Breakthrough Advertising: The Copywriter’s Go-to Guide – Notes

Eugene M. Schwartz was not just a stellar copywriter. He actually introduced a bunch of important copywriting concepts we still use today. And it’s no surprise that his “Breakthrough Advertising” is a must-read for all copywriters today.

While there are a few elements that feel very much out of date, I found the book immensely valuable. It’s more a handbook than a light read and I often return to it when working on new copy projects. The seven techniques are especially helpful when brainstorming new copy approaches. 

Here are all key concepts you need to take away from the book:

Copy and Mass Desire

Schwartz starts off by explaining the role of copywriting:

Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it.

Copy is a focus mechanism. It’s a catalist. It cannot do all the work on its own – but it works when the copywriter does the work and takes time to understand their audience. It’s the reason why all copywriting work (be it developing an ad campaign or writing a long-form sales page) starts with audience research.

Understanding the mass desire of the market is the first step a copywriter needs to take. And to do that we need to understand the forces that create mass desire:

Forces for mass desire

These are elements that are always at play in the public mind. Schwartz splits them into two categories of permanent forces:

Mass Instinct – these are desires related to our more primal wants and needs. “The desire of women to be attractive, or men to be virile, or men and women both to keep their health.” These desires are permanent and ever-present. “The copy writer’s problem here is not to pick out the trend—it is there for everyone to see. His job is to distinguish his product from the others that were there before it—to create a fresh appeal—to build a stronger believability—to shift desire from the fulfillment offered by one product to that offered by another.”

A mass problem – these issues have to do with the audience’s will to always find the best solution to a problem. The problem can be anything: “Bad television reception, or corroding automobile mufflers, or the time it takes for aspirin to bring relief.”  There are always new solutions to try – and, at least to some part of the audience, these solutions will be suboptimal. “Until the problem is finally solved, the customers will buy and try—buy and try again. And here the copy writer has the same problem—to offer the same claim of relief as his competitors, but offer it in a new way.”

And then there are “the forces of change” – these are ever-changing and specific to the product category and the exact moment in time when we’re communicating with the audience. 

The beginning, the fulfillment, and the reversal of a trend – new trends are always ebbing and flowing around us. The copywriters’ job then is to hunt for these changing forces and exploit them. “He must be able to see and catch the rising tide when it’s almost imperceptible—sense which of the several appeals that are built into his product he should stress at any particular moment, and when to shift to another—and, always, how to be there first.”

Mass education – as new trends come up, people are getting to know more and more about them. The copywriter then needs to know how much and what people know in order to weave that information into the copy.

Channeling mass desire

Schwartz explains that our work with mass desires happens in three stages:

1. Choose the right mass desire

Your first task is to identify the most powerful desire that can possibly be applied to your product. YOu can do this by assessing the three dimensions of mass desire:

  • Urgency, intensity, degree of demand to be satisfied – how big the pain is and how bad we want to solve it.
  • Staying power, degree of repetition, and the inability to become satiated – how often we feel the pain and how easy it is to make it go away.
  • The number of people who share this desire – what’s the potential market of the affected audience.

2. Acknowledge the desire and offer your solution

The second step is to create “a single statement in the headline of your ad” (according to Schwartz – according to me this can even be expanded in an opening section).

The description Schwartz gives of this step basically follows the Problem–Agitation–Solution (PAS) framework:

  • Acknowledge that desire
  • Reinforce it
  • Offer the means to satisfy it

3. Tie in the product attributes

You’ve already stated you have a solution for the user – now you need to prove it. Schwartz uses the word “performances” to denote product attributes or features and says you need to “take the series of performances that are built into your product—what your product does—and you show your prospect how these product performances inevitably satisfy that desire.”

The product attributes come into one of two categories: the physical elements and the functional product – or, as we’ve come to know them, features and benefits.

Schwartz explains that the physical elements can’t make it into the headline, because they don’t directly address the mass desire. But they can be used later in the copy to justify your price, prove the quality, show that the product will last, or add believability to your claims.

The functional product presents how your product features satisfy the mass desire. And that’s what people are actually buying. “Your first task, then, in studying your product, is to list the number of different performances it contains—to group these performances against the mass desires that each of them satisfies—and then to feature the one performance that will harness the greatest sales power onto your product at that particular time.”

