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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

My Secret Weapon: Starch Tested Copy
By Alan Rosenspan

They say confession is good for the soul.

In previous articles, I've shared how I ripped off the Pan Am Frequent Flyer program, Murray Raphel, Jim Kobs, Lester Wunderman, and even my own daughter's children's books. This month, I'm going to share another secret with you.

Roper Starch Worldwide is a research company that measures advertising readership, with a sample of readers of the specific publication in which an ad appears.

Over the years, they have developed a vast knowledge of what makes some advertisements more effective than others.

However, judging from the advertising that I see, very few people are actually aware of this research or this service -- which, for years, has given me an important edge. But this month, I come clean, and I'll share with you some of the things I learned from Roper Starch and their publication Tested Copy.

First, A Caveat

Let me state at the beginning that Roper Starch measures only readership -- not response. Of course, as they say, "Only those who see and read an ad can be influenced by it."

Or, I can add, will respond to it.

They interview from 100-to-200 readers of a specific magazine, from two days to two weeks from the date of the publication. The interviews are conducted at between 20 and 30 different locations.

Three degrees of readership are measured.

Noted: The percentage of people who remember having previously seen the ad in the issue.

Associated: The percentage who can remember any part of the ad that clearly indicates the brand or the advertiser. In other words,. they can't just say, "I saw the ad", they need to remember a specific part of it.

Read Most: The percent who read 50% or more of the written material in the ad.

By the way, the percentage for read most is almost always less than 20% -- sometimes a lot less. And that has important ramifications for direct mail, which I will discuss at the end of this article.

Of course, I'm the first to agree that it doesn't matter how many people read your advertisement, only how many people actually respond to it.

Plus, Roper Starch does not measure persuasion, or even intent to purchase. Therefore, an advertisement with a clever headline, and no copy, may measure higher than one with longer copy that does a more effective selling job.

However, it is my contention that if you apply the principles of effective print advertising; if you get more people to notice, and remember, and read most of your advertisement, you cannot help but increase response.

I also believe that many of the same principles also apply to direct mail.

Which Ad Pulled Best?

Tested Copy also often includes an innovative feature where the reader is invited to judge which of two or three advertisements measured higher.

For example, see the box below to judge for yourself. The answer will be given at the end of this article.

"Which Ad Pulled Best" has also been collected into book form and published by NTC, the National Textbook Company in Lincolnwood, Illinois. I believe it is an excellent tool to improve your print advertising, and your judgment.

However, it can be dangerous.

At one of the advertising agencies I worked with, I decided to circulate a test and report the results at our Annual Meeting. I sent out 20 sets of advertisements, both for the same or a similar product or service, and invited everyone in the agency to pick "Which Ad Pulled Best."

Most people in the agency got about half right. A woman who worked for me in the Direct Response group got 19 out of 20 right -- which made me very happy. My son, who was only 8 at the time, got nine right. (The boy has a promising future...)

But the president of the agency got three out of 20 right.

It was the last time I was allowed to do the test. And I left the agency shortly afterwards.

If you do order "Which Ad Pulled Best", make sure you also request the Teacher's Guide -- which is the only place you'll find the answers!

So what are the principles?

Roper Starch does not propose any hard and fast "rules" for creating great advertising. Rather, they look for consistent patterns in successful advertising as measured by their techniques.

However, here are 10 of the lessons they have learned -- all of which can also be applied to direct mail.

1. The eyes have it. Advertisers should create ads while keeping in mind the values of the human eye. The eye wants to see, and see clearly. Many advertisements use fuzzy, off-kilter photographs and reversed-out type. If it's hard to read -- people won't. They won't respond either.

2. Never place copy above an illustration. The way we read is that we look first. In fact, that's one of Eric Von Vooren's Three Commandments of Communication. A person's eye is invariably drawn to a picture first, only then do we read down. We almost never read up. It's like gravity.

3. Great visuals work. A woman with a zipper for her mouth. Another woman with a knotted rope squeezing her head into an impossible position for headache tablets. A great visual will go a long way to gaining people's attention and standing out from other advertising or direct mail.

As Amil Gargano said, "The solution to most advertising problems is verbal. If you have a great visual solution, you have a leg up on the competition."

4. Blend the visual and the copy, don't separate them. Have you ever seen a two-page spread ad where the picture is on one side, and the copy is on the other? Starch confirms what I've believed for years. They're wasting half their money.

5. Avoid visuals that force the reader to ask "What is that thing?" As Tested Copy says, "Avoid ads that would draw a number of admirers in an art gallery. Art galleries do not attract the masses; ads, on the other hand, are supposed to."

6. Avoid headlines that do the same thing.

In his book, Research in Advertising, Dr. Henry Durant measured five types of headlines. They are:

Word play
Brag and boast
Say little or nothing
Direct, with benefits or news

Dr. Durant's analysis revealed that the advertisements with direct headlines were, on average, four times as effective as the others.

