Direct mar­ket­ing copy and the amaz­ing pow­er of fear

Expe­ri­enced direct mar­keter Den­ny Hatch takes a look at two superla­tive let­ters and explains why he thinks fear is their most pow­er­ful dri­ving emotion.

Written by
Denny Hatch
April 08, 2021

This is the story of two mailings.

The tiny guy at left – a wee 4” x 7-1/2” – contains a two-page letter of 775 words. As editor and publisher of the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! newsletter and archive of junk mailI started collecting mail in 1982. I kept receiving this Wall Street Journal effort week after week after week for 20 years.

I later discovered this plain-Jane peanut turned out to be the most successful single advertisement in the history of the world! No kidding. (Editor’s note: you can read more about that ad here)

The monster envelope behind it – a whopping 9-1/2” x 14” – contains an eight-page letter of 2,640 words. I first received it this past February 2, 2021.

What do these two mailings have in common – this midget champion set in the financial world and this giant in the geriatric health arena?

• Both have incredible longevity.

• Both are pinned to two primordial human emotions: fear and salvation.

• The little guy broke new ground; the big guy ‘stole smart from the little guy.

Two basic rules of direct marketing

Whether mail, print, telephone or digital

1)  The seven key copy drivers, the emotional hot buttons that make people act, are:

Fear. Greed. Guilt. Anger. Exclusivity. Salvation. Flattery.

2) ‘If your copy isn’t positively dripping with one or more of these, tear it up and start over.’  – Bob Hacker, Seattle direct marketing guru

Let’s get this out of the way right now - you are invited to download three mailings

Mailing #1: The Wall Street Journal 25-year Grand Control

Mailing #2: The Mayo Clinic Health Letter (2021) shown above

Mailing #3. The Mayo Clinic Precursor Grand Control (2001)

What triggered this post

During the fifth week of 2021, the humongous Mayo Clinic envelope landed – folded in half – in the teeny mailbox of my high-rise apartment building mail room.

When I say humongous, I mean it. The envelope dominated everything in sight. In short, it is an incredible attention-getter. In 35 years of collecting junk mail, I cannot recall ever seeing anything this big. 

Why I went ape over this mailing

Peggy and I started collecting and tracking junk mail in 1982. In 1984 we launched the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! newsletter and archive service. At the time (pre-internet and pre-email) direct mail was the biggest, most pervasive advertising medium in the country. More money was spent on direct mail than TV, radio, space advertising, telemarketing, billboards and skywriting combined.  

WHO’S MAILING WHAT! was in business for 33 years during which time 403,000 unique monthly mailings in 229 categories (consumer, business, non-profit and fundraising) went through the hands of the editors and were recorded.

At the end of its run in 2017, the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! archive had tracked and scanned 1688 grand controls, i.e., mailings that had been received a minimum of three consecutive years, which means they were sure-fire winners and guaranteed big money makers for the company sending them out.

Is this Mayo Clinic mailing successful? YES! 

Here’s how I am pretty sure of this. If you want to look into sending your mailing offer to Mayo Clinic Health Letter subscribers - some 596,000 names - you go to a list broker and get a data card that tells you who these folks are, the demographics and psychographics.

These are the subscriber profiles:      

Mature - age 60+ College educated Above average incomes

I’m 85. We live on the 30th floor of a 45-story Philadelphia hi-rise. Our neighbour Josh one-floor down, a fellow geezer in his 80s, also received this mailing. Direct mail lists are Zip Code based. Tests work on an nth name selection. If your final confirming test is 50,000 names out of a universe of 1 million names, the nth factor is every 20 names. 

When two identical mailings arrive in the same building during the same week, addressed to two geezers one floor apart, this is no small test. It is a giant roll-out. It has obviously been tested and retested and is generating vast amounts of revenue for the Mayo Clinic publishing department.

Why this envelope gets opened

Note the giant black teaser copy on the envelope above, ‘hand-scrawled’ with a broad stroke Sharpie pen:

‘3 Surprising Daytime Habits That Affect Your Sleep That Night’

I have sleep problems. So do 40 to 70 per cent of all seniors. A sleep-deprived geezer’s interest is immediately piqued. I opened the envelope for two basic reasons:

     • Can these folks help me sleep through the night?

