Many of the titans of modern advertising, including David Ogilvy, have preached that humor doesn't work in sales copy and should be studiously avoided. That sentiment is routinely echoed by many contemporary experts and pundits as well: if you want to close the deal, stay away from the funny. But the joke may be on them. For almost 30 years, Stu Heinecke has specialized in using cartoons and carefully directed humor to rack up record response for himself and his clients in marketing, advertising, VIP contact campaigns, and more. The Seattle-based cartoonist and marketer is president of CartoonLink,a regular contributing cartoonist for the Wall Street Journal, and the author of Drawing Attention, his extensive guide for turning cartoons into potent sales tools. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke to Heinecke about his unique niche.
RL: What's the secret relationship between cartoons and marketing?
SH: Readership surveys have shown that cartoons are almost always the best-read and best remembered part of magazines and newspapers. I found that cartoons have turned out to be the ultimate involvement and engagement device. They show up in a lot of different forms—not just in direct marketing, but in email and contact campaigning as well. The cartoon is doing in that stack of mail what it does in magazines and newspapers—it shows up and stands out.
RL: How can cartoons get the prospect to open the envelope?
SH: When I started out 30 years ago, it was a big revelation that we could use personalization in a cartoon. So when the cartoon is about the recipient and it's well-targeted—that's a big caveat—then all kinds of magic happens. So often, I see [mailers] teasing the recipient into the envelope. But I want to entertain them. I want to make them curious because they're thrilled and intrigued by what they see. Cartoons have done that.
RL: Cartoons really cut through the clutter, don't they?
SH: If we put them on a postcard, you don't have to open anything. The message is right out there, but so is the cartoon. I love postcards as a format because people will treat our mailings as a keepsake and stick them up on their refrigerator door or on their office wall. And they stay there for a long time. I did a cartoon postcard for Standard Parking that set their all-time record for response.
RL: Besides postcards, what other ways can small business owners use cartoons?
SH: Most promotional mail gets screened away by the mailroom or assistants, but assistants don't throw away cartoons about their bosses. Personalized cartoons could also serve as contact pieces. I call it contact campaigning. I experimented with different formats. Today, we use 18-by-24-inch foam core big boards—basically giant postcards. On the front is a cartoon about the recipient and generally pays the recipient a compliment about their success in business. The other side is a message that essentially [says] I'd like to meet with you or talk to you and here's why. We also produce personalized cartoons [in the style of a] stretch canvas fine art print, [which is] shipped with a letter to the CEO.
SH: We had a Sandler Training franchisee test this in the Nashville area. He identified five area CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies. We produced the big boards and had them sent. All five CEOs picked up the phone and said, "I have this big card in my lap. Now, what do we do?" The franchisee said that [they arrange to] meet. So they met. I know he sold two programs on the spot, which are worth about $50,000 a piece. He got 100-percent response, which is supposed to be impossible.
SH: Humor is always about a truth revealed. The mistake that other art directors make is that the cartoon wasn't funny, so there was no truth. Or the cartoon wasn't funny because—this is a big one—they made it about themselves. They injected their offer and brand into the cartoon, which makes it irrelevant to the audience. You want this thing solely to be about the identity of and a truth for the recipient. That's it. Then, you want to talk about what your product or service can do to help solve the problem that's dramatized in the cartoon or keep their success going.
RL: Do you oversee a network of freelance cartoonists who supply cartoons for you?
SH: Yes, usually about 10. We have an image bank of over 1,000 cartoons. Actually we can cover most of the situations that people need to cover through the use of cartoons in our image bank—which is great because I don't have to charge a creative fee, which makes it more expensive.
RL: What's a typical day for you, assuming such a thing exists?
SH: I'm up at five a.m. and down into the studio pretty early. If I have an assignment or a deadline, that's when I get the work done. Or I do a lot of planning for new business development—looking for ways to open new channels. Sometimes I get out on my bicycle and ride for an hour [later on]. It's a nice break. And then finish up by five. I also became one of the cartoonists for the Wall Street Journal last year. Toward the end of the day, I'll work on at least one cartoon to submit to them, which is how I accumulate batches.
RL: Final words to a small business owner on the serious potential of cartoons?
SH: Those silly little drawings can actually represent the key to enormous growth in your business. If applied smartly, you can reach people maybe you never thought you could reach and open new sales channels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.