They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano

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 …But When I started to Play!

This is an excerpt from John Caples’ book Making Ads Pay: Timeless Tips for Successful Copywriting. In the book he explains how he created one of the most famous ads from the advertising industry, The Piano:

The first step toward the writing of this ad was the stimulus that got me started. Here it is:

“John, I wish you would get up an ad for the U.S. School of Music,” said Ev Grady (my boss at the agency) one day. “Write some headlines first, and we will go over them together.”

That was the original stimulus—a definite assignment. It was my job to write ads. I had to write or get fired. It was economic necessity. A farmer summed up economic necessity when he said to one of his hogs in the barnyard, “Root, hog, or die!” Grady gave me a due date which was typed on an assignment slip. That is another aid to creative thinking—a due date when the job must be finished. That helps to overcome procrastination and inertia, those drag-you-down forces which keep so many enterprises from being completed.

Grady gave me an easy way to start. He said, “Write some headlines first and we will go over them.” That enabled me to take a small bite of the assignment and chew on it before tackling the major portion.

I started on this job as I had been trained to do on previous assignments, namely, I started with research. I started by looking at proofs of previous ads. Here are some of the headlines:

BE YOUR OWN MUSIC TEACHER-LEARN AT HOME

LEARN TO PLAY IN “DOUBLE QUICK TIME”-
THIS NEW EASY WAY

PLAY JAZZ ON THE “SAX”

I WAS AFRAID OF THIS NEW WAY TO LEARN
MUSIC-UNTIL I FOUND IT WAS EASY AS A-B-C

THEY THOUGHT I WAS BLUFFING WHEN I
TOLD THEM I LEARNED MUSIC WITHOUT
A TEACHER

DON’T ALWAYS BE A LISTENER …
HAVE PART IN THE FUN YOURSELF

IT SEEMED SO STRANGE TO HEAR HER PLAY

I spent several hours studying these ads, reading the copy and jotting down headline ideas of my own. After a while I typed eight headlines on a sheet of paper and handed them to Ev Grady. Here they are:

THEY LAUGHED WHEN I SAT DOWN AT THE PIANO-
BUT WHEN I STARTED TO PLAY!

MY FRIENDS LAUGHED AT THIS NEW WAY TO LEARN MUSIC-
BUT NOW THEY BEG ME TO PLAY!

I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT WAS MY WIFE PLAYING THE PIANO
UNTIL I SAW WITH MY OWN EYES

CAN YOU PLAY THE PIANO?
NEITHER COULD I THREE MONTHS AGO

I NEVER EVEN SAW MY MUSIC TEACHER
BUT HE TAUGHT ME TO PLAY JUST THE SAME

I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EARS-
MARY HAD ACTUALLY LEARNED MUSIC
WITHOUT A TEACHER

GIVE ME 10 MINUTES AND I’LL PROVE
YOU CAN LEARN MUSIC WITHOUT A TEACHER

“WHAT A WAY TO LEARN MUSIC!” THEY LAUGHED
NOW MY FRIENDS BEG ME TO PLAY

Grady spent a minute or two looking at the headlines and then he checked with a pencil the first headline on the list— the one that begins with the words, “They laughed.” “Write copy to go with that headline,” he said.

Regarding the headline he checked, I want to make an observation. I based the headline on a previously successful headline, “It seemed so strange to hear her play.” This ad told the story of a woman who visited the home of a girlfriend. During the visit the girl friend played the piano and the woman visitor said in effect: “It seemed so strange to hear her play, because I never knew before that she could play the piano.”

I thought, “If that ad was successful, why wouldn’t it be even more effective to carry the idea further—to have a larger audience -to have a chap laughed at by his friends when he made believe he could play the piano, and then have him amaze his friends by playing wonderfully well?

The point I want to make is that my headline was simply a projection—a carrying further of a previously successful idea. This is important. Few new ideas are born all at once (unless they are stumbled on by accident). Most successful ideas are simply a carrying further of some previously successful idea. The proper technique is to study the failures and study the successes and discover in which direction you should travel to increase results. If you are a bird searching for a warmer climate and you fail to find it by flying north or east or west, you should then fly south.

Here is how the copy started. It was a story headline that Grady had checked and therefore I had to write a story.

THEY LAUGHED WHEN I SAT DOWN AT THE PIANO
BUT WHEN I STARTED TO PLAY!

Arthur had just played “The Rosary.” The room rang with applause. I decided that this would be a dramatic moment to make my debut. To the amazement of all my friends, I strode confidently over to the piano and sat down.

Question: Why did I select the Rosary as the piece for Arthur to play? It was not a particularly appropriate piece for entertaining a party of young merry makers. Now that I look back on it, it seems to be an inappropriate selection.

