The First Deadly Sin of copywriting is universality, which is the prideful assumption that everyone — and especially every customer — thinks like you, shares the same concerns and values, and roughly knows what you know.


For example, what’s a lot of money to you, might be chump change to an audience of investors, and what’s chump change to you, might be a serious investment to a different audience. Get that wrong and you’re copy is guaranteed to under perform. And it’s the same thing with knowledge, to the point where people even talk about “The Curse of Knowledge.”


The Curse of Knowledge, for those who haven’t heard the term before, is the tendency for humans to forget what it was like not to know something after they’ve learned it. Good copywriters work to overcome The Curse of Knowledge, bad copywriters just assume that, well, “everyone knows that.” Here’s a good example:


As you can see from the contest, the ad that focused on the simple basics — that the software is free and will let you play your favorite music on your computer — won out. In contrast, the ad that anticipated a “normal” level of computer literacy lost.


What I mean by anticipating a normal level of computer literacy is the assumption that “everybody” knows that there are multiple music and video formats. Once you know this, then the promise of a universal media player which handles every format becomes appealing.


But if you don’t know that, it seems sort of blahdy-blah-blah technical, when all you want to do is play music on your computer.


So the question is: which person are you writing to? Who, at this point in time, doesn’t already have some form of media player, and would need to use relatively generic search terms like “music player” to find one?


  • If you guess the less-computer-literate, then you’d be all set to write a winning ad that would appeal to that person, just as Booster, John Galt did.
  • If you don’t even bother thinking about level of knowledge, and just fall into the sin of universalism, then you end up with an ad that’s less than half as effective as it should be.


So what’s it going to be: learning to think like — and write to — your prospective customer, or falling into the “my customer = me” trap? The choice is yours.