How Woody Allen Would Write Copy

An interviewer asked Woody Allen how to write a joke.  Here’s what Allen said: “It depends on where I want it to take me.  First, I figure out where I want to end up.  Then I start asking questions so I can work backward to a beginning.”

Writing the end first is something a lot of novelists also do. Same for screenwriters.

So maybe it won’t come as a surprise to you that a lot of successful direct response copywriters to this too. For instance, I once asked great copywriter Bill Christensen how he gets started. “I write the offer card before anything else,” he said. “And then the sales close. Then I’ve got something to aim for in the rest of the letter.”

I was just getting started when he told me that. And I’ve done the same ever since.

Try it yourself. Especially if you ever feel unfocused or unsure of how to begin. Start writing by drafting a reply card and a sales close… and see if it doesn’t clarify your whole game plan.

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In Picture Ads, The Eyes Have It

eyeHere’s a quickie insight and useful tip:

The common wisdom is that everybody loves a pretty face, right? Not always so, says Bryan Eisenberg over at grokdotcom.

 Oh sure, the pretty face does attract attention. But that’s the problem. In ads, a real looker can pull a visitor’s eyes away from your message.

Heat maps showing viewer interest reveal that we impulsively go to the eyes first in a face.  This is especially true if it’s a head-on shot where the face in the ad is making eye-contact with the viewer. And that can detract attention from where you want the prospect’s attention to end up, which is with the content of your ad.

But when the model’s eyes look aside, the same heat maps show that viewers tend to follow the model’s gaze to where it lands. A good photographer knows this to be true, too. Portraits with someone looking directly at the camera have a very different feel from those where the subject looks off-frame or into an empty space.

For the marketer — even a copywriter — this matters when you choose stock photos or when you higher someone to take pictures for your promos? If you’re in that situation, ask the model to look in the direction of your product or headline instead.

(Or, in a pinch, use Photoshop to make it happen.)

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Short Words, Bigger Word Power

shortwordsIt’s brevity they say is the soul to wit. And If that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless. I grew up loving what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”

In high school, we called them “SAT Words.” These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

No sooner did I slip into the world of the written word, to discover that bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations, rather it obfuscates it. (That is, big words can make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)

Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess.

It’s not a book, per se. In all it’s 16 pages. And SMALL pages at that. What’s really impressive, however, is that the entire essay is written with one syllable words. (Talk about practicing what you preach!)

Burgess’ essay originally appeared in “Your Life” magazine in 1938.

Here are a few juice quotes that reveal the core idea:

“Short words must have been our first words when the world was young. The minds of men were raw… Their first words were, no doubt, mere grunts or growls, barks, whines, squeals like those of beasts. These rough, strange sounds were made to show how they felt. They meant joy or pain or doubt or rage or fear…

“But these sounds came, in time, to grow more and more plain as real words. They were short words, strong and clear. And these first short words, used by our sires way back in the dark of time, still have strength and truth. They are bred in our flesh and bone. We may well call such words the life blood of our speech.”

“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us — from our heats or guts — not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act… That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”

In other words, says Burgess, in a point that’s often ignored, short words have power. In poetry, sure. But also in sales copy too. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”

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Sleep, The Ultimate Writing Tool

snoringIn a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

 Sleep, it turns out, gives your brain time to “repack” the day’s collected memories for longer-term storage. In the process, your powers of creativity get a boost. The more you sleep, the faster it seems you’re able to sort through all those ideas and make the connections you need to come up with something new.

 For the same reasons… sleep works as a writing tool too.

Think about it…

Have you ever fell asleep with a problem on your mind, only to wake up with the solution.Countless writers, businessmen, musicians, and other creative types make similar claims.

 Per psych Professor Richard of the University of Hertfordshire, England, “In our dreams we produce unusual combinations of ideas that can seem surreal, but every once in a while result in an amazingly creative solution to an important problem.”

 How to take advantage of these findings?

Here are some ways…

 1. Skip “must-see” TV. In fact, throw out your television altogether. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you’re NOT staying up late to watch Conan or Letterman.

 2. Give late-night net surfing a pass too, if you have trouble sleeping. As well as answering late-night email. I’m working on these two bad habits myself.

 3. Go easy on late-night sugar or caffeine. That double coffee-ice cream mocha fudge sundae with espresso bean sprinkles might sound delicious after dinner, but you’ll be sorry come 3 am.

 4. Go easy on workaholic behavior too. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.”

 5. That said, if you do have a tough problem to work out, give it a 15-minute review before going to bed. You just might wake up with the solution.

 6. Exercise, they tell me, helps you sleep even more deeply. So do breathing exercises before bed (like the ones where you inhale and exhale using only your abdomen).

