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Home Opinion Appalachian Notebook: Classified ads can soar to literary heights - or not

Appalachian Notebook: Classified ads can soar to literary heights – or not

The classified ad listed under a Sporting Goods header in the local shopper piqued my interest. For only $25, I could own an almost new Shimano fishing reel with anti-reverse and an extra spool of new monofilament line. Checking several Internet for-sale bulletin boards, I discovered the same model at a slightly lower price, but shipping would have added $10 to the cost.

What kept me from calling the seller was his complete honesty. After extolling the reel’s virtues in the ad, he concluded: “Only works part of the time.”

I immediately envisioned myself battling a huge smallmouth bass, the Shimano’s drag shrieking and the rod bowed—when suddenly the reel locked up, and the fish took the last backing off the spool. The trophy fish disappeared, trailing 200 yards of monofilament.

Only works part of the time? Did the reel fail to cast? Would it not retrieve line? Perhaps, it was something that could be fixed. This led me to wonder why anyone would write a classified ad like he was selling an operable fishing reel, then still have conscience enough to confess it regularly malfunctioned.

He could have advertised it for spare parts, like several anglers did on eBay when I checked. I’d have written the ad like this: “For Sale– Shimano reel for parts. Extra spool. Good hobby project, $25 but negotiable.”

My wife says I’m addicted to finding “deals” on merchandise I don’t need, won’t use, nor have room to store. I prefer to describe myself as connoisseur of the classified advertising marketplace, such as it is these days with the shrinkage of newspapers and fragmentation due to online venues.

I spend hours each week poring over the offerings, from household goods and used cars to farm equipment and personals. What I am really looking for is powerful writing. In the field of weeds that characterizes most classified listings can be found beautiful blossoms that beckon you to call and be cast under a spell, parting with money you didn’t intend to spend for an item that will sit in your basement until the next yard sale.

But it isn’t the merchandise or price that hooks you. It’s the phrasing. The literary embellishment. The tone that infers if you don’t call immediately, your chance to own a treadle sewing machine cabinet will be gone forever—a fleeting opportunity never to be repeated in your human lifetime.

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What you’ll do with that sewing machine cabinet is conjecture. Perhaps nothing. But you’ll be satisfied that no one else got the deal, and it was all because of the poetry of the writing.

In my opinion, the simplest line ad accomplishes in 25 words or less the goals of describing what’s for sale, pricing the item and assuring the prospective buyer that it is an honest offer. But if it doesn’t sing, how can your eye be drawn to the ad in the all the chaff on the threshing floor?

Great classified ad copy-writing is built on a structure similar to William Shakespeare’s sonnets, but more abbreviated. The classically composed classified starts with a zinger to get your attention. It is part of a quatrain, the last part of which is the dramatic conclusion or “heroic couplet,” which the great Bard famously used to drive home his point.

Example: HOUSEBROKEN guard dog/loves kittens and kids (zinger and first couplet)/smart, loyal, calm and friendly/FREE TO A GOOD HOME/20-lb. bag of kibble included (heroic couplet).

The ad is poetic and less than 25 words. Good to go. Slap on the phone number. There’s no need to mention the fact that said canine is the size of a pony, has jaws like an alligator and sheds a bushel of fur daily. They’ll notice these details soon enough during their visit. Be advised to have them write their check first.

Sometimes, humor in the ad accomplishes what poetry might not. Almost two decades ago while proofing copy at the newspaper where I worked (you might be reading it now, in fact), a classified ad hooked me in the lower lip. I had to punch in the phone number for relief.

If memory serves correctly, it stated: “Wanted, old outhouses. Top dollar and will fill hole left behind.” Maybe that is not the verbatim phrasing, but close enough. I laughed out loud to read the ad and kept laughing when the person who answered the phone described his growing outhouse collection.

Not only did I conduct an interview with the outhouse collector and write an award-winning newspaper article and personal column, I later bought a privy of my own and restored it. Why? Because he convinced me that preservation of outhouses was a noble undertaking. Pioneer posteriors sat on those one- and two-hole outdoor toilets, rubbing smooth the wooden benches, freezing in the winter and being bitten by mosquitoes in the summer.

All this resulted from a classified ad that conveyed the writer’s puckish attitude. American Pickers later did a segment on this man’s outhouses and other things he collected. We became friends, and I will never forget his mastery of the short form ad.

I still marvel at what he accomplished in 11 words.

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Steve Oden
Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama. His column, "Appalachian Notebook," appears in the Independent Herald bi-weekly.
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