     • For 40 years I have been a junk mail junkie. I love it!

Three kinds of advertising copy, by Walter Weintz

Advertising copy comes in the following 3 varieties:
     • ‘You’ copy. These are benefit-oriented messages directly talking to you, the reader (what this product or service will do for you). This is the copy approach in the all-important letter.
     • ‘It’ copy. Describing and illustrating the many features of the product or service - all about it. This is brochure stuff: photos, graphs, charts and captions that show the features.
     • ‘Me’ copy. This enables the customer or prospect to reply back to the advertiser. (‘Yes, please send me…’ and ‘I understand that this is guaranteed…’) This is for the reply device where the customer is talking back to the sender.’ 

 – Walter Weintz

The science and art of direct mailby Malcolm Decker

The direct mail package – especially a full-dress package – is a sales team.
• First the envelope knocks on the door to see if anyone’s home. 
• "The envelope serves two purposes only: (1) to get itself opened and (2) to keep the contents from spilling into the street. Once opened, the envelope is discarded, and all the other elements come into play." – Herschell Gordon Lewis 
• Then the major letter – the main salesman – takes over. Once the envelope is opened, the letter is the most important member of the team. It sells soft or it sells hard. It spins yarns or it spouts facts. It’s long (but never long-winded) or it’s pithy. However it comes on, it’s loaded with customer benefits... Customer Benefits... CUSTOMER BENEFITS. This is the vehicle for the “you” copy.
• Then the demonstrator – the folder or brochure – goes to work. Like the letter, it can stand on its own as the “It Copy”.  But it’s most effective when it demonstrates in photographs, charts, graphs and drawings what the letter can only say in words. It should convince the reader in images that everything the letter says is true.
• The publisher’s letter (or lift letter) is yet another voice backing up the key salesman, the long letter; its job is to convince the waverer and salvage the sceptics. 
• The order device is the “me” copy that restates the offer in the pithiest, most unambiguous language possible. 
• The last element is the business reply envelope that brings the order home.     
• Finally, it’s important to remember that in direct mail, the word is king. Copy is the architect of the sale.  Design and art are strongly supportive interior designers that often set up the sale.
• Because lookers are shoppers while readers are buyers, if you can firmly engage your prospects – and keep them engaged – through reading, you’re on your way to a sale.’

 – Malcolm Decker, Entrepreneur and Freelancer

Harry Walsh on how to write a letter

‘The tone of a good direct mail letter is as direct and personal as the writer’s skill can make it. Even though it may go to millions of people, it never orates to a crowd, but rather murmurs into a single ear. It’s a mesmerizing message from one letter writer to one letter reader.    
Tell a story if possible.
Everybody loves a good story, be it about Peter Rabbit or King Lear. And the direct mail letter, with its unique person-to-person format – is the perfect vehicle for a story.  And stories get read. The letter I wrote to launch the Cousteau Society twenty-some years ago has survived hundreds of tests against it. When I last heard, it was still being mailed in some form or other.  The original of this direct mail Methuselah started out with this lead: “A friend once told me a curious story I would like to share with you...”’ 

– Harry Walsh, freelancer

Why this Mayo Clinic letter is a barnburner!

Look again at the first two paragraphs.

     • They follow Harry Walsh’s advice to tell a story.

     • Here are short quick stories about John Glenn (age 77), Julia Child (age 87), Frank Lloyd Wright (age 91), Ronald Reagan (age 73), Dr William Mayo (age 70) and Robert Marchand who set a world record for bicycling at age 105)!

     • This captures the geezer-reader’s attention with the implied promise that this mailing can make life easier, healthier, more fun and more rewarding.

The backstory of this Mayo Clinic effort: a smart steal from The Wall Street Journal!

In 1982 I attended a luncheon meeting of the Direct Mail Writer’s Guild at Rossoff’s upstairs room in New York. The speaker was Dorothy Kerr, circulation director, USNews & World Report. These are her exact words etched in my memory:

‘The way to be successful in this business is see who’s mailing what. Keep track of what comes in the mail. Collect those mailings that keep coming in over and over again. These are the controls. These are the big money-makers. Save these mailings and then STEAL SMART!’