The reason I chose it was because it was the only piece I could think of at the time. And why was it the only piece I could think of? Because ever since my childhood days my father had played that piece on the piano. Many evenings when he returned home from his office, he played it. It used to relax him to play the piano after a hectic day.

Father played well. And with emotion! I never learned to play the piano, but father played well enough for both of us. He used to play many pieces, but the one I remember best is “The Rosary.” “The hours I spent with thee, dear heart!” You would imagine that I would think of some youthful romance as I write those lines. But I don’t. I think of my father playing the piano in our home many years ago.

The reason I go into detail on this is simply to point out that even though I never learned to play the piano, I have a feeling and affection for piano playing that helped me in writing piano copy.

Now to get back to the story in the ad. It was necessary to set the stage for the chap who was going to amaze his friends. And so I wrote:

“Jack is up to his old tricks,” somebody chuckled. The crowd laughed. They were all certain I couldn’t play a single note.

“Can he really play?” I heard a girl whisper to Arthur. “Heavens no!” Arthur exclaimed. “He never played a note in all his life . . . But just you watch him. This is going to be good.”

I decided to make the most of the situation. With mock dignity, I drew out a silk handkerchief and lightly dusted off the piano keys. Then I rose and gave the piano stool a quarter of a turn. Just as I had seen an imitator of Paderewski do in a vaudeville sketch.

Note: Years before that, I had seen just such a sketch on the stage-the sort of clowning which Victor Borge does today before he plays the piano.

I decided to end the first portion of the copy with a joke I had read in a magazine. Here it is:

“What do you think of his execution?” called a voice from the rear.

“We’re in favor of it!” came back the answer, and the crowd rocked with laughter.

Now the scene is all set and ready for a change of pace. We have created a scene of laughter and derision and it must be changed to admiration and amazement. No more time for kidding. It is time for Jack to get down to serious business.

Now I want to tell you how I was aided in writing about Jack’s triumph by a piece of piano copy which I had read in a textbook entitled “Advertising Copy” by George Burton Hotchkiss. It was an emotional piece of copy and it stirred me up. As I mentioned before, laughter begets laughter and emotion begets emotion.

Emotions travel from one person to another. They are contagious. A famous Greek playwright said: “If you want me to laugh, you must laugh first. If you want me to weep, you must weep first.” Don’t forget that rule when you write advertising copy.

I would like to quote here and now the piano ad from the Hotchkiss textbook. I want you to judge for yourself whether or not it is emotional. I want you to see how this copy led logically and naturally to the piano copy which I wrote. I want you to see how the reading of emotional copy can stimulate a writer to create his own emotional copy. When you have seen this method at work, you can use the same method to stimulate your own writing.

The piano ad I am going to quote is long, but it is good copy and I hope you will read it clear through. Here is how Hotchkiss introduces it:

Legends of famous musical classics like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody have been beautifully told in advertisements of the Duo-Art piano. The following is a fine example of its kind:

THE STORY OF A WINTRY NIGHT
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO

For those who know, and those who have yet to know, the
soul-soothing beauty of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”

Cold brilliant moonlight silvered the snowy roofs of quaint old Bonn. Through a narrow street the master was walking with a friend. “Hush!” he exclaimed, halting suddenly in front of a little house. “Listen! That is my Sonata in F. How well it is played!”

They edged up close to the door. In the midst of the finale the music ceased abruptly, and a voice cried sadly, “I can’t play any more. It is so beautiful. Oh, if only I might go to Koln to the concert! If only I might hear it played by the master!”

“Yes, sister, but why wish for what cannot be?” said a second voice . . .

“Let us go in,” said Beethoven. And, despite his friend’s objection, he placed his hand on the latch. “I shall play for her and she will understand.”

THE MASTER ENTERS

He opened the door. There at the table sat the brother mending shoes. The girl, crying softly, bowed her head upon the old piano.

“Pardon me, but I heard your music,” said Beethoven, “and I also heard your wish. Perhaps, if you will allow me, I ean fulfill it.”

The cobbler thanked him. “But our piano is so poor,” he apologized, “and we have no music.”

“No music?” exclaimed the master, “how then does she .. . Oh, forgive me!” he stammered. The girl had lifted her head and he saw that she was blind .. .

She gave Beethoven her place at the piano. He ran his fingers along the yellowed keys. Under his touch the worn strings sang as if born anew, and out of the old instrument trooped hosts of his compelling melodies to surround and captivate the wondering pair. The flame of the one candle sputtered fitfully, and presently went out. The youth slipped over and threw open the shutters. As the moonlight flooded the room, the pianist paused.

