How to Write Insanely Effective Ad Copy and Rake in the Millions

Carol Tice

I feel that I don’t do enough how-to tutorials for writers here on the blog. So today, an instant lesson in writing ad copy.

You may know that being able to write persuasive copy is a very lucrative niche. In some setups, the writer earns a commission on every sale made off their copy — forever. For however long that company uses that ad or direct-mail sales letter or landing page.

Hoping I’ve got your attention now. Let’s learn how to do this!

You can learn it by reading this one ad.

It began as a simple Craigslist ad from a guy who wanted to sell a beat-up, 17-year-old heap of a car. He got a copywriter friend to write the ad.

It became an Internet sensation that brought widespread acclaim to its author, who I’m confident can now name his price at any big ad agency in the U.S.A. (It also got banned off Craigslist, giving it even more hype and exposure than it probably would have had just sitting on Craigslist.)

First, just read this ad. Then, we’ll discuss.

It is reproduced exactly, except I’ve taken off the phone number so you won’t call and bother anybody:

OK, a brief pause while you all find a tissue to dab off the hysterical laughter tears that cover your face.

Now, let’s dissect this piece of brilliance. As unconventional as this car ad is, it actually employs all the basic features of a good ad (or product landing page, for that matter). What are these elements?

  1. An attention-getting headline. We’ve heard the name of Jesus taken many ways, but tap-dancing? And what’s that got to do with a car? After you see this headline, you’ve just got to read more.
  2. The unexpected. You don’t expect to hear the Lord mentioned in connection with selling a used car.  You have to read on just to find how these two concepts are related. This ad is also a complete crackup — you don’t expect humor in a car ad, so that’s an eyeball-grabber as well.
  3. Humor. Did I mention it’s funny? It’s freakin’ hilarous. Few people write humor well, but if you can, this ad shows why you should bring out your funny whenever possible. It’s so much more interesting to read this then if it were written straight, isn’t it? This ad carries through its off-kilter premise all the way, mentioning how the owner grew a beard in his attempt to be manly and Jesus-like in order to feel qualified to drive this car. It’s just…nuts.
  4. Overcoming objections. While you might object that you don’t want to be saddled with a broken-down old Grand Am, much less shell out $700 for it, this ad describes why you need this car. This car will change your life and make you into a desirable guy. That’s certainly worth $700, right?
  5. Creating scarcity. There is only one teal Grand Am for sale here, a fact that is repeatedly stressed. So time is short to get this “deal.”
  6. Make price look like a bargain. Instead of comparing the offered price to, say, the Kelly Blue Book for this make and model, it shows the price it would be worth to get those fabulous women, $199,999. Then the actual price, $700. This is a classic example of how to cast a purchase price in a favorable light. (Reminds me of, say, how my 4-Week Journalism School class packs a $30,000 year at Columbia into a month for under $300! You can see the value there, right?)
  7. Features closely tied to emotional benefits. Instead of saying, “This car has wheels, so it can take you wherever you want to go,” it tells you you will be the most desirable male on the planet if you drive this car. Women will want you — which of course is a big selling point in many car ads throughout history. By hitting the emotional reason men buy cars instead of just plugging direct benefits like “the air conditioning will keep you cool,” the car becomes a must-have rather than a sorta-desirable acquisition.
  8. Minimizing flaws while truthfully disclosing them. Did you catch that this car has a blown head gasket? It’s really going to be a nightmare for the next owner, but look how artfully he slipped that in, after you’re already all wrapped up in the car’s greatness.
  9. Using visuals. We writers often forget that it’s not always all about our precious words. The graphics you use in an ad are powerful as well. Here, the chart that shows how all Pontiac production peaked with this model is a hoax, but still serves as a visual cue that this is the best possible car, and it was all downhill after this one. The ad also visually relates driving a teal Grand Am to flying on a unicorn, creating a positive association to a mythical creature and thereby further building the myth that this Grand Am is the dream vehicle.
  10. Offering testimonials. Yes, the testimonials here are fake. But they serve as a reminder that strong, honest testimonials from real customers often sell better than reams of copy you could write about a product.

Why did I want to take the time to teach you about writing ads? Maybe you’re thinking, “Heck, I wanna write magazine articles.”

Yes, but all writers need to know how to write ads.

Why? Because you have a writer website. What do you think your landing page is on there?

That’s right. It’s an ad for you, and your writing services.

I’ve reviewed a heck of a lot of writer websites in Freelance Writers Den — we offer complimentary website reviews, did you know? — and I can tell you most of them are pretty bland.

So shake it up out there. Grab attention. Maybe even make people laugh. You just might find yourself riding a unicorn into the sunset while money from great-paying writing clients rains down on you from pink cotton-candy clouds.

Seen any good ads lately? If so, share us a link in the comments.

26 Comments

  1. Kevin Mark

    I think we should not use the Lord’s name in such instances….it is not right. People should be creative in their own way but not through dragging the name of Jesus into it….

    • Carol Tice

      I’m sure there had to be a distinct proportion of people who had that reaction to the ad, Kevin…but clearly that wasn’t the audience they were going for in this ad.

  2. Nancy Kirby

    While this was very funny, as others have noted, I’m not sure how effective it really was as a sales piece. It risks offending those sensitive to religious humor, eliminates females as a target audience, but most importantly, in my opinion, it comes across as unprofessional with at least three spelling errors/ typos. This guy could benefit from a proofeader! Toned down versions of this type of humor are very the hallmark of Groupon so there’s definitely a market for humor writing, which is a tough skill — hard to learn. Seems like you either have it or you don’t! Lots of young writers are especially good at this!

  3. Carly Saunders

    After I was able to calm down from the laughing, I really appreciated that you found a diamond it the rough. It seems that most ads lack the inspiration to grab us, entertain us while subtly convincing us to buy something, but when they do, it is all I can do to admire the masterpiece.

    Thank you for sharing this ad – you have really made my day.

  4. Josh Monen

    OK this isn’t an ad but it’s a relevant article. It’s titled, “Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words.” While I don’t think Groupon is good for most small businesses I do think they employ some brilliant writers who know how to use humor and copywriting effectively. Interesting to note that Google wanted to buy them for $6 billion (overvalued in my opinion) when Groupon was only 2 years old. Here’s the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/business/29groupon.html?pagewanted=all

  5. Ali

    Hey Carol,

    I read somewhere, which I found pretty authoritative, that the headline of your ad must portray the biggest benefit and should not require readership of the rest of the advertisement to be understood. Since, it’s quite possible that many people won’t bother reading a long ad unless they are hit between the eyes by the headline.

    • Carol Tice

      Good point, and that’s definitely one basic copy test this ad flunks. But if you think of it being amidst a ton of other Craigslist car ads, you could see how this would be the one that gets read, just because it’s so different. If it were a billboard or something where it stood alone, it definitely wouldn’t be good.

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