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Breakthrough Advertising: The Most Important Paragraph In Eugene Schwartz’s Classic!

Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene SchwartzI have a confession to make.

You see, I fancy myself as being as a bit of a marketing guy. A bit.

Maybe even a budding direct response entrepreneur/copywriter. Maybe. (I’m a humble guy – I leave the tooting of my horn to my clients and to our students).

Yet I had never read Eugene Schwartz’s Breakthrough Advertising.

Huh? You might be wondering what’s the big deal about that.

After all, few advertising people have read it (I’d probably correct that and say “not enough of them” have), and even fewer marketers.

It’s not on most entrepreneurs’ radar screens, that’s for sure – but it should be; Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz is one of the most mentioned “must-read” books on copywriters’ lists everywhere and the book many of its readers credit for adding an extra zero to their net worth.

Everyone in direct response marketing says that you should study this book as if your life depended on it.

So there must be something to it.

Well, the other day my direct response mentor gave me crap for not having read it yet. So I got it (the “right” edition, by the way – don’t get the wrong edition… keep reading to find out more).

The verdict?

It’s a gem.

Schwartz blew me away with the opening paragraphs (all emphases his, by the way):

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy. Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exists 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.

Actually, it would be impossible for any one advertiser to spend enough money to actually create this mass desire. He can only exploit it. And he dies when he tried to run against it.

Let that sucker sink in for a minute.

(This is an old book, folks. Eugene wasn’t really thinking about gender equality back then, unfortunately. These days, female copywriters kick ass, too.)

Now this may not have been the first time you’ve heard about “selling to those who already want it,” but I dare you to find the concept so powerfully explained elsewhere.

Despite being intimately familiar with the concept described in this paragraph, I found myself reading it and re-reading it.

I singled out this paragraph because this rule gets ignored too often, to our detriment.

  1. Instead of spending the bulk of our time selling only to those who want our product, we spend it trying to convince people who don’t want it that they actually do.

Conclusion: Lunacy, especially after reading Schwartz’s opening to Breakthrough Advertising.

2. Instead of writing an ad to resonate with right group and get them to take action, we write it to appeal to a broad audience, “so that we get the most interest.”

Conclusion: We should prefer to have 1% of the people get interested 100% of the way, than 100% of the people interested 1% of the way (with thanks to another great ad man, Roy H. Williams, for that one).

3. Instead of following up with our lists with the intention to segment out those who possess the mass desire that we want to exploit, we just blast away with sequential messages to the entire group hoping something sticks.

Conclusion: If you are edumarketing (defined by BuzzWhack as “The use of free educational content to generate sales leads. All those Web sites offering free white papers, special reports, exclusive studies, etc., are further proof that there is no such thing as a free lunch. In return for their free “educational” material, expect to give up your name and email address if not more.” ) then you should incorporate strategies (e.g. surveys, offers, etc.) to slice and dice your prospect list and “activate” the right groups with your offer.

4. Instead of taking the time necessary to fully understand and articulate our market’s actual “hopes, dreams, fears and desires,” we make guesses about what they want.

Conclusion: Marketers don’t spend nearly as much time as necessary to really get to know their market’s emotional hot buttons. (But if you’re a Mirasee student, then you’re old hat at this – you covered it in Week 3 of the program.)

I challenge us all…

I challenge us all to go back to our copy (web site, brochures, ads, whatever you use) and scrutinize whether it’s really channeling, directing, and exploiting our market’s mass desire. It might be the most important marketing thing you do all day.

And what about the book?

After reading the first four chapters I feel the overwhelming urge to call everyone I’ve ever written an ad for and apologize. Yeah, really. (Not that they were that bad, but whoa… I’m looking at them a lot differently).

If you decide to get it…

Keep a few things in mind.

First, it’ll cost you a pretty penny because it’s out of print.

And second, buy the 4th edition or earlier. The fifth edition is revised and not for the better, it seems. In their attempt to update the writing, which would be considered dated by today’s standards, they lost something in the process.

Finally, unless you’re actually DOING marketing, advertising and copywriting, a lot of what Schwartz writes might go over your head. It’s heavy, dense, advanced stuff. Don’t despair. Consider it a perpetual psychology and marketing education – something to read and re-read over the years.

So over to you. Have you read the book? What did you think of it? Planning on getting it? Let us know in the comments!

Discover Your Market's Hopes, Dreams, Fears, and Desires

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About Peter Vogopoulos

Peter Vogopoulos is a marketing and business coach, university lecturer and co-founder of Firepole Marketing.

31 thoughts on “Breakthrough Advertising: The Most Important Paragraph In Eugene Schwartz’s Classic!

  1. Since I wrote this post, I’ve been amazed at how often this advice is not followed. Seriously, look at your offer and ask yourself, “what is the mass desire I need to tap into?”
    And then check and see if you are speaking to that desire strongly enough.

    • Hello Peter – we are trying to segment ..
      What would be really helpful is if you could give us an example to illustrate the point you make above.