“Who and what are you?” gasped the cobbler, scarce knowing he was speaking.

“Listen,” answered the master, and he played the first few bars of his Sonata in F.

“Beethoven!” burst from the lips of the pair. “Oh, play on, play on—just a little more!” they pleaded as he arose to go.

THE MASTERPIECE IS CREATED

For a moment he stood, silent, looking out the window. And then again seating himself, he began as if to voice the spirit of the calm, perfect night, weaving slowly into exquisite being those mystic measures which caress the soul, even as the cool radiance of the moon softens and gentles the world’s rough face. There, in that little room, Beethoven intertwined the throbbing of the sea’s great heart and the far, clear call of the stars; he sounded the very depths of the sublime, till it seemed to the three listeners as if the Spirit of Infinity were come down the path of moonlight and stood by their side, whispering of the things that are forever and forever.

Vain yearnings and thoughts of toil and tithes were swept from their long-time moorings in the mind, and by the hand of infinite loveliness, the blind girl was guided to heights whence she saw more than wide eyes can window, however clear . . .

Beethoven, the master, had in that hour, in that poor, trouble-shadowed home, lighted a transforming flame which would neither waver nor go out through all the years.

With this story in the back of my head, I wrote my own copy. You will recall that we left Jack sitting on a piano stool. The crowd had just laughed at his clowning. They had said they were in favor of his “execution.” Now it is up to Jack to do an about face and amaze the audience. I began the second portion of the ad with a subhead.

THEN I STARTED TO PLAY

Instantly a tense silence fell on the guests. The laughter died on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first few bars of Beethoven’s immortal Moonlight Sonata. I heard gasps of amazement. My friends sat breathless—spellbound!

I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade—seemed to grow dim—unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and the visions it brought me. Visions as beautiful and as changing as the wind-blown clouds that long ago inspired the master composer. It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me-speaking through the medium of music—not in words but in chords. Not in sentences but in exquisite melodies!

I typed my copy neatly and took it to Grady.

“That’s swell!’’ he said. “It has real feeling. But something is missing.”

“What’s missing?”

“You should have Jack’s friends congratulate him on his wonderful playing. And then Jack should tell how he took the U.S. School of Music course.”

I returned to my desk and wrote the following:

A COMPLETE TRIUMPH!

As the last notes of the Moonlight Sonata died away, the room resounded with a sudden roar of applause. I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand—wildly congratulated me— pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm! Everybody was exclaiming with delight—plying me with rapid questions . . .

“Jack! Why didn’t you tell us you could play like that?” . . . “Where did you learn?’’ . . . “How long have you studied?” . . . “Who was your teacher?”

“I have never even seen my teacher,” I replied. “And just a short while ago I couldn’t play a note.”

“Quit your kidding,” laughed Arthur, himself an accomplished pianist. “You’ve been studying for years. I can tell.”

“I have been studying only a short while,” I insisted. “I kept it a secret so I could surprise you.”

Then I told them the whole story.

“Have you heard of the U.S. School of Music?” I asked. A few of my friends nodded. “That’s a correspondence school, isn’t it?” they exclaimed.

“Exactly,” I replied. “They have a new simplified method that can teach you to play by mail in just a few months.”

I have quoted the first three sections of the U.S. School of Music ad, namely,

  1. The clowning scene
  2. The playing of the Moonlight Sonata
  3. The congratulation scene

The ad contained four additional sections as follows:

  1. Subhead: How I Learned to Play Without a Teacher (4 paragraphs of copy)
  2. Subhead: Play Any Instrument (1 paragraph of copy)
  3. Subhead: Send for Our Free Booklet and Demonstration Lesson (2 paragraphs of copy)
  4. Coupon

The reason for such long copy is because mail order advertisers have found that they can get more sales with long copy than with short copy.

When this ad was typed, it occupied four typewritten pages, single spaced. The copy was given to the art department where it was illustrated with a picture of Jack at the piano, surrounded by his friends.

The ad was tested in Physical Culture magazine in December 1925. During the next few years it was run in a long list of magazines and newspapers. In some publications it was repeated a number of times. I do not have the sales records on the ad, but it was the best or one of the best that the U.S. School of Music ever ran. The ad was reproduced years later in a book by Julian Watkins entitled “The 100 Greatest Advertisements.”

Summing Up

Here are some aids to creative copy writing, based on the above experience:

  • A specific assignment.
  • A due date.
  • Study past successes. Determine in which direction success lies and go in that direction.
  • Start by writing headlines.
  • In addition to facts, get EMOTION into your copy. Your own emotion. Or somebody else’s.
  • Find a good critic—a good copy chief to inspire and guide you.
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