Copywriting Examples #02:
How “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?” Became A $70MM Question
In this #02 issue, you’re going to discover how Sherwin Cody and Maxwell Sackheim created the most profitable info product of all time. Using this ONE ad I’m going to share with you—the very same one that was undefeated for 40 years—Sherwin Cody sold over 150,000 copies of his course for $30 each.
That cumulative $4.5MM in sales translates to over $70MM today. And over a 40-year run, that averages out to:
- Nearly $1.8MM a year
- Nearly $150K a month
- Nearly $5,000 a day
And this was achieved with ONE ad.
An ad that did not change in the 40 years it ran.
An ad that even the greatest mail-order copywriter of all time, Victor O. Schwab (1898-1980, not the humble freelance copywriter writing this also called Victor), couldn’t beat.
This undefeated streak only lasted exactly 40 years because Sherwin himself died in April 1959. After his death, the rights to his product were bought by the U.S. School of Music (appearing in Issue #09) and it was discontinued, along with this ad.
In this issue of Copywriting Examples, I’m going to share with you how he did it. I’m going to show you the exact ad he used. And I will give you lessons you can apply to your own business and ads.
Alphaeus Sherwin Cody and His 100% Self-Corrected Course in English Language
Cody was born in 1868 near Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was born to Aldus and Eliza, a couple that owned a sawmill and lived in a cabin.
Both of his parents had some college education, and had aspirations for their Cody and his 3 younger brothers to be educated.
At 10 years old, Cody lost his father to tuberculosis.
At 12 years old, Cody lost his mother to illness.
Their deaths hurt him deeply. And it created a strong desire in Cody to become educated as his parents wished for him.
Cody lived with his maternal grandmother up until he went to college. In that time, he studied Latin and learned Greek. He excelled in mathematics. He started a debate society. And generally did well in school.
In college, he was broke. He had $105 when Amherst College cost $319 per year, so he took up work to make up the difference. The college president hired him as his personal secretary. So Cody borrowed money from his uncle to buy a typewriter.
That typewriter became his first try at business. He offered classmates copies of professor’s notes at 75 cents and made $25 (about $600 today). He copied a play for a nearby girls’ school and made $11 (about $300 today).
Then comes a long career. Journalism. Publishing. Writing novels and instructional books. And adult education. Here are the most important bits:
- In selling his own books, Cody learned some principles of writing ads.
- At the Chicago Tribune, he created an English course. This course later became a book called The Art of Writing and Speaking The English Language.
- Cody made a correspondence course called The Cody System. This taught him a lot about correspondence courses.
- During the Gary Plan, he got the chance to pilot a grammar curriculum for about 1,000 students. In 5 weeks, there was a 40-50% reduction in mistakes.
After his experience in the Gary Plan, he thought of creating a new teach-yourself course.
From selling his own books, Cody learned something important. He knew that literary writing and sales writing were two different things.
He wanted to work with an advertiser focused on results, not pretty words. So he found a firm that specialized in mail order advertising.
Thus, Sherwin Cody went to Ruthrauff & Ryan Advertising, an agency in New York.
Maxwell Sackheim and The 7 Magic Words
At this agency, Cody spoke to a few copywriters. They were all very impatient with him and thought he talked funny. So they all ignored him.
Except one fellow named Max.
Max listened to Cody without judgement. He encouraged Cody to finish the course and patent the method. He even helped in making the course and planning the strategy.
But even with all his contributions, Maxwell Sackheim did something incredible.
He wrote these 7 words.
Do You Make These Mistakes In English?
This simple question is one of the most subtle and profound headlines featured in the Copywriting Examples series. It is difficult to exaggerate the genius in this headline. This headline is to advertising what e=mc2 is to physics.
There’s a man named Victor O. Schwab. His advertising firm inherited this ad from Ruthrauff & Ryan Advertising. And like many ad firms, they kept testing new ads to try beat old ads.
