Perhaps it’s all to easy to choose from the many “killer openings” by literary writers. If you had a look at the link in Part 1, the list scrolls on for miles. Incidentally, I prefer the imperial measurement for poetic reasons, you just have to translate Elvis Costello’s song “Inch by Inch” into “Centimetre by Centimetre” and you’ll get my drift. So in Part 2, we will look at a few great openings by superstar copywriters whose work has been curated into The Copy Book by the Designers & Art Directors Association (UK).

Let’s begin with an Australian hero of the copywritten word, John Bevins, for the brand Bankers Trust Australia Group. This is No˚6 in a series of long copy ads providing “insight for investors”. The headline for this one reads: The Swedish Chimpanzee Method (Plus a Sounder Way To Get Rich).

If you perservere with this wall-to-wall text, you will be rewarded with an introduction to Dollar Cost Averaging, the minor marvel that could help make you rich. But first, to Stockholm, and a chimpanzee named Ola.

By acknowledging the reader’s first impression of “way too many words to bother reading”, the target audience is immediately disarmed to read on and find out there’s a rich reward to be had within the next 130 words. This is empathy in action. The all important connection is made between writer and reader. Now the storytelling begins and we all love a good story.

Perhaps the Queen of Conversational Copy is none other than Susie (love a jolly good natter over the garden fence) Henry. She’s a UK copywriter famous for her Commercial Union Assurance ads, and even more so for the slogan “we won’t make a drama out of a crisis” which entered the language in the 70’s.  The headline for the first ad in the series is While others were assessing the damage, we were paying for it, and the intro reads:

On the morning of January 11th 1978, you might have been forgiven for mistaking the streets of Sheerness for Amsterdam or Venice.

Besides the fact that it beautifully demonstrates a genuine dialogue between reader and copywriter, it creates a vivid image in the mind that is as dramatic as the story catastrophic. You can’t help but want to read on to find out what happened. Why? Because we all love a good disaster story with a happy ending.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, the Hemingway of Madison Avenue, Ed McCabe, was writing copy on a tablecloth in New York for a little Italian motor scooter called Vespa. Picture a double garage with one of those big American gas-guzzling Fords parked inside and beside it, a petite white Travel-Italian-Style Vespa. The headline reads: Maybe your second car shouldn’t be a car. The opening line of copy:

Don’t laugh.

And in a paragraph all of its own, for maximum effect. You have to imagine America in the 60’s with their love affair for big everything. Now that’s knowing your target audience like they’re sitting right across the table from you. This establishes a connection (I know you’re laughing and so did I at first) and opens up the reader’s mind to some reasons for considering a Vespa:

It makes a lot more sense to hop on a Vespa than it does to climb into a 4000-lb automobile to go half a  mile for a 4-oz pack of cigarettes. To begin with, a Vespa can be parked.

The joke may be on the Vespa at the beginning, but by the time Ed gets through all the logic, the joke is on the reader who’s second car isn’t a Vespa.

Indra Sinha can boast going to the same Bombay school as Salman Rushdie and like most of us, spends hours on a single sentence before it flows like music. Here’s one of his police recruitment ads where the picture shows a close-up of a skinhead spitting at a police officer. The headline reads: Could you turn the other cheek? The intro asks:

Cool customer, are you? Okay, let’s see how far you can get before you blow your stack.

Then he writes a number of real life scenarios where the reader is the police officer who’s response is challenged by encounters of abuse, threats and physical violence. Writing this ad was a result of two months of research interviewing officers, crouched terrified in the back of speeding patrol cars, on the scene of knife-fights, helped home beat officers calm battered wives, chased a burglar across back gardens and so on. All in a day’s work for police officers captured dramatically in 250 words. But it’s that opening line that makes you want to read on and discover something about yourself.

As you can see, accomplished copywriters ask the same question as accomplished literary writers: What’s the most compelling expression of thought to hook my reader in? Give yourself plenty of hours for the intro because it is the gatekeeper of good storytelling.

Part 3 of this article will review the opening lines of Group Projects by participants in my Copywriting in Action course. In the meantime, do what every good writer does: live everyday paying attention to what other people don’t pay attention to, and new dimensions of reality will become apparent to you.

25 Comments

  1. Cecilie says:

    That Vespa introduction was fantastic! And certainly can’t be used in this day and age (am I the only one slightly surprised by the cigarette comment?). This goes to show that extensive research can help you get that great hook.

  2. Melissa says:

    I really like what this article boils down to – what is the most way to hook your reader. Make them see themselves in the opening line.

