aol.com