 7. Sleep late? Not hardly. It turns out one of the best ways to guarantee a good night’s sleep is to load up on sunlight the preceding morning, the earlier the better.

 8. Besides, say early-risers, you really do get more done when you start early. Even, by the way, if you work the same number of hours as the night owls. Nothing helps you sleep better than knowing you’ve gotten a lot done.

Yes, they’re just tips on getting better sleep. But I can tell you, as a parent of two kids under age five, there are the nights you get no sleep… and the nights you get plenty… and there’s a world of difference. In every way, including in front of the keyboard.

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“They Laughed When I Stopped Shaving…”

My Petit Mo.jpg What’s this on my lip? Nothing less than the unfettered whiskers of a man determined (if not a little deranged).

Yep. For the month of November, I’ve pledged — along with the other men in our family and hundreds of thousands of others worldwide — to grow a “mo.”

In case you don’t know, “mo” is slang in Australia for a mustache.

Now, I’ve never been to Australia. But the cause behind this is so good, that doesn’t make a fizzlewob of difference.

See, it turns out, that “mo” growers everywhere… yours truly included… are risking mockery and taking donations, all in the name of research in the fight against prostate cancer.

Sure, there are plenty of other worthy causes.

But this one sits close to home.

One out of every six men will get diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of them is my father, who right now is battling the later stages of this disease.

Nonetheless, he’s rallied to grow a November “mo” of his own (“It’s like grass,” says my four-year old daughter).

And he’s inspired us to get in on the cause too.

There’s nothing saying you can’t also play along.

Just go here and either join up or donate…

http://us.movember.com/mospace/959346/

Hope to see your name on the list!

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Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

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“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

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What Copywriters Should Know About Copyrights

justice.pngIt’s embarrassing the number of I’ve times had to explain: “copywriting” and “copyrights” have next to nothing to do with each other.

Not embarrassing for me, mind you, but for the guy who asks me how to protect the draft of his novel about high school from plagiarists.

However, I’m not giving the whole story here, because the two terms — ‘copyright’ and ‘copywrite’ — actually DO have a little something in common.

Let me explain by way of a note sent to me some time ago by copywriter Brad Grindrod…

“When I’m writing a promotion, I’ve got a ton of material I’ve gathered to support the claims in my letter. But I’m just not sure if or how I can legally use it.”

First, some kudos for Brad.

Gathering a ton of research, in my opinion, is the right place to start. And not just for writing promo copy.

Magazine articles, novels, screenplays…

All benefit from deep research.

Divinity, said Nabakov, is in the details. But here’s the quandary:

What if someone else came up with those details first?

THE TRUTH ABOUT BORROWED WISDOM

Let’s start with terminology:

What, exactly, IS copyright infringement?

Matt Turner, an old college buddy and senior lawyer for a major publishing company, lays it on the line:

“In the context of the written word, copyright infringement is literally stealing (i.e. ‘copying’) someone else’s words without permission,” says Matt, “However, ideas themselves aren’t copyrightable.”

This, obviously, is a controversial point.

In the shortest terms, it’s DIRECT and EXACT representing of someone else’s work as your own that puts you most at risk.

Clear So Far?

After you’ve got the simple concept clear in your mind… enter the nuances, stage right.

For instance, JOURNALISTIC and COMMERCIAL speech do NOT have the same freedoms.

Matt explains:

“In commercial speech, the law is not as favorable to the writer… advertising copy is commercial speech, since it’s aim is to sell.”

So what’s that mean?

It does NOT mean that you’re barred from citing great stats or famous quotes.

In fact, quite the opposite.

A good citation or borrowed anecdote — provided you don’t violate “fair use” laws (another can of works, addressed in today’s “Missing Link”) — can actually INCREASE your credibility and legitimacy rather than threat it.

The big difference between journalism and promo-writing, says Matt, is the use of images and photos. INCLUDING, by the way, those photos for which you can buy the rights:

“You can’t use someone’s photo to sell something without his permission. On the other hand, you CAN use the same photo in a new story or editorial. Because it’s news, not the key element of a sales pitch.”

Okay, that seems pretty clear, yes? So what about data and stats?

“Pure data has little or no copyright protection, either. You can’t and shouldn’t just steal a chart outright. However, if the information you’re using is something publicly observable that someone took the time to gather… and you find your own way to represent it… you should be fine.”

What about the “essence” or outline of an idea?

Says Matt, “Ideas are NEVER legally safe. It’s only the actual expression of the idea that’s protected.”

Phew… it sounds like an intellectual free-for-all! But don’t lick your chops just yet, you unscrupulous mongrel:

“Stealing someone’s work can cost you plenty,” warns Matt. “Especially if it can be shown you cut into their business by taking their words.”

Lengthwise, I’m overdue to wrap this article up. Yet I feel we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Maybe I can summarize:

Yes Brad, there IS a copyright clause.