Many people consider Victor Schwab the greatest mail-order advertiser of all time. He worked together with Sackheim to find any words that could beat this headline.
In 1939, a full 20 years after the original headline, Schwab wrote an article that basically admitted defeat. The article is “The Advertisement That Is Never Changed” from a 1939 release of Printer’s Ink Monthly. And in it, he compares it with his second best ad.
The full article is locked in the University of California library. This is what I could find:
- “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?” ran in 374 ads. It brought 224,025 inquiries and 10,962 orders. This is $328,000 in sales.
- “How To Speak and Write Masterly English” ran in 251 ads. It brought 52,304 inquiries and 3,861 orders. This is $115,830 in sales.
Ad for ad, Maxwell Sackheim’s original ad brought THREE times the inquiries and DOUBLE the sales of the next best headline. A complete wipeout in favor of this time-tested ad.
Let’s break it down.
The Full “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?” Ad
In its entire run, this ad was only run a few times a year.
- In the 1920s and 1930s, that was 5-9 times a year.
- In the 1940s, that reduced to 3 times a year.
- In the 1950s, that dropped again to twice a year. Usually in August and December as schools started.
In it’s entire 40-year run, this ad never changed. Even as printing technology improved.
First, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Especially when it makes millions of dollars.
Second, Cody wanted this ad to remain as basic as possible so it could be printed anywhere. Newspapers. Magazines. Comics. Annuals. Pulps. You name it.
If anyone could print anything, he wanted them to be able to print his ad. And Ruthrauff & Ryan Advertising’s art department honored that request with the simple, black-and-white layout.
These are tucked away in the bottom left of the page. Notice how these are chosen for variety.
The first one is from a man who used it for his career.
“Stepping Stone To Advancement”
The Course was a stepping stone for me. Soon after I enrolled I was promoted to Chief Clerk. Later the Course was invaluable in helping me pass the bar examinations; 67% failed. Also aided me in passing a number of Civil Service examinations.”Albert F. Nebelsick, Rout 2, Sunman, Indiana.
The second one is from a woman who used it for her career.
“Great Help and Benefit”
Your Course is quite the most interesting way I have ever studied English. I feel that it will be of great help and benefit to me in my secretarial work, and to me it is money well spent.Mrs. Reba Shields, 623 Iry St., Jacksonville, Flo.
The third is from another woman who used it for writing letters. Note that letters were the main method of long-distance communication back then.
“Money Spent Wisely”
To anyone seeking a knowledge of English I recommend the Course most heartily. I really enjoy writing letters now, because I express myself more effectively. I can truly say that I spent my money wisely.Mrs. Martha S. Marlowe, 3350 Grace St., Chicago, Ill.
The final testimonial is from a woman who comments on the intangible emotional benefits.
Overcomes Inferiority Complex
It has helped me a great deal, and it has given me an added sense of security when addressing other persons. It is surprising to find how lax one becomes in the use of English, spesiecially when one has been out of school for some years. My mind and ambition had become somewhat stagnant, and I suffered from an inferiority complex. Mr. Cody’s lessons have been of great help to me in overcoming these weaknesses, for which I am thankful.Mrs. Verne Cunningham, 606 W. Emer., Monterey Park, Calif.
Do You Make These Mistakes In English?
First, it uses the magic word ‘You.’ This word is powerful. There are thousands of articles out there telling you to use “you” more than “I.”
Everyone’s mind is “me, me, me.” Any time you use the word “you”, you are joining that conversation. This is why you can yell, “Hey, you!” in a crowd and A LOT of people will turn around. You just interrupted the conversation: “me, me, me, me–Who, me?”
Second, it puts you on the spot. Nobody likes to make mistakes. And even more, nobody wants to make mistakes and not know about. It makes sense. A million years ago, a mistake would mean:
- Eating something poisonous
- Getting eaten by a wild animal
- Getting murdered by someone you offended
In other words, mistakes meant death or bodily harm. The stakes are much lower these days, but that part of our brain remains.
