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:
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.