States of Awareness

When you have the mass desire figured out, you know what you need to say. But to figure out how you want to say it you need to understand the state of awareness of the user and the state of sophistication of the market.

The more aware your market, the easier the selling job, the less you need to say.

The five states of awareness are probably the most popular concept Schwartz introduced to copywriting. Here they are.

Most Aware

This is the easiest point to sell – and the one where a tiny nudge, a few words, will work wonders.

The customer knows of your product—knows what it does—knows he wants it. At this point, he just hasn’t gotten around to buying it yet. Your headline—in fact, your entire ad—need state little more except the name of your product and a bargain price.

When Schwartz says “bargain price”, you can interpret that as almost anything that will give the customer a reason to buy now. It can be a gift, a deadline, last pieces in stock…

Product Aware

I’m using here the popular names of each state – Schwartz just described it in detail. “Here, your prospect isn’t completely aware of all your product does, or isn’t convinced of how well it does it, or hasn’t yet been told how much better it does it now.”

In this case, your headline needs to do one of seven tasks:

  • To reinforce your prospect’s desire for your product; 
  • To sharpen his image of the way your product satisfies that desire; 
  • To extend his image of where and when your product satisfies that desire; 
  • To introduce new proof, details, documentation of how well your product satisfies that desire; 
  • To announce a new mechanism in that product to enable it to satisfy that desire even better; 
  • To announce a new mechanism in your product that eliminates former limitations; 
  • Or to completely change the image or the mechanism of that product, in order to remove it from the competition of other products claiming to satisfy the same desire.

In short, you need to provide new proof or change the mental image of the customer to one that will make them want your product more. This is where persuasive copy comes into play.

Solution Aware

At this point you need to introduce your product to a completely new audience for the first time: “The prospect either knows, or recognizes immediately, that he wants what the product does; but he doesn’t yet know that there is a product—your product—that will do it for him.”

Your job for solution aware audiences is to “pinpoint the ill-defined, as-yet-uncrystallized desire” and then to “crystallize that desire, and its solution, so sharply and so dramatically that each and every prospect will recognize it at a glance.”

This happens in three steps:

  1. Name the desire or its solution in the headline,
  2. Prove that the desire can be satisfied,
  3. Showcase that your product has a way to bring that satisfaction.

You can already see that at this point your headline needs to do a lot of heavy lifting. According to Schwartz, all three steps need to happen within the headline. I personally believe that you can start with the first one or two and then introduce your product later down the copy.

Problem Aware

At this stage, the customer understands they have a problem, but still don’t know about any potential solutions – and they for sure don’t recognize your product as a potential solution.

Schwartz turns to the trusted Problem-Agitation-Solution framework for this one – even if he doesn’t name it per se. “You start by naming the need and/or its solution in your headline. Then dramatize the need so vividly that the prospect realizes just how badly he needs the solution. And then present your product as the inevitable solution.”

Again, all of this is supposedly done within the headline, but I don’t really think that’s possible every time. In any case, you will need to talk a lot to your customer to make them ready to buy – so take your time and build a clear argument.

Unaware

This is the most difficult state. Here, Schwartz says, “the prospect is either not aware of his desire or his need—or he won’t honestly admit it to himself without being lead into it by your ad—or the need is so general and amorphous that it resists being summed up in a single headline—or it’s a secret that just can’t be verbalized.”

Due to the fact that the need is not recognized, it’s very hard to sell. You can’t offer a solution for a problem that, according to the customer, is simply not there. So you need to make the customer identify with the copy. “You are selling nothing, promising nothing, satisfying nothing. Instead, you are echoing an emotion.”

It will be tremendously hard to sell to unaware audiences. So the best you can do is attract their attention by making sure they identify with the headline copy – and then keep that attention for as long as you can to get these customers to reach a higher state of awareness.

Stages of Sophistication

While the states of awareness have more to do with the individual customer, the state of sophistication is related to the market as a whole. It simply states how competitive the field is.