If this seems like common sense, try looking through the next issue of your favorite magazine, and see how many headlines fall into each category. Direct headlines are sometimes few and far between.

So the next time you want to multiply your advertising effective -- and, in effect, your advertising budget -- four times over, simply change to a direct, benefit-oriented headline.

7. Testimonials not only increase believability, they increase readership. The Roper organization found that a sizable majority of Americans say they find third-party testimonials to be among the most believable elements of advertising.

Ads with prominent quotes (and using quote marks around the headline) consistently enjoy high readership scores. If you're not using testimonials, you could be missing an important element.

8. Size matters. Roper calls it "giantism" which describes presenting an object in larger-than-life form. People are often fascinated by ordinary objects that are displayed in extraordinary ways. For example, have you ever seen a super close-up photograph of a match? A pencil? A flower?

I would like to take it one step further. In direct mail, one effective technique is to show or use an object that people are very familiar with.

The example I use was done for the Boston Ad Club. It consisted of five different "While You Were Out" messages.

The first said, "While You Were Out -- your bank called. Your account is overdrawn"

The second said, "While You Were Out -- the client called. We had to cut your budget by 60%. Let's talk."

The third said, "While You Were Out -- Adweek called. We heard your company is being bought and would like a comment."

The fourth one said, "While You Were Out -- the IRS called. We need your 1983 income tax return."

What on earth were they selling? You had no clue until you read the fifth one, which said "While You Were Out -- the AdClub called. We thought you might be interested in our Stress Management Seminar."

This mailing broke every rule in the book -- no letter, no offer -- but was highly successful.

9. K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Stupid). This is probably even more true in direct mail than it is in advertising. Most ads and direct mail pieces are not obvious enough -- they don't clearly show benefits, they don't tell you exactly what to do.

K.I.S.S. is essential not because reader's aren't smart. It's just because they're not as interested in your product as you are.

10. Break the rules, please. I'll let Philip Sawyer, the president of Roper (and the author of Tested Copy) explain their position.

"Our exploration of advertising principles is an attempt to make your job easier. But anyone who tells you that all or even most of advertising can be reduced to simple principles has neither thought about or lived much in the real world.

"We have to admit there are no real "rules" for creativity. We admire those advertisers who have taken a risk and thumbed their noses at convention."

Specific sins of business-to-business

Starch has also produced a special issue on business-to-business advertising, which they believe often has three failings:

1. They are distinctly un-visual The illustrations are often dull and have lots of cluttered images, instead of one single, clear and attractive one.

2. They tend to emphasize the abstract rather than the human element. Abstract visuals do not work as well as photographs of people.

3. They do not emphasize benefits. According to Starch, business-to-business advertising tends to over-estimate the reader's interest in their product. People are not interested in your product, they are only interested in what it can do for them.

Interestingly enough, business-to-business advertising usually enjoys higher average readership scores than consumer advertising. The rational is that they are usually found in magazines that are highly targeted and full of useful and relevant information.

But What About Direct Mail Readership?

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that Starch has found that the percentage of people who "read most" of an advertisement is almost always less than 15%, and usually a lot less. That underlines an important aspect of direct mail.

According to many experts, such as John Watson in the U.K., one of the biggest mistakes in direct mail is trying to appeal to everyone -- and not the two or three people in 100 who will be vitally interested in what you have to say.

That's why many people believe that long copy doesn't work. The fact is that the vast majority of people will stop reading, or not even bother to start because it looks too long.

However, the two or three in 100 who are interested, who want more information, who may have a need for your product or service, will practically pour over every word. After all, you're promising to solve their problems or provide a much-needed benefit. For them it's not long copy. It's just complete.

Sadly, Tested Copy is no longer a monthly publication. It appears on a regular basis. However Roper Starch also provides a number of innovative services including analysis of your advertising, campaign reports with rankings on advertising performance, and access Starch Plus --- the world's largest print-ad database. For more information on any of their services, please contact them at 212-4554900 or at

Test Yourself

This quiz appeared in Tested Copy. Why not test yourself, and then see below for the answers?

1. Which of the following does Tested Copy most consistently find as a failure of print advertising?
The failure to:

A. Animate the product and bring it to life
B. Thoroughly describe the characteristics of the product
C. Tell the reader what the product will do for them
D. Give the reader sufficient information about the advertisers

2. According to a Roper poll, which type of advertising is most believable?

A. Ads that feature real people who have used the product
B. Ads that cite the results of user surveys
C. Ads with a moneyback guarantee
D. Ads that name the competition and make comparisons

3. What proportion of readers of women's magazines agree with the statement, "I like the way scented ads make magazines smell?"

A. 29%
B. 44%
C. 68%
D. 80%

4. True or False: On average, an ad with sans-serif type is more likely to earn higher readership scores than an ad with serif type.

A. True
B. False

Answers: (1. C, 2. C, 3. D. 4. B, 5.)

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