Third, it says ‘these mistakes.’ The key is in the word ‘these.’ What happens when we take out that word? If you’re NOT confident in your English, you’ll read the ad. If you ARE confident in your English, you won’t.
But when we say these mistakes…
Maxwell Sackheim knew even the most confident English speaker would be curious to know what mistakes the ad will point out.
Sherwin Cody’s remarkable invention has enabled more than 100,000 people to correct their mistakes in English. Only 15 minutes a day required to improve your speech and writing.
- It mentions the product: ‘Sherwin Cody’s remarkable invention…’
- It gives social proof: ‘more than 100,000 people’
- It promises to be easy: ‘only 15 minutes a day’
- It repeats the same benefit twice:
- ‘correct their mistakes in English’
- ‘improve your speech and writing’
NB: Note that this clear copy of the ad is not of the last printed version, which has the 150,000 figure in the subheading.
The Opening Paragraph
MANY persons use such expressions as “Leave them lay there” and “Mary was invited as well as myself.” Still others say “between you and I” instead of “between you and me.” It is astonishing how often “who” is used for “whom” and how frequently we hear such glaring mispronunciations as “for MID able,” “ave NOO,” and “KEW pon.” Few others know whether to spell certain words with one or two “c’s” or “m’s” or “r’s” or with “ie” or “ei,” and when to use commas in order to make their meaning absolutely clear. Most persons use only common words—colorless, flat, ordinary. Their speech and their letters are lifeless, monotonous, humdrum.
Notice the ad isn’t a bullet list. It’s a rapid-fire list of different common mistakes with sentences that drive home how common they are. Sentences starting with:
- ‘Many persons’
- ‘Still others’
- ‘It is astonishing how often’
- ‘Few know’
And then the last two sentences are just blanket criticisms of ‘most persons.’
“Does that include me?”
“It’s Not Your Fault”
Why Most People Make Mistakes
What is the reason so many of us are deficient in the use of English and find our careers stunted in consequence? Why is it some cannot spell correctly and others cannot punctuate? Why do so many find themselves at a loss for words to express their meaning adequately?
The reason for the deficiency is clear. Sherwin Cody discovered it in scientific tests which he gave thousands of times. Most persons do not write or speak good English simply because they never formed the habit of doing so.
What Cody Did At Gary
The formation of any habit comes only from constant practice. Shakespeare, you may be sure, never studied rules. No one who writes and speaks correctly thinks of rules when he is doing so.
Here is our mother tongue, a language that has built up our civilization, and without which we should all still be muttering savages! Yet our schools, by wrong methods, have made it a study to be avoided—the hardest of tasks instead of the most fascinating of games! For years it has been a crying disgrace.
I call this the “It’s Not Your Fault” section because that’s what it does. It gives you something to blame for your English mistakes.
Copywriting is about tapping into and managing emotion. Maxwell Sackheim has created insecurity. The last two sentences of the introduction are really sharp criticisms. But if you pile it on too thick, people can get defensive and stop reading. So he quickly shifts gears and puts the blame on something else: school.
This is doubly brilliant because where else would someone interested in improving their English go to? Yup, school.
It also serves to set up Cody as an authority in the next few paragraphs.
The “How It Works” a.k.a. Mechanism
Before we know how it works, it’s important to know how “the how” was made.
In that point lies the real difference between Sherwin Cody and the schools! Here is an illustration:
Some years ago, Mr. Cody was invited by the author of the famous Gary System of Education to teach English to all upper-grade pupils in Gary, Indiana. By means of unique practice exercises, Mr. Cody secured more improvement in these pupils in five weeks than previously had been obtained by similar pupils in two years under old methods.
This achievement is what sets Sherwin Cody apart, making him uniquely qualified to solve the problem.
Note how Sackheim makes this point even stronger in the reader’s mind with the next sentences.
There was no guesswork about these results. They were proved by scientific comparisons. Amazing as this improvement was, more interesting still was the fact the children were “wild” about the study. It was like playing a game!
