Jerks, Genius, and Juice

Monday, 9:43pm
Reno, NV
“I’ll tell you what matters most in life: @#&*, %&*#@, and #@%&*. And if there’s any money left after that, more @#&*.” The Big Ugly Guy


Let’s talk more about Halbert’s legacy, what d’ya say?

His name keeps cropping up, both in praise and in confusion.

I’m thinking this is gonna be the case for a long time to come, too. The guy both intrigued and mystified people. While he was still around, he didn’t need anyone to speak for him, because he loved to engage in dialog about his theories, his lessons, and his own legacy.

And once he had your phone number, you could expect frequent late-night calls on every important subject under the sun.

(One thing I’m fairly proud of is realizing, years ago, how valuable and precious those calls were. It was never lost on me that I was privy to the intimate thoughts and ruminations of a towering figure in the game.)

Now that he’s causing trouble in another realm somewhere, it’s fallen to his old pals to metaphorically watch Halbert’s back.

It’s an interesting situation. When I first began my career, advertising legends like Claude Hopkins and Robert Collier had fallen off the face of the earth. Their books were out-of-print, and if you mentioned their names — even in a hard-crowd of marketers — you’d get blank stares.

Life’s like that. Some of the greatest groups in rock (if you count influence as a sign of greatness) spent their entire existence in near-obscurity. (Good example is The Flying Burrito Bros. Founder Gram Parsons’ voice has buckled the knees of many a now-famous musician — U2’s “Joshua Tree” album is a tribute to the dude, just for starters — and he’s an honored guest in the Rock Hall of Fame. But they were pretty much ignored during their brief glory days. Same with Arthur Lee and his band Love. Yet… whenever I urge some young musician to seek this music out — and I’m not alone in doing this — the result is always the same: No one who finally discovers this stuff can understand why it’s been overlooked, and remains nearly hidden except for small pockets of rabid fans.)

When Gary and I first met, we bonded because we were like “advertising geeks” sharing a respect for the forgotten genius of guys who died before we were born.

When I found out he had a thrashed photocopy of The Robert Collier Letter Book… and was willing to let me copy it… it was like discovering buried treasure.

It’s kinda hard to understand, now that you can find copies of nearly everything ever published online. And a whole fresh generation of guru’s are making sure that their students, at least, don’t forget about the past again.

There’s juice in the old stuff. While most of the rest of the world sinks into myopic delusion (believing that nothing old can possibly have value), the savvy few know better.

And continue to profit from this vast stash of overlooked swag.


I refuse to look at Gary’s stuff as “old”. Some of his references are dated, sure — especially in the 20-year-old newsletters. His genius was forged in the gnarly and complex world of direct mail and direct response print ads.

And yet he was hip to the ways marketing was morphing online. No one would mistake him for a tech-geek, but he was pointing out profit opportunities on the Web right up to the end.

No moss growing on that boy.

And because the fundamentals will never change — it all comes down to killer salesmanship, whether you’re marketing online, in the mail, on TV, or bouncing signals off satellites for passing UFO’s — his teachings will never become obsolete. No matter how dated you find some of his references.

He remains a primary source of what I call “the good stuff”. Not a secondary source, but a PRIMARY one.

A whole bunch of the guru’s out there would be mute without Gary’s influence, inspiration, and specific teachings.


… virgin mobs of rookies are crowding into the online marketing game every day.

And their first obstacle is to wade through the bullshit out there… and find trustworthy resources for info, tactics, and tools. And there are endless minefields of misinformation, wrong directions, and evil intentions looking to suck them in.

I do not envy anyone arriving in the online marketing world without friends or at least a clue.

But I do try to steer as many as I can reach straight, whenever possible.

Last week, a rookie posted something interesting on Michel Fortin’s “Copywriter’s Board” (a free online gathering place for freelancers of all stripes and persuasions).

Title: “Are all copywriters jerks?”

The entire thread includes input from a lot of smart writers, and it’s a fun read.

Usually, I just lurk in those forums (cuz, you know, I’m a little pressed for time). But this “jerk” post was right in my wheelhouse — the subject was Gary’s writing “style” (and also mine and a few other guru’s) and how… offensive… it was.

The writer was genuinely disturbed by the attitude and tone of “this guy Halbert”. It was exactly the sort of post that Gary would have loved to respectfully engage with… and I figured I’d chime in, since he couldn’t.

Respectfully, but with a heavy emphasis on reality.

Not that Gary (or any of us) needs defending. We’re all happy to let our stuff speak for itself.

But something in my gut was telling me that newbies were not getting good introductions to some of “the good stuff”… and might wander away never giving it the chance it deserves.

So here’s my post in that thread, below.

It’s a message that may bear repeating a few times, as “ancient history” online increasingly gets defined as anything older than last week…

Here’s my post:

Hey —

I’ll have you know I’m not a jerk… I’m a curmudgeon.

Seriously, though, the posters here who mention the importance of “real world” knowledge about how biz gets done are right on. I know ALL the copywriters mentioned in this thread, on a personal level. And I’ll share a secret: Behind the scenes, it’s a locker room out there.

Top writers are nearly always wicked smart, and they devour life in large chunks.

They have no fear of any subject… and (key point here) they respect language in all forms. Especially slang and the way people actually speak to each other.

Still, I totally understand why some folks think many of us cross a line with our ribald writing and outrageous public attitudes.

However, none of us do it just for shock value. In fact, my SOP is to emphasize to fresh prospects that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and I mean it. We never schedule consultations with anyone who isn’t hip to my teaching tactics (which are, admittedly, brutal and in-your-face). You gotta walk in with your eyes wide open. (You’re allowed to blush, but we’ll be merciless regardless.)

