Temperance Rally This Evening: All Are Welcome

A Guide On The Essence Of Effective Direct Response Copywriting 

While visiting my niece at her workplace, the Cincinnati Museum Center, an art deco spectacle housed in the city’s former giant train station, I snapped this pic (above) of some early 20th century rally posters. The simplicity of the messages on these posters struck me. They are clear, concise and designed to motivate people to attend their various meetings. I sent off a text to my niece, who’d been asking me to try and explain what I do. I texted her, “This is the type of copywriting I do, using words to get people to take action.”

Then I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to break down the six key parts of these three posters and create a simple guide on the essence of effective direct response copywriting. If you follow the basics, understood by these hundred year old copywriters of the past, you’ll have everything you need to craft a basic direct response sales message and likely see some results.

The essential six parts are one the headline, two the lead, three the problem, four the solution, five social proof, and six the call-to-action.

Here’s the photo again for you to reference while reading my breakdown.

The Headline

The three headlines in these posters read (counter clockwise from the top): 


It just so happens that all three of these headlines also introduce the main topic of the poster, but that is not what makes them a good headline. What makes them a headline is that they grab the attention of the ideal audience and peak their curiosity. What’s interesting to me is that the third poster, the one on Immigration, actually buries the headline in the center of the lead. In all other cases a headline comes first, as it is what grabs the reader’s attention first and entices them to keep reading. The immigration poster uses the type size to make the headline standout, even though it is not placed first. 

The Lead

The lead is the part that comes after a headline. It’s what introduces the message and transitions the reader from the attention grabbing headline, into the rest of the piece. If you’re writing an email, your headline is your subject line, and your lead is the opening of the email. If you’re writing a sales page, the lead comes after your headline and subheadline and possibly a preliminary call to action. In these examples, the lead is used to introduce the reader to the subject of the poster. 

The leads from our three posters are as follows (counter clockwise from the top):

  2. REV. JOSHUA LEAVITT speaks on the topic tonight

These are certainly not the strongest or the most compelling or clever leads ever written, but they all do one thing, which is start an open loop, leaving the reader wanting to find out more. This is all a lead needs to do, which is to get the reader invested after their attention has been snagged by the headline, and it needs to entice them to keep reading on.

The Problem

This section is where you begin to make the argument for whatever you are offering by digging into the problem that your audience has. The point here is to make the reader feel that pain (that they already have) in the present moment, while reading your copy.  In the copywriting world we call this “aggravating the pain.” When addressing the problem you want to make sure you understand not only the surface of the problem, but more importantly the deeper emotions that your audience feels as a result of the problem. 

The problem section in these posters read (counter clockwise from the top):

  1. DRUNKARDS ARE A PUBLIC ENEMY! Their base habits and brutal conduct rob families of the necessary means of support. Drunkenness destroys the decency of home, neighborhood and community 
  2. THREE MILLION of your fellow beings are in chains! CHURCH AND GOVERNMENT sustain the horrible system of oppression.
  3. Repel foreign influence by repelling the influx of IMMIGRANTS FROM EUROPE!

You can feel the appeal to the emotion in each of these by the use of very strong words, the negative tone, and the specificity of the claims. I find the third immigration example interesting because it doesn’t stop at the problem, but also hints at the solution. I don’t think this approach is as effective because the immigration focused poster comes off as more “preachy.” This is common for a lot of poorly written copy, which focuses on the perspective of the writer rather than staying present in the perspective (aka the problem) of the reader. 

The Solution

This part of the message holds the most meaning for the person crafting the copy, and for that reason many people make the mistake of putting this first, or leaving this part alone to do all the heavy lifting. In truth, the solution section of copy only works when all the other parts are done well. The headline, lead, problem and social proof are all about getting the reader ready (desperate even) to hear the solution, making sure they are primed, curious and invested. Only after you’ve achieved those things with your copy will the reader care about the solution part of the message and resonate with the meaning. 

