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Copy That Amuses, Copy That Enrages – Notes On The Power Of Words

I’ve just finished reading an educational, entertaining book entitled Save The Deli by David Sax. In this unusual sociological work, Sax chronicles the origins of Jewish delicatessen, the disappearance of once-thriving delis from the world food scene and his personal hope in the lasting power of the deli in the future. This was a good read with some very memorable stories. Perhaps inescapably because of its subject, Save The Deli includes numerous anecdotes relating to cherished Jewish humor as well as heart-scalding stories of horror. Two such examples leapt off the page at me while reading Save The Deli that I feel are worth sharing as illustrations of the power of the written word and its potential for good or ill.
Make ‘Em Laugh
Here is an old slogan crafted by deli owner Bob Protzel and once adorning the walls of Protzel’s Deli.

$17,980.00 per Ton
May be Purchased in Smaller Quantities

I actually laughed out loud when I encountered this in Sax’s book. You’ve got to be very clever to write humorous slogans, and if done correctly, they can do a remarkable job of grabbing a reader’s attention. If you’re considering using humor in your copy, run it by a lot of disinterested people first to see if they think it’s funny, too. It’s very easy to bomb out when you’re trying to be funny in print. Study the chopped liver slogan. In a few brief words, it engages because of its element of surprise (who is going to buy a TON of liver?), it suggests that people are so crazy about this dish that they actually would purchase a ton of it and it displays an amusing, positive confidence on the part of the business owner in the quality of his product. What a great combination!
The Dark Side
Words can foster laughter, and they can also breed hatred. David Sax describes a law that forbid Jewish citizens from purchase property in Miami Beach, Florida until 1936. Right there, on the cusp of the atrocity of the Holocaust, real estate copywriters were publicizing this stomach-turning slogan:
Always a view, never a Jew.

I am sure that some fool thought they were being clever and cutesy coining this copy, but I actually held the book farther away from myself when I read it because it so disgusted me. National takeaways from this: the U.S. needs to bend over backwards to guard against the intolerable sentiments that have stained the country’s history with shame and blood. And, we absolutely must recognize just how persuasive the words and symbols of advertising can be. America has produced everything from a gun advertised as guaranteed to make ‘good Indians’ by killing them, to classifieds for the sale of African American human beings, to hand scrawled signs for ‘no Irish need apply’ to hand held signs in Little Rock, Arkansas telling little school children to go home in the most opprobrious, racist slang. In this country, we are always just a footstep away from violent bigotry. We’ve got to be wide awake and vigilant about this.
Copywriting takeaways: there are still plenty of businesses and organizations on American soil that are profiting from harm of people and planet. If you have a talent with words, judiciously choose for whom you will use that talent. Playwright, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, spoke true in 1839 when he proclaimed,
“The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless!”

I think it’s an honor to write for people. And a responsibility. Be true to your highest good in your work.