Halbert, in fact, has a very specific warning on the first page of his website. I won’t quote it here, cuz I don’t to give anyone a conniption fit. But it’s VERY specific.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with demanding a certain behavior code from the people you learn from.

There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with putting up an “adults only” sign, and getting on with things in an aggressive, , uncensored, no-holds-barred way.

Choose your poison.

And be happy in your work.

God bless the First Amendment.

John Carlton

PS: When I write for joints like Rodale, BTW, I am Mr. Nice Guy to a nauseating degree. That’s because my copy has to reach an almost ridiculously large audience… and you’re right to believe that, once you’re outside specific niches with identifiable language preferences, the Zeitgeist tends to skew socially conservative. (It’s like network TV versus cable.)

In the pieces I’ve done for Rodale in the “sex info” market, I believe I dance around the inherent voyeuristic and naughty details in a way that sneaks past people’s internal censors with the best of them.

Let me tell ya, that is tough to pull off, too. You must have total command of the language… combined with a street-level savvy of buyer psychology. (And yes, the majority of these “better sex” DVDs go to your neighbors, co-workers, and other people who are completely and boringly normal.)

Another interesting fact: Halbert’s most famous ads are also squeaky clean, language-wise. Do not confuse his newsletters — a teaching vehicle to hard-core business people — with his ads aimede at buying audiences. Very different animals.

Our first seminars together were also models of propiety and professionalism. Miss Manners would have been proud. (Later on, we got a little raunchy, of course. Attendees loved it, demanded more of it, and wore their experience like a badge of honor.)

The great revolution in teaching now playing out has centered around the idea of offering people (who self-select themselves, voluntarily) the opportunity to see behind the curtain… and experience how business actually gets done. For folks without access to real back rooms, this is a priceless glimpse into the world of movers and shakers. Putting up with a little bad-boy behavior seems, to me, to be a small price to pay for such a valuable resource.

Over my career, I’ve encountered countless business situations where we had to wait for the fussy folks to leave the room before we could get down to the “real” business at hand.

Yes, it can be shocking to move beyond surface-level observations of how people behave, especially in positions of authority and responsibility.

It’s also the only way to learn how things get done. (Listen to the Nixon tapes from the White House to get a taste of how people in power talk about you when they don’t think you’re in earshot.)

Final observation I’ll share here: Some of rowdiest and most obscene-joke-loving business people I’ve ever encountered… were self-identified as strictly religious, hard-core conservatives.

My first experiences with “back room” business kinda shocked me, too. Soon, though, I learned to love it. It’s not a place for idealists or party poopers. But for writers who crave action and adventure and fun, it’s the only game in town.

Anyway, just thought I’d pass on my insights from the front lines.

Again — everyone is COMPLETELY justified in setting limits and boundaries. And there are lots of markets where rough-and-tumble attitudes don’t cut it. You don’t have to hang out with anyone you consider a jerk, ever.

That’s what’s great about this brave new online world: There’s a place for everyone.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

Okay, we’re back to the blog here, and I’m signing off.

P.S. By the way… we got our Yankee tickets for New York. I can’t wait.

Also: When I get back from this crazy trip that starts next week (Vegas with the Walkers, South Carolina for Ron LeGrand’s seminar — which is shaping up to be THE event of the summer — and then our Hot Seat “flash mob” in NYC) we’ll be scheduling consultations for the rest of the season.

We’ve been putting people on “hold”, because our schedule has been so nuts… but we’ve got a handle on it now, and if you want to explore getting private “hands on” consulting from me (or, even better, me and Stan in tandem), pop over to and get busy.

There are VERY few spots open for the “Launching Pad” option. Get in touch with my assistant Diane if you’re finally ready to make your move…

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  • Rezbi says:

    Hey John,

    I saw that post, and yours, although I hadn’t realised you were the poster.

    I was going to comment, but then I figured, not everyone’s the same.

    Not everyone has rhino-like skin.

    Of course, if you do, you have the advantage of deriving being able to read, and benefit from, works from the like of a Halbert or yourself.

    Each to their own.

    I figure the poster will find someone else he can emulate and learn from.

  • Rezbi says:

    Oh, in case you’re wondering how I didn’t realise you were the poster, I was in a rush and didn’t get that far in the post.

    Although, with a handle like Cucarifa I should have known

  • […] Super quick post.  Copywriter John Carlton is on a roll over on his blog and has just posted another item about Gary Halbert called “Jerks, Genius , And Juice”. […]

  • […] Super quick post.  Copywriter John Carlton is on a roll over on his blog and has just posted another item about Gary Halbert called “Jerks, Genius , And Juice”. […]

  • […] Super quick post.  Copywriter John Carlton is on a roll over on his blog and has just posted another item about Gary Halbert called “Jerks, Genius , And Juice”. […]

  • PQA says:


    I knew you’d jump in if the thread ran long enough. As you said, Gary Halbert needs no one to defend him, but it’s appropriate that you did anyway.

    Thanks for the additional insight on your blog.

    BTW, I’d not heard the phrase “flash mob” before, but long, long ago, I had heard “flash crowd” – I believe it was in a SF book “The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton” by either Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle, can’t remember which. Is that where it originated?

  • Gary Halbert was a Genius. I first heard about him from Dan Kennedy’s NO B.S. newsletter and I wound up going to Mr. Halbert’s enormous newsletter page and spending hours there.

    It was just the most fun I ever had reading someone else’s rants and views. Just incredible!

    Anyway thank God for the first amendment AND the second amendment that protects the first!

    The Electric Bikes -n- Scooters Guy

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