The crimes they commit against their ads

Advertisers sabotage themselves in countless ways.

But of all the ways to go wrong, this one is the CAPITAL crime of direct response advertising.

And, while it’s a crime of omission, it murders sales (and growth) like no other.

What is it?

It’s this.


Direct response is a game of constant measuring… and observing cause and effect.

Take an action, see what happens… tinker with a break-even headline and perhaps, turn it into a winner… change up an offer and see what effect it has on response rates.

If you’re not testing, or not testing as vigorously as you should, (I’m also in this group) then take heart. There are some pretty big players in the game who’ve been doing things the same way because that’s how they’ve always done them.

Take Fisher Investments. I wrote about them in 2013 and was promptly contacted by their marketing director. He was a pleasant fellow and we had a 10-minute chat, but nothing he said contradicted what I wrote in my original post.

Fisher has $40 BILLION in managed assets and that makes them one of the biggest investment/mutual fund companies in the United States.

They also are reputed to spend $30 million a year on direct mail marketing.

But does that mean they know what they’re doing in direct mail?

The answer is a resounding “NO!”

I’ve been on their prospect list for SEVEN years and counting without taking a single action. Yet, I still keep receiving the same oversized 11 x 14 inch direct mail piece that challenges even the largest of mailboxes.

The idea of the oversized envelope is simple — it’s the antithesis of the Gary Halbert “sneak-up” approach that uses a plain #10 envelope with only a street, city and state in the return address.

Fisher’s DM is so massive, there’s no way you can miss it and the recipient is almost guaranteed to open it.

But it’s a one-trick pony.

The hulking size that compels opening on the first mailing is exactly what works against it on subsequent ones.

The bulky carrier combined with the billboard-sized font screaming “FISHER INVESTMENTS” telegraphs it all because…

The reader already knows what’s inside the envelope…

and the mail piece winds up in the round file.

Now, to be fair, Fisher does some direct mail testing.  I’ve seen the old and tired envelope teaser copy, “The favor of your reply is requested,” switched out for “A Special Invitation” in Gold cursive with a corresponding change of their premium. They’ve also tested the faux “security seal” popularized by Suarez Corporation.

But their overall DM approach hasn’t budged in years.

I wasn’t looking for a new client, and I had no qualms about sharing a few simple ideas with their marketing director when he asked: “How can we make it better?”

With a whopping $40 billion under management, you’d think they’d go a little deeper, like adding ascension into their marketing mix.

After all, how much easier would it be selling a newsletter on the front end and getting a crack at establishing some credibility and rapport with paying customers… and only then persuading them to invest?

And adding ascension has an even bigger advantage because paying newsletter subscribers almost ALWAYS OPEN their mail. So, instead of the atrocious waste circulation involved in bombarding one prospect with the same limp mail piece, you get a chance to sell an existing customer once a month in a variety of ways.

Fisher’s other BIG problem is their one-size-fits-all approach. “If you have $500,000 to invest, then download this free report.”

Yes, it’s a mechanical approach and yes, it works. As marketers, we need to qualify the right prospects but it ignores a fundamental factor.

What drives most investors and financial markets respondents isn’t money itself… but devotion to their particular money “channel”

There are a myriad of motivations and mindsets among these investors.

Here are a few:

  • Retirees looking for bigger returns but terrified of risk
  • Dividend investors searching for near perfect safety
  • Crisis investors ready for social chaos to break out
  • Technology investors waiting for the discovery of “the next Google”
  • And dozens of others from emerging markets… to utilities… to energy investors

When you can speak to the dreams and desires of individual groups of investors, then you get a crack at driving response way up.

 #2: BIE Health’s Choose Life… Grow Young with HGH

 A competent C-Level copywriter could go to town with this ad, IF he were allowed to do some testing!

It’s been running unchanged for 15 years and hardly a month goes by that I don’t come across a full page insertion.

Take a look at the ad and you’ll notice it has a year 2000 copyright notice. Purple headline font… purple text box… nothing’s changed in 15 years. I know some writers who were in pre-school when this ad had its first insertion!

Obviously, this ad is making money, but how much money has been left on the table after all these years by NOT TESTING?

When you’ve got a full page ad that works for so long, it’s your obligation to test.

