Photograph of Herschell Gordon Lewis

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve penned some fairly gruesome headlines in my time. Thankfully, I haven’t released many of them into the wild. So, if I tell you that one of my earliest copywriting gurus was the ‘Godfather of Gore’, you probably won’t be all that surprised.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, who has recently died at the ripe old age of 90, had a long and successful career as one of the foremost exponents of the ‘splatter’ genre of horror films. The small sample of his film titles – The Gore Gore Girls, Goldilocks and the Three Bare, Blood Feast – should give you an idea of the kind of cinematic experience I’m talking about. But then, in the early 70s he left the filmmaking industry and became one of the most famous and successful direct marketing copywriters in the US.

I first came across Herschell’s name when I was starting out in my writing career. At that time, I was a voracious reader of books on copywriting. It was my way of sitting at the feet of the copywriting gurus of old and learning the trade.

Herschell’s, ‘On the Art of Writing Copy’ was a revelation to me at the time. Full of practical, down to earth advice on the nuts and bolts of writing direct mail, it was also scathing of anything that failed to get its message across because it was trying to be clever copywriting.

Copywriters are communicators, not grammarians. What matters isn’t your knowledge of which tense is which; it’s your knowledge of how to transform the lead of drab fact into the gold of lustrous attraction.

Looking back at it now, much of it feels like the dated, all guns blazing, no holds barred salesmanship that characterised US direct mail in the 1980s. However, there are still some nuggets of wisdom that have stayed with me ever since:

  • As direct mail copywriters we’re not artists. We’re salesmen. Leave your ego on the other side of the keyboard.
  • It’s not about showing how clever you are. It’s about establishing a connection with your intended audience, and most importantly, generating an action.
  • Writing good copy is all about putting yourself in the mindset of the recipient. What will motivate or interest them? What are their concerns?
  • There’s always a better way to write something. Edit. Test. Refine.
  • Keep your eyes open for good (and bad) examples of direct mail and copywriting.
  • Your default mode should be informal and conversational. Use ‘you’ not ‘the client’ or ‘the customer’.
  • Keep it short. Short sentences. Simple words. Short paragraphs.
  • Use active verb forms, don’t write in the passive.
  • Always end by telling your recipient what to do.

So, on that note, why not read one of Herschell’s books on copywriting, email marketing or direct mail? Better still, watch one of his movies. Though be warned. At the launch of his ‘Blood Feast’ movie, they handed out airline sick bags at cinemas, labelled “You May Need This When You See Blood Feast”.

Once a marketeer always a marketer. RIP Herschell, and thanks.