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3 Ways a Renegade Cop Accidentally Exploded the Sales of a Product no One Wanted

In 1971, Dirty Harry held his empty Smith & Wesson Model 29 resolutely on a bank robber, and bluffed him down.

I know what you’re thinkin’. Did he fire six shots, or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a forty-four Magnum—the most powerful handgun in the world—and would blow your head clean off…you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?

The Model 29 had been in production since 1957. It was by no means a popular weapon; it sold a modest number of units each year, largely just to handgun enthusiasts. It was a product with no real market. Too powerful to carry for self-defense, too heavy for target shooting, and…well, most hunters use carbines or rifles, don’t they?

But in 1971 the Model 29’s fortunes changed. That year, demand for this particular revolver exceeded the supply by so much that retailers were selling them for triple their usual price.

Why? Dirty Harry. It’s an interesting case study—and I’d like to suggest there are 3 underlying factors behind the Model 29’s success which you can apply in your own business. Even if you don’t happen to have a big-budget movie to sell your product for you.

Here they are:

1. Personality

You may have noticed that people seem to talk about unique selling propositions less than they used to. Part of the reason, I think, is that finding a single unique benefit to focus on is less effective than many other ways of appealing to prospects. But probably the main reason is simply that in many cases it’s downright impossible to find a unique benefit at all.

For most businesses, the only thing they can guarantee will be unique about them is…their own personalities.

This is certainly true in my business. Most of my clients don’t buy copywriting or web design or information from me. What sells them is not my skill, experience, or even the ROI of my work. What they buy is me…with all those good things tacked on. In the same way, consumers in 1971 didn’t want the Model 29 Smith & Wesson revolver. They weren’t buying the (supposedly) most powerful handgun in the world, or the ability to blow someone’s head clean off. They were buying Dirty Harry. Or at least a lil’ piece of him.

Personalities imply stories, and stories sell. Do you remember the Man in the Hathaway shirt? You might be too young. I am. He was the persona invented by original Mad Man, David Ogilvy. The Man in the Hathaway Shirt was an intriguing fellow with an eyepatch, and he launched C F Hathaway to national fame. A similar invention of Ogilvy’s, The Man from Schweppes, who strode confidently down the red carpet from his airplane, enjoyed similar success. More recently, of course, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, and the Old Spice Man, have carried on the proud tradition of getting customers to choose a product based on the personality associated with it. All these campaigns succeeded due to the story appeal of personality.

If you’re a business owner, you’re selling yourself—or a business persona you invented—as much as any product or service. As a conversion expert, I know there are plenty of people who do what I do. Many of them could probably do it faster, cheaper…maybe even better! How can I compete with that? By being willing to share my personality with my customers. I’m the only conversion expert who lives on the back of an orchard in New Zealand with several dozen sheep, and shoots possums with a bow. Doesn’t make me better at my job. But it does make me appealing to a certain kind of person.

Don’t be afraid to use your personality as the basis for your marketing. If you’re in any way interesting, it’s probably the easiest, most genuine way to connect with your prospects.

2. Pictures

Actual pictures are great if you’re combining them with personality—that’s certainly much of the success behind the S&W M29. After all, what’s a movie but one long series of pictures? But word pictures are equally good; especially if you can incorporate other senses, apart from just vision, into the scene you’re “painting”. This is undoubtedly what contributed to the success of some of the classic advertising headlines of history:

  • Turns up your digestive furnace and burns flab right out of your body! [incorporating thermoception as well as a strong visual image]
  • At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock [incorporating hearing as well as vision]
  • Again she orders—“A chicken salad, please” [incorporating vision, hearing, and also taste and smell for many people]

There are also less famous examples, like one of my favorites from Ben Settle which is very kinesthetic: “How Even Skinny, Barney Fife Cops Single-Handedly Control And Dominate Violent Criminals, Gang-Bangers And Other Cold-Blooded Killers…Without Even Drawing Their Guns.”

Pictures are powerful partly because they can explain the complexities of your product in a way that makes it clear and real. They show your prospects what you’re talking about in vivid, gripping ways that engage their imaginations. They let you paint a scene of their lives, complete with your offering. Their pain gone; problem solved; desires fulfilled.

Pictures also bypass the critical thinking parts of the brain, and go straight to the visualization center. Plus, since 80% of the information we take in is visual, they’re highly memorable. So they’re excellent for inveigling your offerings into your prospects’ minds.

3. Propositions

Propositions most often work well combined with pictures, or even personality—but they are a strong factor in their own right. A proposition is simply a clear, simple idea which resonates with your prospect; which strikes a nerve; which embodies some key aspect of your offering, or the pain it addresses.

Like, for example, “The most powerful handgun in the world”—a proposition still used by Smith & Wesson in its advertising today, albeit for the Model 500 which eclipsed the power of the .44 Magnum. (Who doesn’t want to hunt African buffalo with a revolver, right?)

A proposition can be a simple benefit—such as your USP. It can be a promise. It can be anything your prospects will find compelling enough to buy.

Dipping into the classics again, an excellent example comes from the 1974 Wall Street Journal sales letter, which tells the story of two young college graduates, “very much alike”. One of them goes on to become a manager in a large company; the other its president. The entire story serves to illustrate the proposition that what separates successful men from really successful men is what they know. In other words, the kind of knowledge contained in the Wall Street Journal. This ad is still running today, in a slightly modified form—and has netted over two billion dollars.

Do you use personality, pictures, or propositions in your marketing?

Any one of them alone can be enough to ensure success in marketing. In the right combination, they can be unstoppable. Share your experiences and examples below.

About the Author: D Bnonn Tennant is the author of the free email micro-course, “5 Sales-Spiking Website Tweaks Gurus & Designers Don’t Know”. Check it out if you’re interested in seeing personality-based marketing in action, along with plenty of word-pictures and propositions.

  1. Anders Sundstedt Aug 19, 2013 at 10:31 am

    A great post! Very interesting. I will be trying to use my personality even more when marketing my animated explainer video production.

    One thing at the end of my about page, is this P.S. message, which I think is quite original.

    P.S. Thank you for taking the time to visit Sundstedt Animation website. Please feel free to drop in again! We sincerely hope you find our work fun and enjoyable and we would love to hear from you.

  2. What an extraordinarily well-written and logical piece. Thank you

  3. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a damn fine headline. Excellent piece and headline that made me forget what I was checking in my email.

  4. 3Ps are super important for strategic product marketing. Bnonn, I wanted to add two more here. Because you would not be able to make product sales without having ‘passion’ and knowing ‘purpose’.

  5. Great article. You couldn’t be more right. Fashion, perfume and make-up brands have been using this for a long time.Chanel anyone? More recently Kardashians (as much as I detest them) with their handbags, and how about many of the stars launching their own perfumes. All selling their wares based on this theory. Ohhhhh and lets not forget the Marlborough Man – huge marketing if not societal success.

  6. Steve Chapman Aug 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Bluff? He blows the guy away.

  7. That’s the real way of good Advertising. Being Insane! Advertising is about short moments of unconscious inspiration, word coming from your own mind blowing twisted spirit.

  8. First, your rewarding-tale headline.
    Next, help them digest your work through a “5d glasses”.

    Great article here. Thanks for this.

  9. It always surprises me what can be learned from pop culture icons. Whether John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Humphrey Bogart, the true classics are classics for a reason.

    Excellent article. Well thought out, and informative!


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