I went home that day and started collecting junk mail. Two years later Peggy and I started the WHO’S MAILING WHAT! newsletter and archive service.

Early on in publishing our cranky little newsletter every month - without fail - I kept seeing this nondescript little white envelope from The Wall Street Journal.

This was the ‘Two Young Men’ letter written by Martin Conroy. It was the unbeatable control for The Wall Street Journal, mailed steadily for roughly 30 years. It was a simple two-page letter (printed front and back) of 775 words. Over those 30 years, it generated roughly $2 billion in circulation revenue for the Journal.

That’s $25.8 million a word!

Our cranky little niche newsletter and archive service had stumbled onto the most successful single advertisement in the history of the world!

As my great guru/mentor Axel Andersson said, ‘No publication or advertisement in history made this much money per word with the possible exception of the Bible. And that took 2,000 years!

Compare the ledes of these two letters (the similarities are highlighted in bold)

December, 2021

Mr. Denny Hatch

200 W. Washington Sq., Apt. 3007

Philadelphia, PA 19106-3564


Dear Mr. Hatch,

   Astronaut John Glenn returned to space at age 77. Julia Child had her tv debut at age 51 and wrote a cookbooks at age 87. Frank Lloyd Wright was still working at age 91. Ronald Reagan was elected to his second term at age 73. Dr. William Worrell Mayo founded Mayo Clinic at age 70.

   Recently, Robert Marchand set a new world record for the over-105 age group by bicycling over 14 miles in one hour!

   What makes the difference among such people? Why do some stay active and vibrant despite their biological age?

   Most people who live long, health lives are just regular folks who refuse to equate age with illness and

Dear Reader.

   On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

   Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.

   They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.

   But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.

What Made the Difference

   Have you ever wondered, as I have, what make this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t that one person wants success and the other one doesn’t.

In short

The Mayo Clinic copywriter ‘stole smart’ from the most successful advertisement in the history of the world.

Bloody brilliant!

Why The Wall Street Journal letter is 775 words while The Mayo Clinic health letter needs 2680 words

Why The Wall Street Journal letter is 775 words while The Mayo Clinic health letter needs 2680 words

Remember Mal Decker’s definition of the direct response letter:

‘It sells soft or it sells hard. It spins yarns or it spouts facts. It’s long (but never long-winded) or it’s pithy. However itcomes on, it’s loaded with customer benefits... Customer Benefits... CUSTOMER BENEFITS.’


The Wall Street Journal letter is short and ‘pithy’. The readers are interested in money and success, either as private investors, money managers, corporate executives, gamblers, bankers or retirees. The WSJ message: two young men with virtually identical schooling and backgrounds ended up working for the same company. One was a department head, the other was president of the company. 

What made the difference? The CEO was a career-long reader of The Wall Street Journal; the other guy was not.

The basic copy drivers: fear and salvation

Fear: ‘If you don’t read The Wall Street Journal,’ the copy implied, ‘your career will be stalled and life will be a perpetual struggle.’

Salvation:  Read WSJ. Get to the top of the heap. Make money. Retire in comfort. All of this for just $99 a year ($1.90 a week). You’re a damn fool to turn this down.

Mayo Clinic health letter: fear and salvation

You’re getting old. Friends, family and business colleagues are beginning to die like flies. Here’s a sampling of what can go wrong with your ageing flesh case:

HEART DISEASE, ‘the #1 killer of folks over 50’. 

ARTHRITIS: a life of pain. 


The names of these gawdawful maladies are printed in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS! This should scare the hell out of every senior reader.

But each of these grim afflictions is surrounded by warm, comforting reassurances all will be OK. A sampling from the letter: 

• HIP REPLACEMENTS are now easier . . . the recovery is, too. Our coverage helps you understand whether you might be a good candidate for hip replacement.

• Spend fewer days in the hospital – and make a quicker return to normal activities after surgery – discover what strategies MAYO experts recommend to take BEFORE many types of operations.

• How to quickly tell a PANIC ATTACK from a heart attack.