  3. Mel says:

    I like the freedom a writer has for the introduction… Where body copy sticks to the main gist of the anatomy, it’s refreshing that within those guidelines there is room to move. There are so many options and types of prose which can be used – like the example for the Vespas which featured the “Don’t laugh.” all by its lonesome in one paragraph. So clever!

  4. Jessie L says:

    My key take away from this is the importance of knowing your target audience. We’ve all seen the fall out of a joke gone wrong at an event. How awkward to know that everyone out there is not amused in reader land.

  5. M. Soan says:

    Interesting to see the comparison of the literary opening sentences with the advertising ones – although they apply to a different contexts, these examples demonstrate the power of a strong opening sentence, and that their very success of the reader wanting to read on depends on it. There is an excellent writing book dedicated just to opening sentences by Les Edgerton, who writes that you must begin the opening in media res. In advertising it pretty much starts there because you don’t have the liberty of having an entire chapter to romance the reader.

  6. Kirby Fenwick says:

    I agree with Katie, know your audience. Perhaps most aptly demonstrated by the copy for the Vespa, opening with a ‘don’t laugh’.

  7. Katie says:

    Seems like understanding your target audience is key to creating a compelling hook. They need to be front of mind during the entire writing process.

  8. Anagha says:

    I love the conclusion, Live everyday paying attention to what other people don’t pay attention to and new dimensions of reality will become apparent. Its a bit like seeing the unusual in the usual

  9. Re-write, re-write, re-write, give yourself time to get the hook right.

  10. Coreen says:

    The emphasis on investing time (however long it takes) and insight to craft a compelling hook. It must be an authentic voice that says “I get you” to your target audience.

  11. Leona Devaz says:

    I am buying that book you suggested! It seems like a brilliant reference tool. Also, great to hear you validating taking your time when coming up with the intro. I find I do this and it certainly is a long, but worthwhile process.

  12. michaelcxs says:

    It would seem, at least from the examples given, that a large part of understanding your audience is being humorous? A little joke is never a bad icebreaker at a party…

  13. Jen Keating says:

    If we know the audience we also know what kind of story they want to be told. Which makes finding the hook clearer. We are all just storytellers.

  14. Jennie says:

    I want that book! Very witty lines there, I genuinely wanted to read on!

  15. rebecca says:

    The first example clarifies so much more what you were discussing last week about ‘addressing the skeptics’. Getting the obvious out of the way, with something blatant, a joke, whatever, gives us room to be as creative as we need to later on.

  16. Sophie says:

    “Live everyday paying attention to what other people don’t pay attention to, and new dimensions of reality will become apparent to you.” – This is going up on my wall.

  17. Jeremy G says:

    The example openers in this blog post hooked me in so effectively I found myself disappointed I couldn’t read the rest of the copy for each! Spending hours perfecting an opening hook is well worth it if it’s that effective.

  18. Johanna says:

    Again, you point out the importance of keeping the tone conversational. The examples you’ve given (particularly 1 and 3) demonstrate particularly well how useful this is in breaking through the reader’s perception that they are about to be bombarded with a wall of boring ad copy.

  19. It’s important to get to know your audience and subject matter. Put yourself in their shoes, write as if you are conversing with them.

  20. And I thought writing was complicated, these ad copywriters need to do it in fewer words!

  21. pepperedmoth says:

    Oh dear, my education keeps getting in the way. Need to sort that out.

  22. Natalia says:

    After reading Part 2, it made me realise the importance of connecting with the reader on an emotive level and also creating intrigue. Copy writing is like creating a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces a carefully selected to complete the story. I really liked your quote which I can relate to, ‘Do what every good writer does: live everyday paying attention to what other people don’t pay attention to, and new dimensions of reality will become apparent to you.’ In essence it is the ability to ‘See the unusual in the usual.’

  23. mark thomas says:

    knowing your target audience, creating intruige with empathy, connecting the writer with the reader will surge them on to read the story. The novelists in first impresssions are genius, the flow, and creative use of words to envoke empathy, blew my mind, they are inspiring to say the least. Thanks Nicolas for opening my eyes to future possibilities.

  24. Jeff Hyde says:

    Those novelists in Part 1 have it relatively easy. But I’m glad I looked at those literary opening lines because now I must admire the genius of the advertising copywriters in Part 2 even more. These guys have to deal with a reluctant audience and still get the mail through. So clever and effective. Great link to “The Copy Book” as well. Tons (not tonnes) of inspirational and entertaining examples to enjoy.

  25. Food Floozy says:

    This is so incredibly helpful. I have always tried to start off my work with something that sounds interesting, but this has really helped me look at the craft of creating a hook, something that you get them with at the beginning and reel in at the end. Thank you.

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