The solution sections of the posters are (counter clockwise from the top):

  2. Learn your duty to yourselves, the slave and God.
  3. Opportunity for private audiences with the Reverend after the lecture

I love how different these solutions are from each other. The first is a bold statement of opinion, the second is an appeal to the inner life and personal transformation, and the third is very practical and doesn’t say anything about how the grand problem will actually be solved. If the immigration poster did a better job of building the first part of the message, I actually think this last approach for the solution would work very well because it leaves room for personal curiosity. The reader is left wondering, “What would I say in my private audience with the Reverend?” While the reader may not be sufficiently motivated to act by this poster, perhaps the next time they read a similar message they will be much closer to action than if they had never read this first poster at all.

In most sales copy the solution section will come in the form of the product or service you are trying to sell. Many solutions also include the features of the offer as well as their benefits. As I mentioned, most bad copy focuses on this portion of the sales message and in that effort fails to convince anyone. Rather than thinking of your product as a sum of it’s features and benefits, you will wildly improve your copy simply by reframing this section as a solution, as I have shown here.

Social Proof 

Social proof comes in many forms, like statistics, testimonials, or, like in these three examples, good old name dropping. Social proof is a chance to make your reader feel like they aren’t alone in making the decision you are trying to get them to make. Social proof offers validation to your claims by referencing others who are already involved. Social proof is incredibly effective at making your argument more convincing provided that it is one thing, believable. 

The social proof elements in these three posters are (counter clockwise from the top):

  1. Address by Mr. Herman Humphrey
  2. REV. JOSHUA LEAVITT speaks on the topic tonight (Note: same line as the lead)
  3. The honorable REVEREND LYMAN BEECHER will address the people on

All three of these examples use the name of someone important as their social proof. I’m going to guess that the reader wouldn’t even need to necessarily have heard of these specific people to be convinced they are important by their title and the way they are prominently announced at the top of each poster. These posters could have said something like, “Join dozens of your fellow countrymen” or “hundreds are gathering” as a statistical form of social proof, but I think these would have been weaker choices. A testimonial would have likely taken up too much space on a succinct poster. But even though brevity was important in the days of manual typesetting, the inclusion of these lines is evidence that social proof works.


The final necessary part of any good direct response copy is the call-to-action. The call-to-action tells the reader exactly what you want them to do, i.e. what action to take after reading and being convinced by your copy. If you don’t include this part, you won’t ever see results or benefit from the effectiveness of your copy. And yet, you’d be amazed how often this element is left off of most copy. Take a look at your emails and social media posts. Is the call-to-action there? If not, nows the time to add it!

The call-to-actions in these posters are as follows (counter clockwise from the top):


I learned from Joanna Wiebe of Copyhackers that a good call-to-action should provide the end to either one of the following two sentences, “I want to..” or “I want you to…” In our examples only the first one fits that formula, and I think it is the most effective of the three. The second uses the dreaded “should” word which may have worked better a hundred years ago, but today it may cause an allergic reaction in your reader. The immigration poster, following its precedent of being the deviant to all of these tried and true copywriting rules, is actually interesting to me. While it doesn’t follow the winning formula described above, it does build curiosity with the “ladies are especially” phrase. All are welcome, so why ladies especially? Even more impactful if I am a lady, I feel personally invited by the phrase and almost compelled to oblige. That is a very advanced persuasion tool for sure! It’s interesting to me, in light of the sentiments of these rally posters, that in the marketing world we call a positive response to a call-to-action none other than a “conversion.”


Now that I’ve taken you through the six essential parts of direct response copywriting messages, and you understand clearly each of their functions, you can use this knowledge to evaluate your own copy as well as having some fun critiquing copy you find out in the “wild.” 

While not every piece of effective direct response copy has all of these six parts, I guarantee that effective direct response copywriting will share some if not most of these six parts. Being able to identify the parts of a sales message and why they work, or why the writer chose to do something different, will help make you a stronger copywriter and a more persuasive marketer. 

Did you find something already? Post your findings in the comments with a link, or copy and paste a portion of the message with your thoughts. I promise  the exercise will teach you a lot about copywriting… as we all learn best from each other. Good luck!

Hi! I’m Annie Aaroe, a b2b marketing strategist. To find out more about story-driven, conversion copy and strategy that’s tailored for tech and SaaS brands, visit my website, aaroewriting.com, or shoot me an email at annie@aaroewriting.com.

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