      I know it might sound straight-forward to some, but if lots of people are not following the advice, then perhaps not all of us clearly understand it.

      • Well, the book itself has a good example…

        Let’s say it’s the 50s and we’re in the USA and people are into BIG cars (i.e. that is what the market covets, it is the style-du-jour, it is what everyone is buying) and *you*, a competing automotive company, decide to be different and decide to come out with a tiny car… (because hey, no one else is selling small cars, we should do it! It’s an open opportunity — yay! a “Blue Ocean”.. ugh… don’t get me started).
        Anyway, so you come out with a tiny car.
        Well, you just went against the market “wave”, the “mass desire.” And as far as Schwartz is concerned, you’re cooked.

        Schwartz’s point is that no amount of money can sway mass desire, in this case to create a mass desire for a tiny car when everyone is breathless for big ones. Sure, there may be a fringe segment of interest, but you aren’t getting a home run with this puppy. In this example, despite having excess resources in its favour, the automotive giant still failed to accomplish that objective.

        The lesson is: don’t go against mass desire — it’s like try to redirect a tsunami. You’ll get swept away.

        I hope that helps. Let me know otherwise.

        Peter

        • thank you Peter. That makes it very clear. One of my favourite saying is ‘observe the masses and do the opposite’ because I’ve never wanted to follow the crowd. However, I do realise that if you are marketing a product or service you have to provide what the market wants. Unless you desire to be in a specific section of that market. Would that be right?

          • Yes, with one caveat for your last sentence.
            When you talk about being in a specific section of a market, you typically are referring to specializing towards a niche. That is an excellent idea ONLY under the following circumstances:

            1. The niche is measurable. You can easily figure out how many potential clients comprise it and how much they typically spend on your type of product or service.

            2. The niche is substantial. There are enough potential clients to generate the revenues needed to support your business project and make this worth pursuing.

            3. The niche is accessible. A good niche that cannot be tapped through marketing means may as well not exist to you, as marketing to it will be very difficult and expensive.

            4. The niche is “differentiable”. Meaning that you can define its boundaries clearly vis-a-vis other niches and isolate it for targeting purposes.

            5. The niche is actionable. Meaning you have the ability to offer your product or service to this market and they in turn would have the need/desire/want to buy your product or service. You might think this point obvious, but you’d be surprised. Many a business has failed trying to offer a service that it is not qualified to offer. Or alternatively, offered a service to a market that doesn’t want it.

            So to conclude and answer your question:
            Schwartz was referring to the “mass” desire of the mass market. When you work in niches, you can afford to be the tiny car as long as the niche meets the criteria above and makes it worth your while. While a service business usually has a revenue model that can do well in niches, capital-intensive industries like automotive cannot viably manufacture and market a car with fringe appeal. It’ll probably never make it’s money back.

            I hope that was useful. Do write back if you need something more.

            Peter

          • One more thing…

            In the interest of disclosure, please note that I am no longer actively part of Firepole Marketing, so nothing that I say should be construed as speaking for Danny or his team. Danny might have his own thoughts on the matter which may different from mine.

            That said and knowing Danny, I am certain that I am still a welcome guest here anytime 😉

            Peter

        • Unless, of course, you identify a splinter market. For example, a small car might appeal to people who don’t care about fashions but do care about economy. Or women, who might have found little cars more feminine. That kind of thing.

          The thing about Schwartz is that he touches very lightly on many important elements like this, and it’s impossible not to miss them. What you have to do is study the book as you would a difficult academic textbook, preferably keeping in mind a product you intend to sell so that you can relate the text to your own business. Even then, it’s bloody hard going.

  2. I haven’t read the book but it surely goes on my wish list. Even just the first paragraph I think explains the roots of marketing, understand the need of people and fulfill it. Not that’s so easy though. 🙂

    Merry Christmas to everyone!

  3. When you said it’s expensive you really meant it (almost $100 at Amazon). On the other hand, if it’s even remotely as valuable as you say it is, it’s worth a lot more to a marketing professional.

    I agree with your point about targeting marketing. People like the idea to speak to the masses. So, they spend millions in TV advertising. But it can well be a waste of money.

    Target people who want to be targeted and you’ll start to make a profit 😉

    • Peter (cool name, btw),

      $100 is pretty good for the right edition. It’s expensive, but the testimonials going around from the people who have read it talk about people increasing their sales not by percentage points, but by orders of magnitude. The headline guidelines it provides, based on the context of your customer’s level of awareness, that alone is worth much more than the cost of the book.

      TV advertising, as you say, really isn’t for everyone, certainly not for the small business owners that hang out around Firepole Marketing. The cost of producing the commercial, coupled with the cost of the necessary repetition to “make is stick” is prohibitive to all but the deepest pockets (or the most venture capital to burn). Still some brand-intensive industries (for which branding and top-of-mind awareness are crucial), — such as beverages, brewing, automobiles and cosmetics — really don’t have a choice if they want to compete at that scale. Nice post.

