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.

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8 thoughts on “Charles Dickens and Woody Allen, Marketing Geniuses

  1. Andy’s Green Petticoat fascinated me as a child. Those people on TV all knew each other! It was a bit like my first day of first grade, where I actually saw the same kids I’d gone to kindergarten with.

    They existed outside the school system. (Is 6 too old to be realizing other human beings were just as real as I?)

    Changing gears just a bit: in the times of Dickens and other great writers of the past, they all seemed to understand that writing was work, that writing sometimes didn’t work, and that sometimes you had to work at something else to support yourself as a writer.

    Will the current Mentality of Entitlement (I’m calling it “ME” — wait; no I’m not) eventually succumb to the Reality of Responsibility (“RR”, but only on Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey) and give all 23 million authors a kick in the pants so they’ll take a page from Dickens’ book (ha!) and accept that there is work involved?

    Next up: a Disney/Sun Tzu mashup called “The War of Happy”.

  2. Joel, I think some of the same characters appeared in “Green Eggs and Petticoats.”

    Much as I resent it, I acknowledge all three of your writing triumvirate: it’s work, sometimes it’s wonky, and sometimes you have to work on the outside to work through the wonk. Right now I’m feeling my fiction work is particularly wonky, but I haven’t been working it or working through it. Time for a Dickensian approach. (And considering Woody Allen’s output too: he has a long body of work, with many a high and a low, but he keeps working.)

    I do so like your Disney Zu mash—nice.

  3. Joel and Tom, I also loved the fact that all those people from Mayberry and Hooterville and Pixley all knew each other. Television was a lot more fun when the characters moved from one realm to t’other, brazenly unafraid of the comptroller or the legal department.

    And mashups and fan fiction are certainly fun. I’m currently enjoying new classic Star Trek episodes on YouTube, including new adventures with completely different characters on other starships. How excellent that we have such abilities these days. Those folks are creating finer (and less constrained) work as hobbyists than an entire well-financed TV network did back in the 60s.

    Speaking of mashups, has anyone ever done one on the show M*A*S*H? And if so, would that be a mashmashup?

    Finally, Tom, splendid character names, and as you know, I’m an aficionado. “Pumblechook” in particular is positively inspired.

    Oh, and one more thing, when it comes to that:

    Arnold Ziffle.

  4. Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor both said their younger non-actress sister was the real looker in the family. I always thought Eva’s accent was cute, but Zsa Zsa’s was annoying.

    Rick, what if it was a mashup of that show, and the side to British bangers?

  5. Rick, I think it happens more today (but I don’t watch any late night TV anymore), but I liked it when movie stars/celebs would drop in unannounced to Johnny Carson’s set. I think it happened quite a bit on Letterman too. Not quite the same as a gathering in Hooterville though, or Bug Tussle.

    And I’ve watched some of those Star Trek fan productions—amazing! We now have the technology to have Arnold Ziffle appear in a MASH episode. Heck, throw in Pumblechook too.

    PS Joel, yeah, Zsa Zsa could be over the top. And then over it again.

  6. Woody Allen is one of my all-time heroes, as well as one of my favorite writers. Who cares about a gnarly personal life when the person leading it can write so well?
    Thank you for including such a great sampling of his lines. I also like the one about cheating on a philosophy exam: He looked into the soul of the girl sitting next to him.
    Happy writing. And if you want a change of pace, check out my stuff. I know your sister (!)

  7. Alice, I checked out your All Saints post—your are giving Woody a run for his money in the wise guy (wise gal) department. Very funny stuff. (And I use the same ID as you, by the way.)

    Because I am large of mind, I forgive you for associating with my sister. And happy writing back at you!

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