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Contents Require Immediate Attention

3 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Copywriters estimate that they have only four seconds to get a consumer’s attention with direct mail. Hence great care is devoted to the design of the envelope, the crucial outer garment that direct-mail watchdog Denison Hatch likens to “hot pants on a hooker.” It may be deliberately oversize or emblazoned with URGENT warnings in bold red letters. It can be laser printed to make a boxholder’s name appear handwritten, or stamped with an eye-fetching cancellation mark. “My job,” explains Ted Kikoler, a Toronto graphic designer who works primarily for U.S. firms, “is to make people read the words, by hook or by crook.”

The gurus of the direct-mail copywriting trade are the Sonoma, Calif., team of Bill Jayme and Heikki Ratalahti. Over the past 20 years, they have used their wiles to help launch more than a score of publications, including Bon Appetit, Smithsonian and Mother Jones. Jayme and Ratalahti’s marketing packages, which cost $30,000 to $50,000 each, share four characteristics: an irresistible envelope, a personalized typewritten letter, a brochure intended to give an as yet nonexistent product an aura of legitimacy, and a response card. Jayme and Ratalahti know that people do not read direct-mail pitches carefully, so they adhere to a simple axiom: state the message, repeat it — then repeat it again.

There are plenty of other tricks to the trade. Most pitches rely on sentences that are short, punchy and startling. (“Hatch chicks in your bra!” says an offering for Countryside magazine.) The intimate second person “you” is usually invoked in the first sentence and sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of the pitch. Prices are rarely rounded. (A $29.95 price tag helps people believe the item is still in the “$20 range.”) Pitches often run to several pages. (Says Kikoler: “The more you tell, the more you sell.”) The message is often printed on toned paper because warm colors apparently evoke a warm response. And usually there is a postscript. Some writers claim that the P.S. gets more attention than the body of the pitch letter.

Gimmicks are a must. Mailings often include stickers or buttons to “involve” the consumer. “It starts to reduce the amount of logic readers use,” explains Kikoler. “They tend to become more childlike.” Katie Muldoon, president of HDM Muldoon, a New York City direct-marketing agency, has discovered that an offer to cut prices 50% works better than a 65% discount, which consumers consider too good to be true. Disabled American Veterans has found that when gummed, individualized address labels are included, the response rate (35%) is almost twice that for mailings without stickers.

Is all this highly manipulative? Of course. “They really know how to push our hot buttons,” says copywriter David Lusterman of San Anselmo, Calif. “I’m very jaded.” Counters pitchman Jayme: “Junk mail gives everyone the chance to say, ‘Yes, I exist. They’re still writing to me — and dammit, I wish they’d stop!’ “

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