You’ll stumble across it any time you sit down to research or write.

But worry not.

Even in promo copy, you can STILL use data to punch up your points… you CAN use quotes that fortify credibility… you can EVEN make vigorous adaptations of one or two borrowed ideas along the way.

HOWEVER, keep this in mind too…

Stealing material outright is different. How can you tell the difference between good research and going too far? Simple. If you feel like you’re cheating, you probably are.

Let the tingle in your spine be your guide.

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How to Ace Any Job Interview

frustrated-job-applicant.jpg Interviewers will tell you, they hire based on qualifications… experience… results… and so on and so forth, blah blah, etc.

Says Richard Wiseman, in his book “59 Seconds…” they’re mostly kidding themselves. And he’s got 30 years of psychological research to back him up on this point… including a joint study by the University of Washington and the University of Florida.

Two researchers followed the job searches of over one hundred students, from the creation of their resumes and their lists of qualifications through to the content of their interviews, replete with follow up thorough interviews and questionnaires.

The same researchers then contacted the interviewers and quizzed them too. They noted everything from general impressions to job requirements, skill matching, and so on. And, of course, whether the interviewers expected to make a job offer.

What was the key?

Not past experience. Not school performance or other qualifications. Not even embarrassingly low salary requirements or the cost of the suit worn to the interview.

Over and over again… it came down to how much the interviewer “liked” the interviewee. Yep. It came down to being irresistibly… personable.

Is that fair? I haven’t a clue. But it is what it is.

Gallup says the same, looking at presidential polling going back to the 1960s. Consistently, a candidate’s “likability” has more reliably predicted who will take the White House, more than any other factor.

Says the University of Toronto, the same goes for divorce — people others characterize as more “likable” end up about half as likely to get divorced. And doctors who rank as more “likable” are far less likely to get sued for malpractice, even if something goes wrong with a patient.

Likewise, says Wiseman, your “likability” can save your life — since doctors are more likely to urge pleasant patients to stay in touch and come back in for frequent checkups.

But what’s all this matter if you’re NOT looking for a job… getting married… visiting doctors… or seeking to run the country? Simple.

See, likability is simply another way of saying you’ve managed to persuade someone to trust you.

Both aren’t both those things — trust and persuasion — the very oxygen that sustains a good marketer and a good copywriter?

Yes, Cupcake. Yes they are.

If indeed that’s right, that you can persuade anybody to do anything just by being more likable… then how do you go about it?

Wiseman had a few tips. And in some ways, they’re not at all what you might think. For instance, he says, in interviews you might look to go in swinging, with a barrage of your best selling points right up front. After all, you want to impress… yes? No, actually. Not yet.

Research shows it’s much better, says Wiseman, to come in positive and personable… but to quickly get past a worrisome weakness first.

That way, you come across more genuine. People are less likely to trust you if you’re too perfect.

What’s more, says the same research, you’re also better off saving really impressive details for later. Why? For the same reason, coming in with them early sounds like boasting… holding them until later smacks of humility. It also lets the good bits linger longer, after the interview is over.

Reading that made me wonder, could the same be true in copy? Indeed it could. Think of the best classic ads of all time. Rags to riches and bumbling genius stories abound. (e.g. Every variation of “They laughed when I said…” ad ever written).

Likewise, consider what Dale Carnegie used to say. You’ll win more friends in two months, he said in his famous book about how to do just that, by developing a genuine interest in the people around you… than you will in two years of trying to make them interested in you.

In interviews, Wiseman says that means you need to show genuine interest in the company or client you’re trying to woo by knowing something about what they care about, by asking questions, and by offering a sincere compliment about something you admire.

And don’t be afraid to go off topic and chat — sensibly — with your interviewer about something he or she cares about too. Or rather, getting them to talk while you listen.

In copy, you do the same when you show you know what your prospect worries about… and when you do the work of finding out what they want a product to do for them in return.

You do that, too, when you use examples and analogies they can understand in their own terms… and when you tell them stories where they can see themselves, either as victim or hero.

In short, like the company looking to hire, your copy prospect is “interviewing” you and the product you’re selling, too. They want more than just the thing you’re offering. They want more than just the irrefutable data points you’ve dug up, too.

They want to know, most importantly, if they can trust you. They want to know… if they could learn to like you.

And will they?

If you don’t already think this way, you’ll be surprised how much it will change more than just your pitch. It will change the way you do business.

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What’s the Secret to Selling Bad Products?

chaplinCopywriters are hired guns. We usually don’t create the products we sell, just get hired to sell them. So how, pray tell, are you supposed to write copy that sells a product that… well… stinks?

Here’s the simple answer: You don’t.

