David Ogilvy’s Guide To Writing Ads Explained Part 2

In part 1 of this new series on writing ads we looked at David Ogilvy’s first rule of writing ads – which was the need to figure out a position (in his example, it was about positioning a campaign for its chosen market, but if you’re new to business, you should apply it to how you want people to see you – read part 1 if you want to know more).

Today we’re looking at his second rule (or rather: “thing” as he called it), and that is: “Large promises” – promise the world (but make sure you can deliver).

He made a big point of differentiating a promise from a claim and used the golden buzzword of ‘benefits’ to highlight why: a promise is about delivering a benefit, whereas a claim is not.

For example, I could claim that the Science of Copywriting is the best thing since sliced bread (which would be a pity, since I’d just be telling the world I can write a cliche), or I could promise that readers will learn all they need to know about copywriting if they just took the time to read it (now that’s so much better – benefits all the way).

When I first read his ad, I thought Ogilvy was being a little too semantic with his differentiation, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised he was right. In short, every word counts.

Which means, whatever we write, we can always improve it.

For example, we may think there is a limit to how many ways we can say the same thing, but there truly isn’t. In fact, the thought there might be some kind of limit is what holds many copywriters (and writers of all kinds) back.

In the English alphabet, we only have 26 letters to play with. Yet from those 26 we have already created hundreds of thousands of words. And from those words comes an infinite number of sentences or phrases, and from that an unlimited number of combinations of them, which is why it’s not only possible to write entirely new books, there will never be an end to them (there can never be enough books in the world).

And yet every single word has its part to play, or rather, every single word we use that is NOT playing its part should be eliminated, thus leaving only the words that matter to play their parts.

So what has all that got to do with promises and claims? A tiny change can turn a claim into a promise that sells a million, or it can turn a promise into a claim that sells nothing.

PS. What’s the difference between a claim and a promise? Here’s an example: Claim: “This book is great”. Promise: “This book will make you great.”.

PPS. Are claims pointless then? No. Claims matter too. The problem with them (and Ogilvy’s point I think) is that they tend to be about features rather than benefits. A promise forces us to think about what our audience wants, and that’s where the gold is.

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