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Oscar Madison’s Lesson for Copywriters

Originally published on LinkedIn June 9, 2016

"I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. "We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!"

Our English teachers taught us to be concise. They told us to strike redundancies, repetitive words and phrases.

Apparently Neil Simon, the playwright creator of Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, missed that class. Or, more likely, he chose to ignore it.

Simon understood that minds wander. People get distracted. A loud sneeze and half the audience can miss an important point.

In Neil Simon scenes, each main point is repeated before the characters move on to the next. The audience always knows what’s happening and why.

Look at the first sentence of the Oscar Madison speech above. The main clauses are redundant. And in each of the three sentence pairs that follow, Simon repeats key words and phrases to set you up, paint the picture and deliver the punchline.

You probably didn’t realize this until I pointed it out.

Just as consumers don’t realize when a landing page headline repeats the theme of the email. Without the redundancy, they drop off. There’s a disconnect; the time between the click on the link and the landing page’s load is a sneeze in the theater.

Consumers also don’t think about how mass market direct mail packages repeat key benefits on the envelope, letter headline, letter subheads and bullets, brochures, lift notes, calls-to-action and applications. The mind can’t wander too far without coming back to those “300,000 bonus points.”

That’s not to say I advocate this for all situations. You wouldn’t repeat yourself in tweet, social post or brief email. In collateral for a big ticket, high-interest product, you don’t want to tune your English teacher out too much.

But for a lot of the work we do, finding those key points and phrases and slipping them in or pounding them home can make a difference between the success and failure of a campaign.

Call it hack writing, if you will. That’s pretty much how Neil Simon was viewed in his day. We may love The Odd Couple today, but if you were a highbrow critic in the 1960s, bashing its author was part of your job. Yet Neil Simon plays made lots of money.        

And isn’t that what we are supposed to do for our clients?

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