A swipe file is a useful tool for a copywriter. But so often, I see copywriters using it the wrong way.
They go to their swipe file, choose a good headline, then make one small tweak so it’s about their product.
The problem is that they don’t know wtf they’re doing. They don’t know wtf the original copywriter was doing. Instead, they’re just playing Headline Mad Libs.
That original headline — assuming it was a winner — was written for a specific market and a specific audience. It took into account the audience’s awareness level and the market’s sophistication — at the time the headline was written, which could have been many years ago.
So when copywriters try to just insert their product into the headline, it’s going to fall flat.
Sometimes, the headline won’t even make sense.
For example, take John Carlton’s headline, “The Amazing Secret Discovered by One-Legged Golfer Adds 50 Yards to Your Drives, Eliminates Hooks and Slices…and Can Slash Up to 10 Strokes from Your Game Almost Overnight.” That headline ran for 15+ years.
Well, after that headline was a huge success, a lot of ads started popping up about “one-legged” people.
For example, “The Amazing Secret Discovered by One-Legged Accountant…”
But that’s a terrible headline!
Why? Well, John talked about this in an interview he did on the Rainmaker podcast, saying, “The one-legged accountant, that’s not a hook. It doesn’t matter if he has one leg or not. It doesn’t matter if he’s a head in a jar somewhere. But it matters for golf, because you think it’s a disconnect… So you have to understand how this stuff works.”
Swipe files are great for inspiration. They’re great for playing with headline ideas. But ultimately, you have to know what you’re doing as a copywriter, and you have to understand what the writers in your swipe file were doing, too.