So, now you know that it works. On top of that, it is scientifically proven. On top of that, it was fun.
Now, Sackheim transitions into the mechanism (i.e. the how) of Cody’s program.
The basic principle of Mr. Cody’s new method is habit-forming. Anyone can learn to write and speak correctly by constantly using the correct forms. But how is one to know in each case what is correct? Mr. Cody solves this problem in a simple, unique, sensible way.
100% Self-Correcting Device
Suppose he himself were standing forever at your elbow. Every time you mispronounced or mispelled a word, every time you violated correct grammatic usage, every time you used the wrong word to express what you meant, suppose you could hear him whisper: “That is wrong, it should be thus and so.” In a short time you would habitually use the correct form and the right words in speaking and writing.
Before we go on, I want to point a few things:
- It silences a common objection of “Will it work for me?” by saying anyone can learn to write and speak correctly.
- It proposes Cody’s method as a simple, unique and sensible way of doing it.
- It “upscales” the product in a visual way, by picturing Cody at the reader’s side.
- It is very specific in that visual. Three different situations and uses one of the senses (hearing).
- It peppers in a sentence about the results and how quickly they’ll start.
Let’s keep going with the visualization.
If you continued to make the same mistakes over and over again, each time patiently he would tell you what was right. He would, as it were, be an everlasting mentor beside you—a mentor who would not laugh at you, but who would, on the contrary, support and help you. The 100% Self-Correcting Device does exactly this thing.
It is Mr. Cody’s silent voice behind you, ready to speak out whenever you commit an error. It finds your mistakes and concentrates on them.
You do not need to study anything you already know. There are no rules to memorize.
Sackheim keeps expanding on the visualization and introduces emotion with words and phrases such as:
- Patiently he would tell you what was right
- An everlasting mentor beside you
- Would not laugh at you but support and help you
And the last two sentences are a transition into the next section I call.
The “How Easy It Is” a.k.a. Sloth
Sloth as in one of the 7 deadly sins. It’s an excellent framework for the emotions you want to appeal to in your copy. And Sackheim spends the next few paragraphs explaining all the different ways AND reasons this will be easy for the reader.
Only 15 Minutes a Day
Nor is there very much to learn. In Mr. Cody’s years of experimenting he brought to light some highly astonishing facts about English.
For instance, statistics show that a list of sixty-nine words (with their repetitions) make up more than half of all our speech and letter-writing. Obviously if one could learn to spell, use, and pronounce these words correctly, one would go far toward eliminating incorrect spelling and pronunciation.
We touch again on emotion with these facts about English being “highly astonishing”.
We also tap into authority by mentioning “statistics show” and end with assuming agreement (“Obviously if …”) to have the reader accept this as truth.
The next couple of paragraphs follow the same structure. A somehow “proven” fact and assuming agreement that if this was true, then the result is easy.
Similarly, Mr. Cody proved that there were no more than one dozen fundamental principles of punctuation. If we mastered these principles, there would be no bugbear of punctuation to handicap us in our writing.
Finally he discovered that twenty-five typical errors in grammar constitute nine-tenths of our everyday mistakes. When one has learned to avoid these twenty-five pitfalls, how readily one can obtain the facility of speech which denotes the person of breeding and education.
Now, we go into the time required that was mentioned in the headline.
When the study of English is made so simple, it becomes clear that progress can be made in a very short time. No more than fifteen minutes a day is required. Fifteen minutes, not of study, but of fascinating practice!
And that it’s not only just 15 minutes. It’ll be an enjoyable 15 minutes.
Sackheim goes further by integrating social proof (mentioning his students) with examples of WHERE people will find the time.
Mr. Cody’s students do their work in any spare moment they can snatch. They do it riding to work or at home. They take fifteen minutes from the time usually spent in profitless reading or amusement. The results really are phenomenal.
