Give Me Two Minutes of Your Reading Time: A Tribute to Gene Schwartz

By Ray Schultz

An acquaintance who knew him only as a big-time art collector once asked Gene Schwartz, “Do you work for a living?”

A good question, given that Gene seemed to be rich with no visible means of support. But he rarely discussed his work because these society types wouldn’t have understood. So his New York Times obituary in 1995 mentioned his art collection and his memberships on museum boards, but barely reflected that he made his mark writing raging junk-mail headlines like, “She Fled the Hospital when the Doctor said ‘Cut Her Open.’” “How to Develop Psychic Dominance Over Others,” and “Super Potency at any Age,” and was a certifiable lunatic.

Gene himself admitted he was a little odd—at least in print. “The copywriter is the person who looks at things that other people don’t see,” he once said. “As a result, the copywriter writes in a way that’s strangely fascinating…offbeat…and somewhat crazy.”

Too true. And by the time he died at age 68, Gene Schwartz had written more over-the-top copy, sold more products and provided more sheer entertainment than any two copywriters combined. And if you don’t believe it, give us two minutes of your reading time and we’ll prove it (as Gene wrote in an ad).

First, a little history.

Though he was born in Butte, Montana, and carried a part of that town within him all his life, Gene Schwartz was at heart a Manhattan sophisticate. He came to the big town in 1949 to write the Great American Novel, and found himself working as a messenger for the Huber Hoge mail order agency.

Within a year or two, he was copy chief, and in 1954 he started his own mail order firm, Eugene Stevens Inc. He offered vitamins, tranquilizers, potions and industrial products, many developed in the in-house research lab and all on the up-and-up, according to Andi Emerson, who worked for Gene for a few years and calls that period “the most fun time of my life.”

It was indeed an inspiring era, judging by the copy that survives.

As we sat in her Greenwich Village office drinking coffee one day in 1995, Andi, founder of the John Caples awards and herself a mail order legend, pulled out a frayed yellow newspaper ad from the Sept. 23, 1956 edition of the New York Journal American: “Here is the Tablet Doctors give Their Wives to Reduce!”

The body copy reads like something out of a Terry Southern satire: “After 27 years of research! After thousands of Reducing Miracles performed in doctors’ offices! Now you can lose UP TO 33 POUNDS — SO QUICKLY THAT YOUR FRIENDS WILL GASP IN ASTONISHMENT — without starvation diets, without a single hungry moment, without even giving up the foods you love!”

“His headlines were just fierce,” Andi commented, turning to another clipping, from 1958: “Now! The Miracle Gas-Saver that Europe Couldn’t Hide!”

Among the curiosities in Andi’s Eugene Stevens file are several copies of a magalog titled, “Car Digest,” which featured how-to articles on auto care and offered a variety of products — sort of an early-day infomercial in print. Each opened with an introduction by Gene, using the name Eugene Stevens. Why Stevens? Because in those days, “You couldn’t be Jewish and you couldn’t be a female,” Andi said.

But the real gems were to be found among his space ads and mailing pieces of the period:

“Give me a One Evening and I’ll Give You a Push-Button Memory”

“Now a tranquilizer Pill without a Doctor’s Prescription! Released to you for the first time!”.

“Full-Grown Trees — One foot tall.”

Emerson’s favorite came in a number 10 manila envelope headed, “Inside this package…A WIRE NAIL THAT CUTS THROUGH ARMOR PLATE!

“Yes! Inside this package is a common 20 penny wire nail – but a wire nail that cuts through armor plate as though it were made of wood!”

“They said you couldn’t sell metal hardeners by mail,” Andi laughed. “But we did — to GE, and many others.”

The firm pulled in maybe $4-million a year–big money in those days. “We were the biggest,” Emerson said.

But it couldn’t go on. Gene turned to freelance copywriting and marketing of self-help books for a living, and Emerson started her own agency. Why he closed Stevens is unclear today but one thing’s for sure: he never looked back. “I don’t save my ads,” he told an interviewer. “That would be living in the past. I’m interested in tomorrow…not yesterday.”

Hard to understand? You’re not alone. As the years went by and the dollars rolled in, intimates began to realize there were several Gene Schwartes, each compartmentalized as if he had no relation to the others.

There was the author of the how-to classic, “Breakthrough Advertising,” dubbed by writer Richard Armstrong “the secret weapon of most of the great direct mail copywriters I’ve known.”

There was the freelance copywriter, who sold millions of subscriptions and books for clients like Rodale. His package titled, “How to Get the Guts of 300 Business Magazines in 30 Minutes,” put Boardroom Reports into business, even though Gene’s fee took up much of Marty Edelston’s start-up capital.

There was the six-foot, four-inch society person, who cut such a figure next to his stunning wife Barbara. Celebrated for their style, and for their habit of buying modern art and then giving it to museums, they were often photographed in their Park Ave. pied de terre by publications like New York magazine. (And yes, he was a spiritualist, writing a book titled, “You’re not far From the Kingdom of God,” which took 100 sayings of Jesus and found their roots in the Old Testament).