First to market

Very rarely, your product will open a fully new category. If it’s related to a core mass desire then you won’t need to say much. “Be simple. Be direct. Above all, don’t be fancy. Nothing more—because nothing more is needed.”

Of course, in today’s world, it’s very hard to fall within that category. Even products that state they are category builders often don’t connect to a core customer need so additional persuasion is required.

Second to market

If you’re second to market you don’t really need to reinvent everything – you just need to make the claim bolder. “Copy that successful claim—but enlarge on it. Drive it to the absolute limit. Outbid your competition.”

The market is young enough to be captivated by that claim without asking too many questions or needing detailed explanations.

Third stage

At this stage, your market is already jaded by repetition and exaggeration. They’ve heard all the claims and all their extremes. “What this market needs now is a new device to make all these old claims become fresh and believable to them again. In other words, A NEW MECHANISM—a new way to making the old promise work. A different process—a fresh chance—a brand-new possibility of success where only disappointment has resulted before.”

To persuade your audience you need to show them exactly why your product will work where so many have failed before. You need to bring the mechanism – the reason why they should believe you – in the headline itself and then expand on the details.

Fourth stage

This one is pretty similar to the second stage in the sense that it relies on elaboration and enlargement. “Simply elaborate or enlarge upon the successful mechanism. Make it easier, quicker, surer; allow it to solve more of the problem; overcome old limitations; promise extra benefits.”

You can “steal” a mechanism from your competitors but you need to clearly express why that mechanism works better in your product.

Fifth stage

This is the pinnacle of sophisticated markets. It’s also the reason why most feature-enabled messaging doesn’t work for many products. We’ve just heard it all and we don’t really care about complex product mechanisms. But Schwartz has a solution: “The emphasis shifts from the promise and the mechanism which accomplishes it, to identification with the prospect himself. You are dealing here with the problem of bringing your prospect into your ad—not through desire—but through identification.”

A lot of advertising we see today is built on top of identification. Apple computers are desired not because of their technical specs but because they are made for the dreamers and those challenging the status quo. This type of messaging works well because it’s pretty much timeless. On top of that, if you build up your product’s identity well, your competitors won’t be able to touch you.

38 ways to strengthen your headline

Based on the mass desire, the state of awareness, and the market sophistication stage, you’re ready to produce a pretty good headline. What you need to do then is strengthen your copy.

The way to do that is based on “verbalization” – a tactic Schwartz uses to reinforce your main claim by using different words and layering ideas on top of one another. It may sound like simple repetition but it’s more than that. It’s a way to express the same claim through different angles. Here’s what he says about the benefits of verbalization:

  1. It can strengthen the claim—by enlarging upon it, by measuring it, by making it more vivid, etc. 
  2. It can make the claim new and fresh again—by twisting it, changing it, presenting it from a different angle, turning it into a narration, challenging the reader with an example, etc. 
  3. It can help the claim pull the prospect into the body of the ad—by promising him information about it, by questioning him, by partially revealing mechanism, etc.

Schwartz expressed 38 different ways to use verbalization and strengthen your copy – along with a bunch of examples. He also says we’re all probably able to add to these ways in our own work. I won’t spend too much time on them – you can see all of Schwartz’s suggestions in this file.

The 7 basic techniques of breakthrough advertising

The headline’s job is to get your reader to read the first paragraph. From that moment on, your body copy does the selling. It does this by altering your prospect’s vision of reality. It creates a new world for your prospect—a world in which your product emerges as the fulfillment of the dominant desire that caused this man to respond to your headline.

The second half of the book talks about seven different approaches to create breakthrough copy. I’ll share each of them in turn.

Intensification

This is the most important of the seven techniques. It’s a way to make the desire more vivid and real for your audience. “To make sure that your prospect realizes everything that he is getting—everything that he is now leaving behind him—everything that he may possibly be missing.”

Intensification happens when you present a series of fresh, new, and different fulfillments of your prospect’s dominant desire.

