Joseph Sugarman: What we can learn from the king of direct mail copywriting

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Remember the first piece of copy you wrote? 

Are you swelling with pride? 

Or dying inside?

If it’s the latter, you’re in good company. I’m cringing thinking of mine. 

And copywriting legend Joseph Sugarman describes his first ads as horrible

But there’s hope. Joseph Sugarman became one of the most successful direct marketing copywriters of the last century. 

A household name (if your house is actually an advertising or copywriting agency).

He is best known for building a business called JS&A Group Inc. and making millions of dollars worth of sales simply from his ability to write unique and compelling ads in a catalogue. 

(And I’ve done alright too.) 

So today I’m sharing with you seven of his copywriting tips that will help you up your game. 

Let’s go! 

Tip #1: Get the reader to agree

Have you ever heard a band play when one instrument is in the wrong key?


It’s dire. 


Even if you’re not musical, you know something is off and it ruins the experience. 


Sugarman says your prospect should feel in harmony with your copy. 


That means you know them and their motivations and you’re connecting with their pain points and desires. 


And don’t try to trick them or scare them into taking action. 


It’s an immediate turn-off. Yes, fear is an important psychological trigger but Sugarman argues that you have to be truthful and subtle with it. 


Your prospect will sniff out any manipulation and then you’ve lost them. 


In Sugarman’s catalogue ad for a burglar alarm he includes this copy under the header “YOU JUDGE THE QUALITY.”


“Will the Midex system ever fail? No product is perfect, but judge for yourself. All components used in the Midex system are of aerospace quality and of such high reliability that they pass the military standard…” 


He makes no outlandish promise about reliability and invites the reader to be the judge, showing implicit trust in their shrewd intelligence. He then describes the features that ought to give the reassurance he doesn’t want to promise. 


Smart, huh?


Tip #2: The first sentence has one purpose


To get you to read the next one. Sugarman tells his students to forget features and benefits straight off the bat. 


You need to grab your reader’s attention with a short sentence that’s easy to read. One that uses simple language and opens a curiosity loop. Such as:


Picture this. 


This is the truth. 


Your parents never told you


And it’s not just the first sentence. The second should keep ’em reading too.


Sugarman states that yes, you need to include features and benefits, but each sentence needs to flow into the next and that’s your main aim. 


Like Discord’s lovely and lyrical homepage copy:

Tip #2: The first sentence has one purpose - Learn from Joseph Sugarman

Leading us on to tip #3…


Tip #3: Reading your copy should feel like slipping down something slippery


Your copy should be compelling. And that should be as a result of both style and content.


That’s how Sugarman was able to keep a prospect’s attention throughout a whole page of copy. 


In an ad for a digital scale, Sugarman uses some smooth syntax:


“Losing weight is not easy. Ask anyone. One of the few pleasures of losing weight is stepping on your bathroom scale and seeing positive results. Your bathroom scale is like a report card–a feedback mechanism that tells you how well you’ve done.”


Here’s how to write slippery copy:

  • Vary your sentence length. 
  • Use simple language so your reader isn’t forced to pause whilst they try to read a four-syllable word they rarely use.  
  • Think about the rhythm of your sentences. 
  • Connect with your prospect’s desires and pain points.
  • Leave some things to the imagination. 
  • Paint a picture of your prospect’s ideal outcome. 


Tip #4: Your copy should flow (and what Joseph Sugarman says you should bring up early on)

Your copy should be organised in a logical order. With the important messages first.


And Sugarman advocates addressing your customers’ objections quickly and directly. 


Heard of Stella Artois’ famous campaign in the ’80s?  


“Reassuringly expensive” was the punchy tagline. They turned an objection about the price into a benefit with just two words. 




And they’ve continued to bang the quality drum with their current website copy. 


The following copy is first on their “Quality” page as they know everyone’s priority when it comes to food and drink is the ingredients. 

For more on this, take a look at the Hierarchy Lens from our unique quality assurance methodology, the 13 Lenses.

Tip #5: “Never sell a product or service, sell a concept.“

What differentiates one dating app from another? One cloud service from another?

Perhaps price, or some specific feature. But they will only beat the competition by selling a unique concept that appeals to their ideal customer. 

Bumble has stood out by making their dating app about equality and all their content highlights this mission. 

Copy that sells a winning concept will originate from a powerhouse brand strategy

So make sure you start there. 

Tip #6: “You sell on emotion, but you justify a purchase with logic.”

This is key Sugarman wisdom. 

You need to tap into both the prospect’s primal brain and their rational brain. 

Yes, the latest Aston Martin car would make me feel successful. 

But I wouldn’t ignore the fact that I don’t have £100k to spend on a flashy car.  

However, if the copy tells me that these cars keep their value and there is a more affordable way to lease the car, I may be more inclined to follow the path my emotions would lead me down. 

And in order to know what would appeal to both parts of my brain, you would need to have discovered my motivations.

Oatly tugs at emotions whilst delivering some facts about their product to back up those feelings.

Tip #7: Understand the nature of the product

You know this of course. You’re a smart cookie.

But Sugarman puts a slightly different spin on it. 

He says that very product has its own personality and you have to dig deep to find out what it is. 

One example he gives is regarding the burglar alarm mentioned above. He knew that writing the copy equivalent of:


Wasn’t going to fly. 

But he was confident that eventually, a circumstance would happen in his prospects’ lives that would trigger the purchase. 

So his ad needed to position the product as the best option on the market.

Ready for that moment.

It was a success of course. And some customers told Sugarman they’d cut the ad out and filed it away ready for when they needed it – exactly as predicted. 

Sugarman would spend days poring over a product and its components.


Then, alongside the customer knowledge he had, he would be able to come up with a winning sales concept.


So, as your reward for making it to the end. 


Here’s a final piece of Joseph Sugarman wisdom:


Write, write, write. 


Sugarman states that he had more failures than successes in his career. 


And the former led to the latter as he wrote prolifically and kept learning from those catastrophic early attempts. 


So copywriter, keep on keeping on. 






Download our FREE, expert eBook to unravel the mysteries of high converting copy.


Download our FREE, expert eBook to unravel the mysteries of high converting copy.

About the author

Konrad Sanders CEO & Lead Strategist at The Creative Copywriter
Hey you. I’m Konrad. A full-funnel content strategist and CEO with a pretty darn creative noggin on my shoulders. I run a team of word-slinging cowboys and strategists who blend science with art to help bold brands get their words right at every step of the customer journey. Which means? They sell more stuff and grow predictable revenue. Brands like AECOM, Thomson Reuters, TikTok, Panasonic, Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, plus shedloads of tech scale-ups...and you? Let's connect.

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