Reading Review: Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz

August 27, 2018 | Jameson Zimmer

Breakthrough Advertising came highly recommended to me by a friend and mentor who credited it with helping him build multiple profitable business, all of which relied on copywriting to sell products and services.

I initially hesitated to pick it up because of the $150 price tag (due to it being out of print), which has risen to $300 in the time since. It’s sold for $500+ in the past. It’s also available via a sales page by someone claiming to have Mrs. Shwartz’s blessing for a reprint.

Regardless, I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s had a huge impact on how I write and communicate.

Breakthrough Advertising: Benefits

Breakthrough Advertising cover

Breakthrough Advertising is a dry read if you aren’t in advertising or a related field. I’d recommend the book for:

You can expect Breakthrough Advertising to:

The value of the book is mostly in the sections on understanding markets, and understanding the psychology of selling and buying — or, in communicating convincingly and effectively.

Breakthrough Advertising: Criticism

Breakthrough Advertising example ads

The bulk of the book is taken up with disecting specific examples. Schwartz was a mail-order copywriter, and most examples are long-form advertisements in magazines and papers. Obviously, the style of these ads is extremely out of date.

Much of the book is concerned with manipulating people’s behavior and desires. This can feel pretty icky, especially given that most of Schwartz’s work and examples were in more shady verticals like weight-loss products, correspondence courses, tobacco products, and etc.

Core Concepts

Schwartz does an excellent job of framing the role of copy in society. The core principles:

The role of copy

Copy connects consumers with problems to products that solve those problems. It is not possible to create problems, or create solutions — only to make existing problems and solutions obvious and actionable for the reader.

The copy writer in his work uses three tools: his own knowledge of people’s hopes, dreams, desired and emotions; his client’s product; and the advertising message, which connects the two.

Steps of Writing Effective Copy:

The book lays out these steps to planning copy:

  1. Consumer need: what is the mass desire that creates this market?
  2. Consumer awareness: how much do these people know today about the way your product satisfies their desire?
  3. Consumer sophistication: how many other products have been presented to them before yours?

Each step is treated with meticulous detail in the rest of the book.

Mass Desire

Mass desire is defined as the “public spread of a private want.”

[Advertising] can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires into a particular product.

Mass desire falls into two categories:

Forces of change (trends) are harder to predict and exploit than permanent forces like the desire to be attractive, or the desire to be well-liked. The example of the trend towards larger, wider cars is given as an example. Auto manufacturers who attempted to buck the trend failed to sell cars, even when the car was superior to the larger “status symbol” cars in every practical way.

When examining the product or service being sold, you can expect that it’ll appeal to 3-4 desires. You must pick most urgent desire to be satisfied in the ad.

Side note: Schwartz also discusses the influencer impact on trends, which obviously has become much more important and easy to manipulate thanks to social media and micro-celebrities. In Schwartz’s time, control of influencer product choice was less accessible. (Although perhaps more impactful for those who could.)

States of Awareness

One of the most powerful tools in Breakthrough Advertising is the framing of “consumer awareness.”

Identifying the state of awareness is key to functional copywriting. A consumer who is ready to buy only has to be shown the brand and a reduced price to buy. A consumer who doesn’t know they even have a problem the product can solve will react to a brand and price with indifference, or by ignoring it. A succinct explanation of their problem, however, will get their attention and move them down the funnel towards making a purchase.

Schwartz splits consumer awareness into five stages:

  1. Problem and product aware: prospect wants to buy, just needs an invitation to do so. (Price, brand.)
  2. Product aware: The customer knows of the product but doesn’t yet want it.
  3. Desire aware: Customer knows their desire but not the specific product.
  4. Need aware: Customer has a need but hasn’t considered products to satisfy it.
  5. No awareness: Customer is completely unaware that they even have a need to be solved.

The first level requires zero creativity to make a sale, and requires increasing level of planning and creativity with each level.

I found this valuable because I do a lot of work around creating copy to catch search traffic in keyword groups. Schwartz’s grouping is a more nuanced version of the “specials > reviews > what is…” level of consumer awareness I generally work around.

Overcoming Prospect Objections

Four methods for overcoming objections that hold back a sale:

  1. Simplify a complex problem.
  2. Escalate the value by redefining the product to meet additional needs.
  3. Reduce the price (or redefine price in terms of value).
  4. Eliminate alternatives: destroy other ways for prospect to satisfy desire (whole chapter dedicated to this).

Understanding Irrational Consumer Behavior

One of the most interesting takeaways I got from Breakthrough Advertising was in the description of irrational desires and purchases. Why is the desire for a status symbol enough to make someone buy a car that’s twice as big and expensive as what they actually need? Or in modern terms, why buy an Apple product when Android is just as good, or arguably more versatile?

There’s a lot of meat in the chapter, but the main takeaway is that you have to be aware of character roles, and avoid directly playing to them.

For example, advertisers can cater to men’s desire to be more virile by suggesting that tobacco smoking makes you more manly. But since this is absurd to state, it’s shown implicitly: by making the star of cigarette ads cowboys and similar masculine archetypes.

Camouflage: Match Content to Context

Schwartz shows examples of tailoring full-page ads to fit the context of the magazine or paper they’re published in. These are heavily tailored to context, matching the format and style as well as the tone and voice of the context brand. Why? Mainly, to borrow credibility from the context.

This chapter was surprisingly relevant to current trends in content marketing, and includes a lot of the common tropes like citing celebrity advocates, references in larger publications, etc. “As seen on TV” and “As seen on TechCrunch” are essentially the same strategy.

In online context, this is why Google Adwords or content marketing are so much more effective than random banners, even if they’re algorithmically targeted towards a reader’s profile based on mounds of data. Customers are “banner blind” because the banner doesn’t match the context of the content they’re willingly engaging with.

Actionable Takeaways from Breakthrough Advertising

Ongoing Value of Breakthrough Advertising

Interior pages of Breakthrough Advertising

It’s worth noting that unlike many copywriting gurus, Eugene Schwartz had skin in the game and practiced what he preached.

A lot of advice to be found online or in popular copywriting/advertising books comes from “gurus” who are great at selling the method, but have limited success actually implementing their strategies. This totally makes sense: I would certainly never publish the strategies I use in my work that have been most impactful.

Breakthrough Advertising is exempt from this category because Eugene Schwarz had skin in the game: he commonly worked for address lists instead of money and actually made his money re-selling his clients new products of his own. (Mostly books of his own.) He alway waited until later in life to write about his strategy and process, which I take as a good sign that a how-to book will include more impactful details.

The economics writer Nassim Taleb proposed a concept for predicting the value of books based on their age — a book that is still read after 25 years will survive another 25, while books published this year will mostly likely become obsolete within another year.

Given that Breakthrough Advertising is still read (even if only by a niche audience) 52 years after its 1966 publication, I expect the insights will remain relevant for the rest of my working life. I intend to continue revisiting it when I need inspiration or guidance in writing to convince, even outside the marketing world.