Marketing Copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

How to write a press ad

If you’re going to write a press ad, you have one very important decision to make before you do anything else.

Answer this question.

What is the ad for? 

And PLEASE, if your answer is ‘to raise awareness,’ put your pen down and cancel that space order.

Why? Simply this. Where do you intend to raise awareness from? And where to? Because if you don’t know, how on earth are you going to measure the impact of your ad? And if you can’t measure it, how will you know whether your money was well spent?

Now, of course, I know that the theory is you just advertise like hell and rely on the cumulative effect of all those repetitions to bring in sales at some point. (Because let’s remember, that is the ultimate point of advertising.)

But the people you’ll most often find peddling that line come from two groups you could hardly call disinterested. One, advertising agencies, who make fat commissions (still) on media spend and handsome creative fees on bombastic campaigns that just have to have double pages in the FT. Two, ad sales executives. See part one above re commission.

Why you advertise

OK. Let’s start again. You’re running an ad because you want to achieve measurable business results. Here are fifteen objectives you might have for your ad. You want people to…

  1. Sign up to your satellite TV channel
  2. Join your professional association
  3. Subscribe to your newsletter
  4. Stay at your hotel
  5. Request a free trial of your product
  6. Register for your website
  7. Order your market intelligence service
  8. Try your new magazine
  9. Come along to one of your events
  10. Visit your health club
  11. Buy one of your books
  12. Hire you as a copywriter
  13. Call you to book a coaching session
  14. Reserve a place at your conference
  15. Advertise in your newspaper

Fantastic. All measurable. And all totally suitable for press advertising.

So where shall we start? The headline, you say? Why – are you a masochist or something? They’re so hard to write – the good ones I mean – that I tend to leave them till last.

The call to action

No. We’ll begin at the end. Specifically, the call to action.

Tell them what you want them to do. It will get you into the right frame of mind for the rest of the ad. And this is no time for pussyfooting around. Use the imperative mood. Instruct your reader to do the thing you want them to.

Give them a deadline. Give them an incentive. Give them a simple way to respond. (And if you’re using a coupon, aim for as few cuts as possible to get it out of the publication it appears in. Nobody has time for paper sculpture these days so centre-ad octagonal order forms are out.)

Body copy

Your body copy is where you make your case. And your sale. Surprisingly (not really – duh!), ten-word ads rarely outpull 100-word ads on the same brief. And 100-word ads rarely outpull 1,000-word ads. Exceptions might include perfume, cosmetics, luxury watches and fashion.

But assuming you’re not operating in the rarefied world of £10,000-a-day supermodels, write EVERYTHING you can think of that will make your sale.

Benefits will always catch your reader’s interest. And stop your ears against the honeyed words of those who whisper of ‘more impact with a bigger image, or ‘the dramatic use of white space’.

I pulled out two ads from my Museum of Pride (it’s a small museum, housed on the head of a pin; unlike my Museum of Shame, which occupies a large barn on the outskirts of Salisbury) and counted the words (easier than counting the neighbouring angels).

The first, for Bill Fryer Direct – a DM agency chaired by one D Bird, Esq – had 330 words of body copy.

The second, one for Google (a reasonably successful search engine company), had 357.

Go figure.

Incidentally, both had headlines beginning, “How…”.

The headline

OK, now let’s talk about headlines. I’ve covered headlines in greater detail in an earlier issue of MoM, but to recap a few basic points…

  1. “Teaser” headlines only work if they also promise a benefit. People are too busy for puzzles. If they want to solve puzzles, they buy puzzle magazines.
  2. In general, headlines need to be brief. Shall we say 8-15 words? Use a subhead if you really must say more up top.
  3. Remember, headlines are there to stop your reader from turning the page, outline your promise in short, and encourage them to read on. The ticket on the meat if you like.


If you’ve been subscribing for a while, you’ll be used to my prejudices about fatuous advertising imagery. (You may not agree with me, of course.) Here’s what I think works.

Pictures of your product.
Pictures of your customers using your product.
Pictures of people who are like your reader. (So that’s no more bikini-girls for the building trade, then.)
Graphics that show how the reader’s fortunes will improve if they buy from you.

And here’s what I think doesn’t work.

Cheetahs, dolphins, sharks, chessmen, handshakes, clocks, ‘businessmen’, groups of models balanced for age, gender, ethnicity and so forth, punks…well, you get the picture.


Just one word here. Legible. OK, a few more.

Ensure your designer knows what you are trying to achieve with your ad, ie NOT winning design awards, NOT producing tear-sheets they can show to prospective clients, NOT fine art.

INSIST on a readable typeface in a readable point size. FORBID dopey type layouts, eg centred, ranged-right or ‘funny’ line arrangements.

REJECT anything with imagery, textures or, God help us, text running behind the copy.

And my point is?

Press ads cost too much to waste your investment on vague desires to ‘enhance the brand’. You should have a specific, measurable goal and put all your energies (and those of your designer) into reaching it.

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