 #3 Athena Pheromones

This fractional ad is one of my favorites.

The company’s been running 1/8th of a page insertions for almost as long as BIE’s HGH ad.

If you were running an 1/8th of a page insertion that brought home response month in and month out, what would you do?

Perhaps, try a 1/4 page insertion, or… heaven forbid… a half-page vertical!

Experienced print advertisers know a full page ad that’s working doesn’t outpull a quarter page by four times but by FIVE or SIX times.

But you’d need SOME COPY to achieve this — and that would mean sacrificing the 50% of the ad taken up by the founder’s head shot.

In parting, here are three little letters to live by: A.B.T.

Always be testing!


  1. says

    I love posts like this because they simply shine a bright light on how much opportunity is out there.

    To me – the ultimate find is to see a company being very, very successful as a result of BAD marketing.

    It shows there’s money to be made in that market just by upping the marketing game.

    I bet you could craft a winning piece to the same list Fisher is mailing to …that sells directly against Fisher …even referencing the giant envelope they’ve been sending the recipient over and over again.

    I bet someone could write a great lead-gen piece specifically for that list …offering a tell-all report on how big firms are raking in huge commissions and squandering it on advertising. Linking that practice to shenanigans (shenanigans!)

    …And showing how to select the right firm that focuses on serving the investors instead of fattening their wallets.

    Kind of like this.

    Dear Friend,

    Everybody knows that most so-called money experts are really just experts at one thing: taking your money.

    Take for example the company that’s been cramming your mailbox with giant, oversized ads for the past several years.

    You know the ones, they look like this [insert pic of piece] -and they’ve been clogging up your mailbox – month in and month out – for ages.

    Did you know they spend over THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS a year on sending out obnoxious letters like that?

    And where do you think the money for all that junk mail comes from? That’s right. INVESTORS LIKE YOU.

    They spend $30 million on junk mail …

    …so they can get more high fees and commissions …

    …so they can buy more junk mail …

    …so they can get more fees and commissions!

    (It almost seems like one of those crazy pyramid schemes you end up hearing about on the news!)

    But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Did you know there are XX other ways these big “money companies” are burning up hard-earned cash? (Otherwise known as YOUR MONEY).

    They’re all laid to bare in this controversial breakthrough report entitled, “LEGAL PONZI: How Big Mail-Order Investment Firms Are Raking In Millions”

    ——–[end randomly written draft copy]————–

    Granted, that’s a probably a little overboard but you get the idea.

    Anyway – I gotta get to work. Thanks for this blog. It’s one of the best in the world.

  2. Lawrence Bernstein says

    Bravo. 🙂

    Most don’t know the “real” Frank Kern is as dedicated a student of old school direct response as anyone out there.

  3. says

    Sensational article, you’ve hit the nail I really like your blog, it is rich in content …

    But as Frank Kern said, the other errors can become your strengths and you benefit from it …

    Thank you.

  4. Michael Winicki says

    The first time I saw the HGH ad in a magazine a few years ago I had the same thought that a lot of copywriters do when see this ad… There’s a lotta of room for improvement!

    I thought to myself, “How are they making money with this?” I also noticed the copyright date and knew it had to be out there for a while.

    Well I called the company and got the spiel… A good/better/best pricing scenario at $149/$249/$479.

    With those types of prices and the margins inherent in the supplement industry… An average looking ad can be still be profitable.

    Like Dan Kennedy says, so much of this direct marketing stuff is tied to the math… if the math is favorable you have a lot more room for error, if not, you could have the best copywritten piece and still not make it work.

  5. Lawrence Bernstein says

    Hey Mike,

    How have you been!?

    Miss your musings from years ago on the Michel’s old Copywriter’s Board. 🙂

    Yes, it’s amazing how “bad” something can be and still succeed.

  6. Michael Winicki says

    Nice to see you still fighting the good fight against bad marketing!

    Ah, the old “Copywriter’s Board”… I still haven’t found a substitute for that. Quite the amazing place.

    Been spending some time in the dietary supplement arena– online mainly but spending some resources doing offline testing. Online anymore is like slogging through mud. Not that offline is easy as you know, but at least you have some scalability to it.

    Your world doing OK?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.