A Rapidfire Summary of Benefits
Sherwin Cody has placed an excellent command of the English language within the grasp of everyone. Those who take advantage of his method gain something so priceless it cannot be measured in terms of money. They gain a mark of breeding that cannot be erased as long as they live.
They gain a facility in speech that marks them as educated people in whatever society they find themselves. They gain the self-confidence and self-respect which this ability inspires.
As for material reward, certainly the importance of good English in the race for success cannot be overestimated. Surely, no one can advance far without it.
Accessibility. Value. Social approval. Good feelings. And even financial success.
Also, about the strange “breeding” comment, that’s closer to what we’d call “upbringing” or “socioeconomic class” these days. Think of it as a way of keeping up with the Joneses.
Free Lead Magnet Offer
Yes, soft offers (i.e. a free/low-cost information product) are over 100 years old.
Because $30 is quite a lot of money for a book/course, especially earlier in the 40-year run of this ad, they offered a free book. Here’s the copy:
FREE — Book on English
It is impossible in this brief review, to give more than a suggestion of the range of subjects covered by Mr. Cody’s new method and of what his practice exercises consist. But those who are interested can find a detailed description in a fascinating little book called “How You Can Master Good English in 15 Minutes a Day.”
The first sentence gives a reason why they’re offering this book. Notice how it doesn’t explain why its free. It just gives you a reason to satisfy the logical part of your brain and moves on.
Also, notice how the book title offers valuable information. Even as far back as 100 years ago and the complete opposite of all the entertainment we have today, people STILL wouldn’t just read an obvious ad.
The next sentences build some credibility into the offer.
This is published by the Sherwin Cody School of English in Rochester. It can be had by anyone, free upon request. There is no obligation in writing for it. The book is more than a prospectus. Unquestionably, it tells one of the most interesting stories about education in English every written.
The School has a physical location, which makes it seem more established.
The book is available to anyone and without a catch. It minimizes the risk of ordering and this is repeated in the coupon below.
The book itself is positioned as an interesting story. It makes it more enticing.
The Call To Action
If you are interested in learning more in detail of what Cody can do for you, send for the book “How You Can Master Good English in 15 Minutes a Day.”
Merely mail the coupon, a letter or postal card for it now. No agent will call. SHERWIN CODY SCHOOL OF ENGLISH, 8811 B. & O. Building, Rochester 4, N.Y.
Note the phrase “No agent will call.”
That is a tried-and-true phrase that is used by any direct mail copywriter to lessen the obligation or feelings of buyer’s risk in the reader. It is also repeated in the coupon.
Another common one is “No salesperson will visit”.
Please send me, without obligation on my part, your new free book “How You Can Master Good English in 15 Minutes a Day.” No agent will call.
Zone No (if any) …
[ ] If 18 years or under, check here for Booklet A
Key Takeaways – Copywriting Examples #02
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- ‘You’ is the most powerful word you have. This is the single most powerful way you have to get in your prospect’s mind and hold your prospect’s attention. ‘You’ is how you enter the “me, me, me” conversation. This article uses the word ‘you’ and ‘your’ over 100 times.
- Your headline is the most important thing in your copy. About 80 cents of every dollar your ad sells is in the headline. When writing copy, I can spend DAYS just working on a headline. A great headline can save bad copy. Great copy can’t save a bad headline. For anything you write, those 5-15 words at top should take as much time as all the words that come after.
- Position your product differently. This ad isn’t for a course. It is for having an expert such as Cody metaphorically standing beside you to teach you. Easy example: Your workout app isn’t a workout app. It’s a personal trainer in your prospect’s pocket.
- If your product is expensive, don’t directly go for the sale. Cody didn’t ask for what is now $700+ in a single ad. He offered a free booklet that explained the course while offering value. And the time between reading the ad and getting the book for you to think about it. Ever wonder why marketers have free and gradually more expensive products?
- Battistella, Edwin L. Do You Make These Mistakes in English?: The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School: The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School. 1st edition, Oxford University Press, 2008. [Amazon]