But all of these respectable versions of Gene Schwartz took a back seat to the snake-oil salesman who right up to the end sold miracle cures out of a small office in New York. The man who once wrote great newspaper ads but delegated most direct mail chores to his assistants had by this time become a direct mail master, mailing maybe 12-million pieces a year and accumulating a file of 178,211 12-month buyers with an average sale of $32.98, according to a data card from The SpeciaLists.

As an example of his later mastery, consider the package titled, “How to Develop Psychic Dominance Over Others — either when you’re with them, or from far away.” Gene promised, “The first signs of psychic power appear in less than an hour.”

Results were even faster for respondents to this ad: “Can you make Onions Into Medicine that Rids You of a Dripping Cold?”

Gene claimed, “It takes less than 60 seconds.” (Pretty good remedies they were, too; by reading the advertised book: A person could learn to “Draw the infection out of a swelling, stubborn wound with cabbage leaves — even if modern remedies have failed: and “Let ordinary water cure cramps during menopause.”)

Good government types might wonder if there wasn’t a bit of blarney in these pieces, but the fact is that they accurately mirror what was written about in the books. For example, the copy inside the “Cut Her Open” package very precisely reports on the contents of a book on natural healing by one Dr. Eugene Wagner.

And a four-color package that asks the question, “Why Do Chinese Women Have Such an Impossibly Low Rate of Breast Cancer?”, also carefully reflects a book, “The Tao of Balanced Diet,” by Dr. Stephen Chang. (“Gene Schwartz in color–I don’t believe it,” Emerson exclaimed).

“He once told me, I don’t sell products, I sell dreams,” said Jack Baer of Muldoon & Baer. Gene believed in these books, because he read them and relied on their precepts himself.

After suffering a stroke in 1978, Gene was helped by Dr. Chang, a believer in Taoist healing principles. The package he wrote in 1979 for Dr. Chang’s book,”The Complete System of Self-Healing: Internal Exercises,” is still in the mail today, with only slight revisions.

The letter opened: “This may be the most startling health news you have ever read, dear friend—And we are going to let you prove its merits to yourself, without risking a single penny.”

These lines were overshadowed by the envelope headline, “How to Rub Your Stomach Away.”

“Can’t you picture this mailing being entered in the Caples or the Echo Awards and seeing all those judges running from the room gagging and screaming?” asked the newsletter Who’s Mailing What!. Despite this, the newsletter continued, Gene was “one of the greatest — and least known — copywriters in the world.”

“You’d have to be deceased not to respond to this,” Jim Rosenfield said of one Gene’s pieces. And Martin Decker wrote, “The rite of passage for everyone entering this industry should be to memorize a Gene Schwartz package after understanding the marketing, creative and copy strategy underlying it.”

Outside of the actual pieces, Gene’s legacy to direct marketing can be found in a couple of documents that, happily, are still around. One is a pamphlet published by Boardroom Reports, titled, “38 Ways to Make Your Headlines Great Headlines.”

“Your headline has only one job — to stop your prospect and compel him or her to read the second sentence of your ad,” he wrote. “The most obvious headline, of course, is simply to state the claim in its barest form. “Lose Weight,” or “Stop Corns,” for example. “And if you are the first in your field, there is no better way.

“But where you are competitive, or where the thought is too complicated to be stated simply and directly, you must reinforce that claim by adding variations, enlargements, or embellishments to the main headline claim of the ad. I call this process Verbalization.”

As for what do to after you get the reader to the second sentence, we turn to a 1987 interview Milt Pierce did with Gene for Direct Marketing magazine. Gene told Milt that a good direct response copywriter has four attributes: indefatigability, clarity, craziness and humility.

Listen, children: You won’t hear this kind of wisdom every day.

“When I talk about indefatigability, I mean that copywriting is research,” he told Pierce. “You can always determine the ad that has had the best research; it has something I call “claim density.” It’s packed with facts, with information, with ideas. You can’t get that without doing a lot of research.”

And clarity?

“It quite simple. Clear writing is strong writing.”

About humility, a virtue we’ve not found in strong supply among some
copywriters, he said: “The copywriter puts himself last. The customer comes first. The product comes second. The writing is what comes last. Above all, the copywriter has got to have integrity. He — or she — must never write an ad just to please the client…or to make money…or to meet a deadline…and never, never write an ad for a bad product.”

Shortly after his death, we spent some time with Gene’s former employees, who say that his firm, Instant Improvement, Inc., will remain open. We got the grand tour, from the back room with the metal bookshelves and carboard file drawers to Gene’s office itself, with his many honors and photos of Gene and Barbara with notables on the walls. What struck us most about the staffers is that they remained upset almost two months after his death by heart attack. And they were proud of what he had done.

“How many copies have we sold of “Rub?” one employee asked another.”

“I don’t know. Maybe 260,000.”

The great ones are going, and it’s unlikely that we’ll replace them from the ranks of the MBAs who dominate the field today.

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