A debate has been burning up the bits and bytes on one of the popular marketing forums. The topic of heated discussion: whether or not to include humor in sales copy.
Some of the members argue that humor can be a disarming and refreshing alternative to the caveman approach to copywriting — i.e., bludgeoning the reader into shock and submission with forceful declarations and exclamation points. Drop the hard sell and take a more friendly and convivial approach, they say. Be sociable, be charming, be funny!
Makes sense. In this declining economy, in this embarrassing political environment who doesn’t need a good laugh?
Others go further. Sales copy must have personality. And right they are, too! But methinks they may confuse personality with humor. Having a personality doesn’t automatically equate with being funny.
David Ogilvy, John Caples, and Claude Hopkins all had distinctive, no-nonsense, cut-to-the quick personalities and imbued their sales copy with plenty of the same to great remunerative effect, yet I don’t think anyone could accuse them, or their copy, of being funny.
Then comes this refrain: sales letters all sound the same these days…hackneyed. Then they cite letters that lead with an over-the-top benefit, an unbelievable offer, or a rags-to-riches, failure-to-hero story. And the point they’re making is valid. The marketer, through the copywriter, must differentiate himself and his product.
But do you do that by making ‘em laugh?
Here’s the problem…
Laughter is serious business!
How many times have you gone to a comedy club or watched a late night or primetime comedian fall flat on his face when delivering a punch line? Humor is an art form that’s extremely difficult to master.
It takes years of developing and practicing timing, rhythm, phrasing — and even then, when the curtain finally goes up, there’s no guarantee you’ll make ‘em laugh. So, if you’re planning on using humor in your sales copy at least answer this question first:
What makes you think you’re funny?
Maybe in person, yes, at the dinner table, in the bar, in the locker room; and maybe you’ve penned something in a blog post, article, or in a spec script you mailed to Columbia Pictures that struck a few funny bones once or twice or thrice.
But funny in a sales letter, hmm?
Recognize that the first and foremost goal of a sales letter is…what? To make a sale!
So, using all the necessary elements required for salesmanship in print, you develop a rhythm, a voice, a tone — a slippery slope by any other name — that keeps the reader interested, excited, scrolling or flipping pages and ultimately brings your reader to the letter’s real punch line: the submit button, or the BRC (the Business Response Card in a direct mail promotion).
Now, what do you think will happen to the trance-like momentum you’ve labored so artfully to create if, all of a sudden, you slip in a joke, a bit of humor, that’s perceived by the reader to be inappropriate, distracting, or, worst of all, not funny? The bubble bursts! Having worked so hard to suspend “critical disbelief,” you abruptly downshift into a Conan O’Brien or Larry the Cable Guy riff, leaving your reader in blinking disbelief and confusion.
All right, let’s say your delivery is a bit smoother; you’re able to manage the transition from Caples to Conan with a bit more aplomb. The question you then have to answer is this:
Is adding humor necessary to close the sale?
As any copywriter worthy of a keystroke knows, in a sales letter you should only include what is absolutely essential to make the sale. Or, as more commonly phrased, a sales letter should only be as long as it needs to be in order to get the reader to say, “Yes, I’ll buy!”
That reminds me of a story about Abraham Lincoln. For a rather long stretch of time during the Civil War, his chief of the Army, General McClellan, had chosen not to engage the enemy in battle. So, President Lincoln wrote the good general a short, polite letter:
“My dear McClellan,
If you don’t want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.
Anyway, the point I was making: write any more, or less, than is necessary to conclude the sale, and you risk killing the sale. So, whether or not you can effortlessly slip in a bit of humor now becomes a question of whether it helps you or not.
If it’s gratuitous humor, and only included to showcase your personality, I say…
Better to be smart than funny.
Weigh the odds.
As it is, only a small, very small, percentage of readers are going to respond to even the best written sales letter — even if it was written by the current reigning, albeit retired, godhead of all copywriters: Gary Bencivenga. So why take the risk of lowering your conversion rate even further by including what some might perceive as amateurish, sophomoric, or just unnecessary humor?
And yet, on the other hand…
What if you really are funny…most of the time?
If your readers know you, love you, and expect you to be funny, or at least come close, by not including a bit of humor in your pitches, you’ll distract them from your marketing message as they begin to wonder why you’ve switched gears and become so serious (boring). In other words, if humor is part of your copywriting or marketing persona, don’t change it without fair warning and good reason.
But, if you’re writing to a cold list, one who doesn’t know you, doesn’t care about you, and basically finds your sales letter an intrusion, robbing them of their precious, irreplaceable time, then I think cracking a joke at the beginning, or in the middle, or at the end of your sales letter — or whenever you ask them to send you money — is not something I would recommend.
Which brings me to my last point:
If you think separating someone from his or her hard-earned money can be funny, look no further than your next credit card bill for the answer. Does reading your statement put you in stitches?
No? Well, how about if they inserted a truly funny bit of humor next to the line that reads “minimum balance due”?
Would you be rolling in the aisles and eager to pay your bill then?
Didn’t think so.
Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. To read more of his articles and irreverent musings, and download a FREE copy of his NEW eBook, containing 21 of his most outrageous rants, visit his blog: Marketing Wit & Wisdom!