There are 13 different techniques of Intensification (the original Schwartz text follows):

  • First Presentation of Your Claims. Present the product or the satisfaction it gives directly—bluntly—by a thorough, completely detailed description of its appearance or the results it gives.
  • Put the Claims in Action. To show, not only how the product looks, and what benefits it gives the reader, but exactly how it does this.
  • Bring In the Reader. Or, if your product lends itself to this kind of treatment, put your reader right smack in the middle of this product-in-action story, and give him a verbal demonstration of what will happen to him the first day he owns that product.
  • Show Him How to Test Your Claims. Let your reader visualize himself proving the performance of your product—gaining its benefits immediately—in the most specific and dramatic way possible.
  • Stretch Out Your Benefits in Time. Showing the product at work, not for just an hour or a day, but over a span of weeks and months. Here you extend your reader’s vision further and further into time—showing him a continuous flow of benefits.
  • Bring In an Audience. Each group of them provides a fresh new perspective through which your reader can view the product. Seen through their eyes—experienced through their actions and reactions—the product performances become new, vivid and completely different again.
  • Show Experts Approving. But not only celebrities and ordinary people can be used to reaffirm the product benefits. Experts in the field—professionals—the sophisticated, the discriminating, the blase can be called on to register their reactions.
  • Compare, Contrast, Prove Superiority. Each new approach suggests others. The competition can be carried into contrast. The disadvantages of the old product or service can be laid side by side with the advantages of the new—throwing these advantages into sharp relief.
  • Picture the Black Side, Too. And there’s no need to neglect the Heaven-Or-Hell approach. Here the negative aspect to every promise—the problem that you are liberating your prospect from forever—is painted in all its full black color. You irritate the wound, and then you apply the salve that heals it.
  • Show How Easy It Is to Get These Benefits. Stressing the ease of application, and contrasting it with the tremendous benefits that that application gives you.
  • Use Metaphor, Analogy, Imagination. Nor do you have to be satisfied merely with the statement of raw fact. There are infinite opportunities for the use of imagination to present those facts in more dramatic form, outside of the rigidly realistic approach.
  • Before You’re Done, Summarize. There are two conventional summary devices. The first of these is the “catalog.” This is a brief condensed listing of all the product’s performances, benefits, and/or applications, one after the other, without description, dramatization or elaboration. The second use is to pile desire upon desire, rather than application upon application. It is again a building of magnitude, of number—but this time in summary of all the perspectives that have gone before.
  • Put Your Guarantee to Work. And finally, as you close the sale, as you ask the prospect for action, as you state the terms of your guarantee, you can turn that guarantee into the climax of your ad—the last brief summary of your product’s performances—reinforced at every step by the positive reassertion of that guarantee.

Identification

The second technique is Identification – it means you showcase your product as a means for the customer to achieve a certain desired social role or to seem successful and accomplished in the eyes of others.

There are two kinds of roles people deem important:

  1. Roles that define character. “They are a part of the personality of your prospect. They belong to him. His task is to pick out the ones he values most, and to develop them.” In this case, your product can help customers achieve mastery more easily or quickly, or it can serve as a symbol of that mastery.
  2. Roles that express achievement. “These are the status roles . . . class roles . . . position roles that are created by every society on earth, and offered to the men and women who can earn them.“ In this case, display is vital, because these roles are not visible on the surface. The product will serve as a status symbol.

You need to build a bridge between the product’s current image and the prestige-filled image that you want to wind up with. Identify the primary image your product already holds. Then either intensify this image (if it’s already favorable) or build a logical link between that image and the end roles you want it to work with.

Gradualization

You can’t contradict everything your customer currently believes about your product. But you can start there and “build a bridge of belief between those facts as they exist in your prospect’s mind today—and the ultimate facts your prospect must believe if he is to accept your claims.” This prospect of logical build-up is the technique of Gradualization. It governs the structure of your ad and how you layer each claim on top of the previous one.

Schwartz explains that your copy’s claims don’t work in a vacuum. They are successful only depending on the preparation you have made for that statement. And this works if you deliberately lay the groundwork for that statement.

The purpose of this chain of acceptances is to lead your reader to a goal conclusion, which he will then accept, but which he would not as readily or as thoroughly have accepted without the preliminary statements.

