4 Copywriting Lessons From John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods


Whether you’re a seasoned copywriter, a newbie or even just someone with a passing interest in advertising, John Caples’ book Tested Advertising Methods is most definitely a must read.

Published for the first time in 1932 – way before anyone ever imagined the Internet, let alone marketing 2.0, would one day be possible – the book remains so relevant it’s uncanny.

Actually, scratch that. It’s even more relevant today.

In a world where we’re bombarded with so much information that capturing people’s attention is an increasingly uphill battle, Caples teaches us that tried and tested methods (and a good dose of common sense) will always win the day.

It’s been tough, but after much thought, I’ve condensed his philosophy to four nuggets of wisdom I’d like to share with you.

I’ve written them out and tacked them to my notice board, so they’re always firmly in my mind as I go about my day.

Here they are.

1. The Headline Is Everything

It’s a sad fact of life that most readers won’t go past the headline. This applies whether you’re writing a piece of direct response copy, a printed advertisement, a blog post, or anything else really.

Shocker, huh?

Now more than ever, people tend to scan, and they’ll only stop if something catches their eye. More often than not, that something isn’t going to be a clever pun or a unique insight, but those words in large letters at the top of your copy: the headline.

As if to underscore this point, Caples starts off by observing that more than one fifth of his book deals exclusively with how to write headlines. He then goes on to say that it’s better to have average copy and a great headline than great copy and an average headline. In fact, the headline is what you should be spending most of your time on.

In the words of the man himself

The success of an entire advertising campaign may stand or fall on what is said in the headlines…

But what makes a great headline, as opposed to an average or terrible one?

According to Caples, it’s two things.

Firstly, you should make your offer instantly and abundantly clear. Secondly, you need to appeal to your audience’s baser nature.

This brings me to my next point.

2. Appeal To People’s Self-Interest

There’s a specific type of content that not only stands out, but keeps proving itself a success time and time again.

Surprise, surprise, it’s content that appeals to people’s self interest.

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably hazard a guess as to why this kind of content works so well. Spoiler alert: it’s because, even though we pretend otherwise, at the end of the day we all want to know what’s in it for us.

The best content is targeted at a specific audience and offers them something they badly want. This, coupled with an attention-grabbing headline, is powerful stuff. If you hit the right chord, people will make time to read your content, no matter how busy they are.

Use this to your advantage. Make it a point to understand what your audience wants, before you write a single word of copy. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

3. Leave Your Ego At The Door

Sales copy isn’t meant to be artistic, literary or clever. It’s meant to sell. Otherwise, it’s just a beautifully written piece of bad copy.

You should keep this at the forefront of your thoughts at all times.

Now no one is suggesting you should stop caring about how your copy flows or ensuring you use correct grammar and punctuation. This is also important.

But don’t miss the wood for the trees.

At the end of the day, you’re here to make a compelling argument that persuades your audience to buy, not to make the case that you’re the next Hemingway. In order to do this, you need to focus your energy on your message, not on pleasing yourself.

As Caples would put it

It’s what you say that counts, not how you say it. A valid argument presented in blunt language will sway the reader more than a less valid argument beautifully presented.

More importantly, clarity comes first.

Forget big words. This isn’t a game of Scrabble, and showing off your vocabulary isn’t part of your job description.

Always use simple language that anyone can understand. If your copy goes over your audience’s head, they’re not going to buy what you’re selling.

4. Test. Test. Test.

Caples was probably one of the first copywriters to advocate a scientific approach. He was very much concerned with learning how to make his copy more successful, and he took active steps to ensure he could do this by evaluating it in quantifiable ways.

Advertising isn’t an exact science – there’s a heavy element of subjectivity involved. This makes testing all the more important, because it’s the only way you can strip away questions of opinion and personal preference and get down to the nuts and bolts of what makes good copy.

Testing enables you to guard against an advertising manager or copy chief whose pet ideas may be hurting your advertising. Testing enables you to guard against an advertising agency whose idea of agency service is merely to turn out pretty layouts and stereotyped copy. Testing enables you to guard against mistaken ideas that you yourself may have in regard to advertising. And finally, testing enables you to keep in touch with trends in advertising. What was good advertising a few years ago may not always be good advertising today.

Sounds like pretty sound advice to me.

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