In 1919, Sherwin Cody began selling his patented 100% Self Correcting Course in English Language. In the next 4 decades, this ONE course made over $4.5MM in sales. It sold 150,000 copies (that we know of) at $30 each.
In today’s money, that converts to about $70,368,746.79. 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 me folks), couldn’t beat.
No ad ever did.
This undefeated streak only ran for 40 years because Sherwin Cody himself didn’t live longer.
In this issue of Stories of Successful Ads, 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.
Orphaned At 12
Alphaeus Sherwin 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 Cody and his 3 younger brothers to be educated.
However, tragedy struck Cody’s family. At 10 years old, Cody lost his father to tuberculosis. At 12 years old, Cody lost his mother to illness. And their deaths wounded him deeply. 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 and 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 each and made $25 (about $600 today) doing it. He also once copied a play for a nearby girls’ school and made $11 (about $300 today) from that too.
After college, Cody’s career always involved writing. Journalism. Publishing. Writing novels and instructional books. And adult education.
There’s a lot to cover but 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 knew that literary writing and sales writing were two different things. So, when it came to advertising, he wanted an advertiser focused on results, not pretty prose. So he visited a firm known for their skill in mail order advertising.
He went to Ruthrauff & Ryan Advertising.
Hi, I’m Maxwell Sackheim
At R&R, 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 Maxwell Sackheim.
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 legendary.
He wrote these 7 words.
Do You Make These Mistakes In English?
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 R&R. Like many ad firms, they kept testing new ads to try beat old ads. Many people consider Schwab to be 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 admitted defeat in an article. The article is “The Advertisement That Is Never Changed” from a 1939 edition of Printer’s Ink Monthly. And in it, he compares it with his second best ad:
- “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 251 ads. It brought 52,304 inquiries and 3,861 orders. This is $115,830 in sales.
Ad for ad, “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?” brought triple the inquiries and double the sales of the next best headline.
Let’s break it down.
The Full 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.
This ad looked exactly the same in all 40 years of its run, 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. If anyone could print anything, he wanted them to be able to print his ad.
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… even the most confident English speaker is curious to know what they are.
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’
The Opening Paragraph
Notice the ad isn’t a bullet list. The mistakes are written in sentence 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?”
Blame and Authority
The next two sections are all about blame and authority.
If you have made the mistakes he listed, you are probably feeling a little insecure. Remember, nobody likes making mistakes. But that is a bit of problem. Your prospect is feeling bad. You need to put him at ease.
So, what does Sackheim do?
He gives the prospect someone to blame: schools. And this is double brilliant because where would someone go to learn English? Yup, school.
These sections also build up Cody as an authority. At the time, the Gary System of Education was a major school reform. So the name adds credibility to Cody.
It also mentions the results he achieved. You come out the other side thinking, “It’s not my fault, but this guy can fix it.”
Easy and Fast
The next section is a very interesting use of imagination.
This patented 100% Self-Correcting Device isn’t just a book or course. It is Cody himself. Standing beside you. Quietly. Patiently. Respectfully. Always ready to guide you as you go about your day.
And the next section tells you that it only takes 15 minutes a day. Just in case you are skeptical, it also explains why it will only take so little time:
- 69 words make up half of our daily language so focusing on these fixes a lot of the problem.
- Less than 12 principles to learn punctuation.
- 25 grammar mistakes that cause 90% of everyday mistakes
Those 15 minutes will also NOT be boring but ‘fascinating practice.’ And he goes even further to tell you when you can take those 15 minutes:
- Riding to work
- At home.
- From ‘profitless’ reading or amusement.
A Barrage of Benefits
Before his offer, he just hits you with benefit after benefit after benefit.
He isn’t offering you English. He is offering you what good English will get you:
- ‘something so priceless it cannot be measured in terms of money’
- ‘mark of breeding that cannot be erased’
- ‘a facility in speech that marks them as educated people in whatever society they find themselves’
- It will be useful in the ‘race of success’
This is ye olde version of ‘To learn more…’
There is a lot of repetition for emphasis here.
Free is mentioned three times:
- ‘FREE – Book’
- ‘… had by anyone, free at request’
- ‘… no obligation’
It makes the offer for the book twice.
And then we have boilerplate instructions, address, and coupon.
The Free Book and Product
The free book and course itself goes beyond the scope of this post.
If you want to learn more, I recommend reading Do You Make These Mistakes In English? The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School by Edwin L. Battistella.
I have zero doubt in my mind that Cody received hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonials. If you have that many testimonials, there must be a lot of meaning to the 4 testimonials featured:
- The first testimonial is an example of professional advancement.
- The second testimonial shows it is interesting and beneficial for someone in secretarial work.
- The third is about confidence in writing letters.
- The fourth is about social insecurity.
In other words, this product will help:
- an ambitious person,
- a working person, and
- people skills, in long-distance or in person.
And it will do so for both men and women.
In your business…
- Writing builds authority. Cody’s opportunity in the Gary Plan was from writing. And he wrote A LOT about English. That opportunity gave him the immense credibility he commanded in his ads. Take what you know and write about it. You never know who will read it and what doors it will open for you.
- Write what you know—so go out and know something. A quote from Cody himself. If you don’t know what to write about, go read. Go do. And keep reading and doing until you know.
- It only takes one. It only took one conversation to keep Cody in college. One meeting to get involved in the Gary Plan. One meeting in an office to meet Maxheim. But it takes time and sweat to get that one.
In your copy…
- ‘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’ about 80 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 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?