Which Promises Work Best?

“That’s right – it filets, it chops, it dices and
slices. It never stops. It lasts a lifetime, mows
your lawn, and it picks up the kids from school.
It plays a mean rhythm. It makes excuses for
lipstick on your collar. And it’s only a dollar,
only a dollar, only a dollar.”

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”


“Cash if You Die, Cash If You Don’t” According to famous copywriter Drayton Bird, that subhead was once one of the most successful headlines in the insurance industry.

Why? “Your safest opening,” says Drayton, who has written copy since 1957 and for clients like Ford, American Express, and Proctor & Gamble, “… is your prime benefit and offer… an instant statement, instantly comprehensible.”

“Your safest opening,” says Drayton, who has written copy since 1957 and for clients like Ford, American Express, and Proctor & Gamble, “… is your prime benefit and offer in one instant statement, which needs to be instantly comprehensible.”

About 100 years earlier, copy legend John Kennedy told his boss pretty much the same thing. “To strike the responsive chord with the reader,” Kennedy would later write in his famous book on sales-writing, “is to multiply the selling power of every reason-why given…”

In today’s terms, a promise your reader cares about is the single best way to grab him by the lapels. To get him to hear your message out, he first needs a reason to listen.

In the 1960s and ’70s, adman David Ogilvy famously gave prospective advertising clients a whole list of reasons that they should sign up with his agency. He shrewdly titled it “How to Create Advertising That Sells” and ran it full-page in the newspapers.

“It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive,” Ogilvy told his prospects, “and the product must deliver the benefit you promise.”

Seems sensible enough, even obvious. Most advertising promises nothing. It is doomed to fail in the marketplace… Headlines that promise to benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

But as Ogilvy went on, “Most advertising promises nothing. It is doomed to fail in the marketplace. Headlines that promise to benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

Great copywriter Clayton Makepeace says the same:

“The only reason any rational human being ever purchases anything is to derive a benefit from it. Any scrap of sales copy that fails to clearly, dramatically, emphatically, credibly and repeatedly present the benefits a product will deliver is destined to fail miserably.”

Or as the writer Samuel Johnson put it back in the 1700s, “Promise, much promise, is the soul of advertisement.” We definitely agree. You won’t find many ads of any kind that don’t include at least one healthy promise, either implied or stated outright.

If you follow this space — or you’ve read the book I co-wrote with my pal Michael Masterson, Great Leads — you know we teach that there are roughly six different lead types, each targeted toward audiences at different levels of awareness.

Only one of those categories is dedicated to “promise” leads specifically. So how does taht work, if every lead needs to make big promises to succeed? Simple.

Sometimes, your audience is ready and waiting for the promise to be made directly and flat-out upfront. Other times, you need to pair it with another way “in” to their psyche or even imply it more subtly, for the more jaded or less aware reader.

So, for instance, where you might write an Offer Lead like this…


You would be pairing the promise, about a fast track to a “Hollywood Smile,” with the fact that you’ve got something for sale, as made obvious in the second line.A Promise Lead might avoid mentioning the offer up front, so it can target readers who are almost ready to be sold but not quite. This version takes away any up-front focus on the deal and puts the spotlight solely on the big claim:

Or, you might want to focus only on the promise, not yet giving away the fact that there’s a transaction you hope will happen later on. Something like this stand-alone…


In the rest of the lead times, those promises get progressively less direct. But make no mistake, for most of them the promise is still implied… somewhere… if not at the very top of the sales copy, pretty soon into the actual lead. Or, as most of those better, bigger experts warned, you’re pretty likely to see your sales pitch fail.

When do very direct, very obvious Promise Leads work best? Usually when you’re targeting “mostly aware” prospects. That is, prospects who know they’ve got a problem they’d like to solve. And who know, at least vaguely, a product exists that could solve it.

In case you’re still in doubt about the value of promise over originality, consider this. At the Ogilvy Center for Research in San Francisco, they ran a test. They wanted to see if people bought more from TV commercials they “liked.” It turns out they did.

But before you start thinking that being clever or fun — like all those million-dollar Superbowl ads try so hard to be — is the key to getting your ad “liked,” listen to this. In the same study, they also asked people to rank the ads on likeability.

And which ones did they put on the top of the likability list?It turns out they remembered and ranked ads higher not if they were clever or funny, but if they were relevant to something important to the prospect.

Not the ones that were undeniably hilarious. Or good ol’ mini-dramas that pulled atone’ss heart strings. No, the highest-ranked and remembered ads were the ones that the viewers saw as relevant and beneficial to the prospect. That is, the ones that made a promise they cared about.

“Advertising works best,” writes Drayton again, “if you promise people something they want, and not — as many imagine — — if you are clever, original or shocking.”

Of course, not just any old promise will do. It has to be the right promise, the one that’s most directed at your prospect’s most pressing concern.

And what might those best-targeted issues be? You know the drill. All kinds of ads promise to make us thin or bulk us up, to make us stronger, younger, fitter, and faster. To teach us to do something we’ve always wanted to do or tomake something easier than us ever thought it could be.

Ads galor promise to make you more attractive. They can promise to make you rich. Or to save you money. They can promise you a better ride, a bigger house, more beautiful skin and a beautiful dress, a smart looking suit, or a happy marriage.

Key to success for ANY of those promise-centric ads is that they can make those promises in a new way that’s yet to be heard… and make it believable that they can deliver.

It’s really that simple.

Here’s just a sample of some classic promise-making headlines…

** How to Build A Memory In 4 Short Weeks — So Powerful It Is Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Today

** Change Your Life Next Week

** Turns up your “Digestive Furnace and burns flab right out of your body

But more often, even the straight promise has more behind it than just what it claims.

How to make sure your promise is the one that’s going to land? A pretty safe bet is to make sure it doesn’t just offer a solution to a problem, but that it’s also targeting some rich, underlying, and unresolved emotion. Respect, love, friendship. Prestige among your peers. Confidence and freedom from worry. Inclusion. Safety and security. A feeling of association and even similarity with people you admire and respect.

The greatest of these may be that first one: respect. Which, of course, is another form of love. That is, your promise most go beyond just promising to “do something” for the customer. It has to also promise to enhance the way the customer feels about himself and, possibly, improve the way he’s seen by others. It may sound touchy-feely, but it’s true — that desire to be seen as something more is powerful, for just about everybody.




  1. Reason WHY is key in any ad, article, email or sales letter that you write. It helps convince the reader that what you say or promise is believable; it works particularly when you explain the reason why followed by the word (“because”) because it is a credibility booster (just notice how I just used it in this phrase)

  2. Anytime you tie emotion to logic, you have an edge in winning a customer. The reason the Why in a ad is so important. Why this product or service? is key to helping a prospect makes a decision.

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