The Lineup of Brilliant Losers

Paul Talbot Copywriting

It is admired as the longest-running direct response advertisement ever.

Every serious copywriter has a copy of it.

Between 1918 and 1959, the Maxwell Sackheim advertisement for the Sherwin Cody School of English kept running and running.  The same headline, the same subheads, the same offer, and only minor cosmetic changes.

The ad showed up in publications ranging from The Black Mask to The New York Times, where it appeared for the final time in a December, 1959 edition of The New York Times Book Review.

In his book Breakthrough Advertising, Eugene Schwartz didn’t just encourage copywriters to study this ad.  He urged us all to memorize it.

When Edwin J. Battistella set out to tell the story of Sherwin Cody in his intriguing 2009 book, he used the ad’s headline for the book’s title.

“Do You Make These Mistakes In English” contains a section that is fascinating for copywriters.  It is a list of 22 headlines that were tested to try and topple Maxwell Sackheim’s control.  None of them pulled in more response.

Here they are.

A New Invention that Finds and Corrects Your Mistakes in English
Stop Making Mistakes in Speaking and Writing!
Astonishing Facts About Your English
Stop Abusing The English Language
His New Invention Finds And Corrects Your Mistakes In English
His Simple Invention Has Shown Thousands How To Break Bad Habits In English
New Way To Find And Correct Your Mistakes In English
Mistakes In Writing And Speaking Made Every Day
Your English is Your Trade-Mark – It Tells Just What You Are
Ten Mistakes in English – How Many Will You Make?
If Only People Knew How They Are Hurt By Their Unconscious Mistakes In English!
His Simple Invention Has Shown Thousands How To Stop Making Embarrassing Mistakes
How To Discover Your Mistakes In English In One Evening
Are YOU Ever Overheard Making Mistakes like These?
What Are YOUR Mistakes In English?
Stop Groping For Words!
Sherwin Cody’s New Method Has Improved The English of 41,000 People
How To Avoid Embarrassing MISTAKES In ENGLISH
Does Your English Help You Or Hurt You?
He Thinks He Is Speaking Correct English!  Can You Find His FIVE Mistakes?
Which of These Mistakes In English Do You Make?
How You Can Master GOOD ENGLISH – In 15 Minutes a Day

Because we are boxed in by hindsight, and can’t judge the heads fairly knowing that each one came up short, it is easy for us to pick them apart and find their flaws.

Some of these headlines were written by copywriting giants, such as Victor Schwab.  There are obviously some great headlines here, and this list of losers is both illuminating and thought provoking.

For example…

When a number was attached to the number of mistakes, in one headline 5 and in another 10, each failed to topple the less precise “These.”

Intriguing, because most of us who write copy know that specific numbers tend to wrap irresistible credibility around an otherwise vague claim.  Perhaps because the specific number in the headline wasn’t attached to a claim, it never had the opportunity to work as a source of credibility, and simply got in the way.

Perhaps the reader was intimidated by the notion of moving ahead into the copy to find a specified number of mistakes, worried that he wouldn’t find them all.

Whatever the case…

This lineup of losers reminds us that the Sherwin Cody control was constantly being tested, and earned its position as a battle-scarred direct response classic.