At the tender age of 21 I was hired to be a field editor for a livestock paper and part of my job was to sell and write ad copy, even though I’d never written as much as a classified ad before in my life. It was like asking a butcher to do brain surgery. These days, when everything is a commercial, there are people who make a living studying bold letters, reverses and borders and their impact on consumers. When I was cutting my advertising teeth I had no idea what any of these things were. I thought Geneva and Helvetica were cities in Switzerland. I didn’t know a typeface from a whiteface.
Writing ads was good training to become a writer and I quickly learned how one little word could make a BIG difference, such as the time I wrote “loves with” instead of “lives with” in referring to one man’s cattle.
I learned through trial and error and the memos I got from the publisher. He told me the six things you need in every ad but I never could remember what they were. That’s why some of my bull sale ads failed to mention where the sale was, and I may have even left off the sale date a time or two. I recall one stinging memo chastising me for failing to mention the breed being sold, which was a big deal in 1973 because cattlemen were experimenting with some two dozen different breeds at the time. But I thought the fact the picture in the offending ad was a Hereford and the name of the ranch was Peterson Brothers Herefords might have been good enough clues.
These days many of the big outfits hire agencies to compose their ads but 40 years ago only pharmaceutical firms could afford that luxury. I’m still amazed how many bull breeders stole slogans copyrighted by Ford, Pepsi, Pillsbury, or some other big firm and to my knowledge none of them ever got sued.
Because we’ve made so much genetic progress ads are very different now than they were 40 years ago. Today in ads you’ll see the same great bulls used artificially with their photo and pertinent statistics. Back when I began writing ads a typical ad might feature some real “famous” herd sire you never heard of that was bought out of an all breed bull sale, bred in the rancher’s own herd or, as in the case of one used-up old herd sire, purchased out of the slaughter run at the sale barn!
I quickly learned that there were some magic words that seemed to resonate with bull and female buyers, including the words free, safe, and guarantee. As in “free delivery” or “guaranteed safe in calf.” Sometimes it was better to guarantee the heifers to be open because the buyers didn’t want them bred to the previously mentioned “famous” bull from the slaughter run at the sale barn.
The best magic words that would attract buyers like a magnet were “Complete herd dispersal.” It’s like the words “estate sale” versus “yard sale”. Some purebred breeders knew these magic words and advertised their yearly bull sales as “complete dispersals” but the buyers quickly caught on to this little lie. They knew that the way to tell if the rancher was really selling all his good cattle was if the squeeze chute was also being sold. One old boy even asked me to always be on the lookout for an old cheap squeeze chute the he could sell at his “complete herd dispersal” every year.
You never know what will attract buyers and so I often asked ranchers why they showed up to a particular sale. I asked one volume buyer how he ended up buying 20 of the worst bulls ever. “Was it the ad copy, the photos, or the records of the bulls?”
“No,” he said as he rubbed his belly, “it was the free top sirloin barbecue and the post-sale homemade ice cream with berry cobbler.”
But even the great food evidently wasn’t enough to bring him back because he never showed his face at that seller’s auction again. Reminding us all that sometimes a good ad will only make a bad product fail faster.