And no, not just because making a strong tease for an unworthy product presents a serious moral challenge — though, that’s reason enough to turn down the job right there. But also because, frankly, bad products are  just… well… harder to sell.

Here’s how marketing great Roy Williams put it once in his famed “Monday Morning Memo” ezine…

“Give me a business that delights its customers and I can write ads that will take them to the stars. But force me to write ads for a business that does only an average job with their customers and I’ll have to work like a madman to keep that business from sliding backwards.”

Yes, you might say. It sounds so obvious. But pressed, couldn’t you or I come up with plenty of examples of businesses that managed to excel with mediocre products?

Yes, it’s possible.

And not always for reasons easy to explain. Perhaps customers at the start of a certain market just had fewer options. But where, these days, are you going to find businesses with no competitors?

Choice has exploded across all kinds of product lines.

For that reason, it means that taking on copywriting assignments for inadequate products or services is a situation you should find yourself in less and less. If at all. Since, fortunately, a multitude of choice for the customer also often means more choice for you when you’re talking about which products to write copy for and which clients to take on.

What to do if a good client brings you something mediocre to sell?

You have a choice. Either work with the client to make the bad product better (I’m doing that right now with a newsletter that’s decent, but needs to “bump it up” another 10% before it meets customer needs)… or bag the project altogether… and let your client know why, albeit with diplomacy.

If that’s a problem for the client, then you have the more difficult but ultimately career-enhancing choice of moving on to somebody else who’s got a more thorough and thoughtful core strategy for servicing customers.

It’s that simple.

Sure, all that said, sometimes you still might find yourself uncomfortably committed to a bad campaign. It happens. Never berate the client. But don’t be a pushover or a sucker either.

Again, this is either where you’re going to suggest possible ways to sell even better, in a consultant’s even tones and with the understanding that re-working the product might involve re-working your deal… or offer to take a kill fee and maybe even to share your research with the next copywriter who comes along.

The bottom line is that half-finished products and ideas CAN be sold without compromising your own integrity, but only if you’re willing to work with the client to make them whole. This is especially true in the information industry, where products can often be improved on the fly.

Just realize, even then… it can take a lot of work to get them there.

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What Keeps Your Customer Up at Night?

cantsleep1The meteorite in the rear view mirror. The 35 earthquakes, on average, that rock the globe every day. The threat of hurricanes and tsunamis. The doom of cosmic rays that would otherwise rip our DNA to shreds, were it not for the thin magnetic field protecting earth.

These are awesome, overarching realities of existence. 

But would you read a sales letter about any of them? Maybe, maybe not. But now consider the pain of arthritis. The horror of halitosis. Dandruff, psoriasis, and public speaking. The date you’ll never get. The weight you’ll never lose. 

 Or how about fear of not surviving this current market crunch… or making a terrible investment? How about the fear of joint pain, heart attack, or cancer? How about the fear of just looking stupid?

Fear of saying the wrong thing to the opposite sex… fear of wearing the wrong shoes to a party… fear of flashing your yellow teeth on a date… or God forfend, the fear of looking fat in a thong?

Or perhaps the most devastating problem of all, an “embarrassment of riches.”

 You notice immediately that fear — the deeply felt and personal kind — is local.

Personal. Immediate. And it’s no accident these same personal, immediate fears are the ones that tend to hold the most hooking power for headline writers. Not only because they’re specific. But because we have sense of exactly what they mean to us. And we’re emotionally connected to the outcome.

Just as importantly, these immediate fears are attached to problems we feel we can solve… or hope we can.  Your customers share that same sentiment. And tapping it is the key for you, as a copywriter, to making leads that start in the negative work. 

The more seasoned you are, however, you quicker you realize that fear alone doesn’t make the sale. Showing you know the cause of anxiety wins you attention, but what really makes a fear headline work is the hint of a solution. An antidote. A key to escape the prison of worry.

Think about some of the most famous copywriting classics:

“Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”… “Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?”… “Why Some Foods ‘Explode’ In Your Stomach”… “Have You A ‘Worry’ Stock?”…

 All focus on a fear innate to the target market.

But what really makes them work is what you don’t see here, but what’s surely delivered in the copy that follows… the promise of better language skills… better social skills… better health from better eating… safer investing…

 By the end, the copy transforms the customer from pessimist to optimist, full of hope and ready to try whatever it is you have to offer. Of course, once you see it’s a pre-existing worry you’re identifying, almost any headline could be a ‘fear’ headline, at least indirectly.

 “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” for instance, works because the copywriter identified the common fear of feeling alone or unimportant. Another headline classic, “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?” identifies a similar fear.

But in each case, what makes the headline work is not just empathy for a reader’s concerns. That’s only the hook. Where the copy works is in offering a final, credible solution. If you can manage that… well then… you’ve nothing to be afraid of, right?

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