Charles Dickens and Woody Allen, Marketing Geniuses

Dickens and Allen

Mash-ups—where pieces of literature, art, music, technology, and other expressions—are combined, blended, stitched or machine-gunned, can make for intriguing fusions. Marvin Gaye, the transcendent soul singer, has been sampled by more than 75 musicians, using snippets of his songs blended with theirs. (Including Shaquille O’Neal, for better or worse.)

Fan fiction is a kind of mash-up, where usually amateur writers who are aficionados of other professional (often genre) writers use the well-known characters from beloved works in their own ways, or spin off new characters from the settings and places of the old. There’s a lot of Star Trek fan fiction online. Amazon created a full program for writers of fan fiction, the Kindle Worlds program.

Zombies seem to make masher-uppers inspired: Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, a 2009 book that combines Jane Austen with brain eaters, was fairly popular, as was the 2012 B-movie, Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies. YouTube is rife with cuckoo mashups, like The Three Stooges as the A Team and Indiana Jones as MacGyver. You can find “Parks and Meth”  (combining Parks and Recreation and Breaking Bad) on Tumblr. And damn if I don’t remember (this really dates me) Gomer from The Andy Griffith Show being on a Petticoat Junction episode. Or was it Green Acres? Obviously, I don’t quite remember.

Regardless, the above is just a long intro to a mash-up of a mash-up, one of mine. I’ve written before of the “what-ifs” of Charles Dickens and Woody Allen becoming copywriters in separate pieces, and I thought it would be fun to combine the two as a copywriting exercise. Also because the mash-up concept is one of those interesting combinatorial processes that uses both the brain’s metaphor engine and its curatorial libraries.

Here’s  Charlie and Woody:

Marketing seems like a modern pursuit, with its data-driven analytics, layered customer profiling and current cries for authenticity over interruption, but marketing and its variants have been around for a while, and some of its niches are unexplored. Such as the wide contributions that Charles Dickens and Woody Allen have made to the marketing sphere. Let’s look at Charlie first:

Famed adman Charles Dickens (Oglivy stole everything from Charlie) started out as a struggling copywriter in London, at one point so desperate for work he scribbled his business address—he was also the first graffiti artist—on the legs of local trollops working the district.

But then Dickens had a revelation: he did a little fiction writing on the side, and wondered whether his attempts to sell buyers on the chewy goodness of hardtack biscuits would work better if he tossed in some storytelling. Stories might deliver the needed ROB (Return on Bamboozling).


So he formulated his Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting, which sleazy scribes have cribbed from for more than a century. To wit:

Hit ‘Em with Headlines

Charlie dug that the headline is the hook. He landed big ones with whoppers like these:
 A Whale of a Deal!
Call Me (but Call Me Ishmael)

Finagle Your First Lines

Dickens doctored all the first lines of his marketing pieces with winning words.

For fresh fruit: “These were the best of limes, these were the worst of limes.”

For sandwiches: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero sandwich of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Never Short Your Sales Letters

You knew that Charlie pioneered the use of yellow highlighting in his sales letters, but you probably didn’t know that he perfected the use of the interminable sentence:

There once lived, in a sequestered part of the country of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.

Charlie highlighted it all, of course.

Use Tongue-Torquing Character Names

For every vanilla “Bob” you’ve got selling your spark plugs, Dickens will give you a Wopsle, a Wackford Squeers or a Pumblechook.

Calls to Action that Crackle

Use tactics like pathetic, big-eyed urchins whimpering things like “Please sir, I want some more.” Dickens really knew how to yank hankies. (Hankies are always followed by wallets.)


And don’t forget his exemplary use of Random Capitalization and Emotional Outrage. They don’t call the guy “Mr. Gutbucket Sales” for nothing.

Woody, the Reluctant Pitch Artist

Turning to Woody, you might think he’s the antithesis of the marketing copywriter, but it’s useful to look at some of his stuff in a copywriting light:

  • Timing the customer funnel. (Know when your buyer is ready. Or nudge them along.)

Allen: “What are you doing Saturday night?” Davila: “Committing suicide.” Allen: “What about Friday night?”

  • If you can’t get a customer testimonial, the next best thing is to write one yourself.

“You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”

  • Direct, plainspoken words on personal challenges draw customer empathy. And who doesn’t like to complain about being ripped off?

“I am plagued by doubts. What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In which case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

  • Features and benefits, and imparting a sense of urgency

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.”

  • Know your audience demographics (and don’t be afraid to drop names)

“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”

  • Statistics can sell the story:

“There are two types of people in this world, good and bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”

  • Communicating the “What’s In It For Me” angle:

“Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go it’s pretty damn good.”

OK, admittedly Woody is weak on calls to action, fuzzy on the features/benefits dance, and rather than solving a problem, he often introduces one. And a little bit of self-loathing can go a long way, but a lot, hmmm. But I do wish he’d take a shot at it—today’s beer commercials are sorely lacking in that winning parenthetical (and existential) touch.

Next week, we’ll examine how Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People started out as a how-to book on trimming hedges.