• Practical steps you can take to keep your ears healthy, plus the best treatments to help you manage HEARING LOSS.

• The news in MAYO CLINIC HEALTH LETTER is accurate and reliable. It’s just what you’d expect from the clinic that’s not only one of the world’s most prestigious treatment centers, but a world-class research facility and a major medical school as well.

Get the idea? The FEAR ITEM in capital letters surrounded by soft, knowledgeable salvation from doctors at one of America’s most famous hospitals. This wealth of information is contained in a giant eight-page letter of 8-1/2” x 12” lined paper with 14-point old-shoe comfy courier/typewriter type that’s easy-peasy on old eyes.

Plus, the following Goodies Throughout the Letter

• No Risk!

• Take a Trial Issue.

• FREE REPORT: ‘Get Better Sleep Without Taking a Pill.’

• Send no money now. ‘Don’t send a dime.’

• If you like the trial issue and special report, spend just $1.97 a copy. That’s ‘pennies a day’. 

• If you decide not to continue, simply write ‘Cancel’ on the bill and mail it in the postage-paid reply envelope.

• You keep the free sample issue and FREE REPORT and owe nothing.

• GUARANTEE: If at any time – for any reason – you decide you’re not getting your money’s worth from Mayo Clinic Health Letter, you may cancel your subscription at any time and receive a prompt refund. No questions asked. ‘We guarantee your satisfaction’.

Takeaways to consider

• First and foremost: why use expensive, complicated, clunky and s-l-o-w direct mail rather than quick, down- ‘n’-dirty, cheap, cheap, cheap email?

• The Mayo Clinic’s staff are consummate experts in direct mail marketing. They know what works for their newsletter.

• In 2001 an early version of this oversized mailing became a ‘Grand Control’ (in the mail often for a least three consecutive years, and probably a lot more.) 

• You are Invited to download the 20-year-old Mayo Clinic Grand Control for comparison purposes.

• Remember the 9-1/2” x 14” envelope that dominated everything in sight? I DAMN WELL NOTICED IT. SO DID JOSH ON THE 29TH FLOOR.

• Here’s how it would have looked if it were email:

• Email is entirely mouse-type, surrounded by spam and crap. A mouse-click away from oblivion. No overpowering size. No big headlines. No knock-‘em-dead promises. Nothing stands out.

• You want precisely accountable advertising that is testable and guarantees precise results (and is secret)? Hire a direct mail consultant and test, test, test. 

Coming in the next post: a senior copy editor (me) analyses the nuts-‘n’-bolts of these mailings in terms of: 

• Offer

• Pricing

• Readability

• Production

• Copy in the eight-page letter

• Letter-writer’s signature

• Lift letter

• PS

• Guarantee

• Order mechanism

• Involvement device

• Testimonials from happy users

• How to adapt direct mail to a digital pitch

About the author: Denny Hatch

Denny Hatch

After graduating from Columbia University in 1958, I was drafted into the U.S. army for a two-year stint. I loved it! It was the peacetime army and I acquired skills that lasted me throughout my career: writing press releases; writing, producing and narrating a documentary for the New York Army Reserve; and writing and editing a classical music series for radio station WXQR in New York.

Following the army, I had nine jobs in twelve years in business. I was fired from five of them. Later I went on to save two business and start three others. One of the businesses - the Who's Mailing What? newsletter and archive service founded in 1984 - revolutionised the science of how to measure the success of direct mail. Over the years I have been a publicist, magazine publisher, book club director, agency account executive, copywriter, designer, editor, journalist and marketing consultant. 

In my spare time I wrote four published novels and seven books on business and marketing.

Related case studies or articles

The most successful advertisement in the history of the world

What is the most successful advertisement ever? Legendary marketing expert Denny Hatch tells all and there’s so much fundraisers can learn from this.

Read more


Denny Hatch brings us an extraordinary checklist that everyone involved in fundraising and marketing communication should run through before putting pen to paper.

Read more

Two of the greatest fundraising letters ever written

In this fascinating article, marketing giant Denny Hatch presents two of the greatest fundraising letters of all time, and explains the complex, sometimes murky, story of how they came about.

Read more