Redefinition

Redefinition is pretty easy to grasp. It simply means you’re giving a new definition to your product. It works well to remove roadblocks to a sale in cases where the product might be deemed too complex, too dull and simple, or too expensive. So redefinition can be split into two sub-techniques:

  1. Simplification. When your product is seen as overcomplicated you need to show that it’s much easier to use than the competitors’.
  2. Escalation. You’ll make use of this approach when your product seems too dull or too niche. “You broaden the horizon of benefits of the product. You redefine the role that the product plays in the prospect’s life.” You make it seem more important.
  3. Price reduction. In this case, you want to make the product seem less expensive – but not through discounts or special offers. You make a comparison with a different more expensive standard. The high-end kitchen design service might seem expensive but it will last you longer and save you the need to redo all kitchen cupboards in five years, saving you both money and energy.

Mechanization

The prospect knows he wants the end result; now he wants to know how you’re going to give it to him. He is saying “How does it work?”.

Mechanization works in cases where you need to give a customer an extra reason why they should believe your solution will work for them. It happens on three levels. Which ones you’ll use depends on the sophistication of your market:

  1. Name the Mechanism: you can just leave it at that if the prospect is familiar with the specific mechanism (but that’s rare).
  2. Describe the Mechanism: you build a strong, quick promise and then you follow up with the reason why you can deliver that promise. You describe how it all works in detail
  3. Feature the Mechanism: for high sophistication markets, the mechanism is so important to the success of your product that you must put it into the headline.

Concentration

I have to admit, some of Schwartz’s techniques have weird titles – this one is among them. “Concentration is the process of pointing out weaknesses in the competition… emphasizing their disservice to your prospect… and then proving to him that your product gives him what he wants without them.”

You’re basically concentrating the worry about suboptimal solutions. You can use two different copy structures for that:

  • you can work with parallels: “here’s what they are doing bad – here’s how we’re doing this better”
  • you can do an imaginary before/after: “here’s what happens to you now with the old products – here’s how much better off you’ll be when you switch”

Camouflage

The last technique is again more about the structure and format of your copy than the actual arguments. It basically makes you use editorial-like formats to give more credibility to your copy. Rather than looking like an ad, your copy should look like editorial content, Schwartz says. And I, as a content marketer, really like that idea.

There are three types of Camouflage. The first creates believability through format – it will “allow the reader to enter into your ad with the least possible mental shifting of gears from “editorial” to “advertisement”. 

The second type is believability through phraseology: using news tone or, if your copy appears in another place, keeping with the jargon of the edition.

The third type is believability through mood adaptations. this is somewhat similar to the above but rather than using specific words you’re keeping with the broader sentiment. Ads often sound sales-y and hyperbolized. But you need to simplify your message and under-promise your product’s benefits. You can even use something Schwartz calls “deadly sincerity”. This means you will point out the flaws in your offer, explain who it’s not suitable for so that when you showcase your benefits, they will be believed that much more deeply.

How long should your copy be?

This is not a key part of “Breakthrough Advertising” but I still wanted to highlight it. Mainly because I’m tired of people wanting short copy because “no one reads long copy”. People don’t read copy that’s boring, that’s all.

Sure, in certain situations you don’t need much. If your prospect is most aware, you just need to point them in the direction of your offer and they’re good to go. But sometimes you need more. And skipping that because someone said “people don’t read anymore” is not just silly – it means you’re leaving money on the table because you’re not persuasive enough.

The length of your copy depends on three things – desire, identifications, and beliefs:

  1. How much copy you need to build up the desire. Your first task is to make your prospect want what you have. “To make him visualize the wonderful new world your product offers him so strongly that he practically lives in it—and then to offer him that product.”
  2. How much copy you need to create a sense that this product fits with their roles and lifestyle. You need to make the prospect feel both comfortable and complimented by that product. You need to show how the product helps customers build the roles and personality traits they aspire to. “Identifications complement and intensify the physical desires—add another dimension to them.”
  3. How much copy you need to make him believe what you have said. We all have opinions, attitudes, prejudices, fragments of knowledge, and conceptions of reality we live by. You need to update these beliefs, strengthen some and weaken others, to get your prospect to see your product as a viable solution.

The more work you need on those three fronts, the longer your copy will be. Don’t be afraid of being wordy when needed – Eugene M. Schwartz sure wasn’t!

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