      Thanks for contributing!
      Peter

      • Hi Peter (I think your name is even cooler),

        I think I’ll have to scrounge the money for it somehow 😉

        I do agree with you about TV advertising being a sound investment for some companies. But I’d still call it a poor investment.

        In my humble opinion even car manufacturers should only use their last $20 million of their $200 million marketing budget on TV advertising. For example Toyota made a rap video of their new car. The video received millions of viewers for free (excluding cost of creating the video) on YouTube. And the people who saw it, wanted to see it and will remember it for a long time.

        And I do believe content marketing could be even more effective for a car manufacturer.

        Beverages, brewing, and cosmetics too will get more bang for their buck for other marketing methods. Like Budweiser has done with its’ commercials that often pop up in YouTube. But yes, I do admit (as I do in my post ;)) TV advertising can be a good choice once other more effective methods are used. Just my 2 cents though…

  4. Peter, this is absolutely fantastic. Truly. What an eye-opener, not just for the classic book recommendation, but for your strong understanding about the effort involved in convincing others, list-management, etc. is very valuable.

    There is ‘ancient wisdom’ available in every field, and almost always these wise bits are timeless, powerful principles that can be easily understood and implemented, generating significant results — Schwartz is no exception.

    Schwartz Gets Desire:
    Admittedly, I’ve never read him, but I have heard him mentioned many times, and the paragraph you quote is something I’ve studied very, very deeply, not specifically in an advertising sense.

    I speak and write about ‘desire’ verrry often, as it is the core, founding principle of success in anything, including copywriting. Desire is key.

    Creating Demand Vs. Directing Desire
    I talk a lot about Creating Demand (and generally reference Apple + Steve Jobs when I do), and it might be a bit confusing when put next to Schwartz’s concepts, but ultimately, I think the two ideas agree.

    I think most people can understand that it is generally easier to build on and use what’s already there, rather than re-invent the wheel (or CD player)

    The iPod didn`t reinvent music, or even portable music, but Jobs was able to ‘create a demand’ for something that people didnt even know they wanted, in an industry that was actively against it (RIAA).

    To me, it’s semantics as to whether Jobs ‘created desire’ or ‘channeled the markets latent desire’, because to me ‘channeling desire’ IS part of the creation process, even if it takes ‘many steps’.

    So Where To Next?…

    This goes further down the rabbit whole when discussing vague ideas like ‘success’ and ‘creation’, but I think the overall key thing here is:

    Understand timeless advertising principles is awesome.

    Thanks again, I’ll definitely check out Breakthrough Advertising, I think there’s a copy at my library 🙂

    • Jason,

      You said it best, “create a demand for something they didn’t know they wanted” — but I’ll say “find a solution that will fulfill and tap into a hidden desire”. We wanted portable music without lugging cassette tapes (yes, I am old enough to have owned a walkman, and Danny, you can stop that “old” joke about to come out of your mouth right now) or CDs *and* look cool in the process.

      ** Side note: In product innovation circles, the belief is that if you only listened to what the customer wanted, they would never tell you “the iPod”, they’d tell you “more of the same”. It takes an inventive and intuitive genius like a Jobs to read between the lines and deliver a game changer. **)

      Looking at the example of Apple and Jobs it reinforces the main takeaway, other than the excellent one you shared — if you go against the mass desire “grain”, you’re gonna get screwed.

      Thank for your long and insightful comment!
      Peter

  5. For web advertisements, It takes sometime to fine tune Advertisement for the right audience. Going through the analytics collecting information about the incoming traffic, one is in a good position to strategically position ad media for the target group.

  6. In order to grab the attention of readers the first few lines of any article is very important. This post instantly grabbed my attention. I’m just so satisfied with the details you’ve discussed on marketing, simple and to the point even a non techie or layman can understand. I haven’t read the book so I’ll try to grab a copy.

  7. Just picked this up! I too am only 2 chapters in and it has me rethinking my entire focus.

    I feel like I want to put everything else on hold until I finish this! WOW!

    I have not been this excited about a book in a very VERY long time!

    Thank you

  8. Thanks for the rec and the link to the free copy of the book…awesome! I will make this (hopefully) regular reading, in addition to the other work I’m doing now. Everything you point out in this post mirrors what I’ve been learning in Daniel Levis’ Quantum Income Leap course, which I’ve been working on for the last couple of months.

    Great advice and thanks to you and Derek for the tip on the free download!

  9. Chris,

    Link was probably taken down (DCMA’ed). Probably that (bad) bootleg scan floating around the web I’ve, um, heard about (cough, cough).

    Also, the name Derek only appears on this page three times (four, including this post), so they’re referring to a post that isn’t here anymore.

    Sure would like to get a hold of the “Guest Author” who posted this, though. There is no 4th edition of ‘Breakthrough’. Probably mixing it up in his head with John Caple’s Tested Advertising Methods, which was reprinted & re-edited after his death. The 5th edition (ugly red/orange cover) is scoffed at by those in the know… and me, who just wants to look like I know what I’m talking about :-p.

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