It’s common knowledge that “free” is the most powerful word – and the most irresistible offer – in direct marketing.


But can you guess the second-most powerful word or phrase – and the second most irresistible offer?


It’s “one dollar.”


Experienced direct marketers know that, at times, charging a dollar (or a penny) for something can be more effective and pull even better than the free offer. The old pros call this technique “the magic of a dollar.”


Here is a great example of the magic of a dollar at work. It involves a company selling an accounting software package.


It was a good program, and the USP (unique selling proposition) was that the software was “modifiable”: It was build on a popular database, so a user proficient in the database could modify program features, functions, and screens to fit his specific business. But direct mail packages selling the software barely broke even.


The software was priced as follows:


General ledger--$79.

Accounts payable--$49.

Accounts receivable--$49

Inventory control--$39.



The total price for the complete package: $255.


One day, the company decided to test a new mailing. The outer envelope shows the pricing as follows:


Accounts payable--$1.

Accounts receivable--$1.

Inventory control--$1.



This time, direct mail recipients paid attention. After all, who sells software for $1?


The Johnson Box of the letter repeated the pricing, but filled in the missing detail:


“Accounts payable--$1.

“Accounts receivable--$1

“Inventory control--$1.



…when you buy general ledger for $251!”


Notice that the price of the complete software system is the same: $255 total. The offer is just a change in semantics (both system prices are $255). But the new offer attracts attention by seeming to offer software at $1 a module. 


Could you buy just accounts payable for $1? Yes and no. Yes, you could buy it. But it wouldn’t work, because the other modules all require general ledger to function!


“I hate the idea of this test,” the creator of the software complained. “It seems like a cheap gimmick.”


But he didn’t hate the results: The “$1 a module” offer outpulled the “straight” offer by 10:1 in gross revenue generated. Mailing costs were identical, because the same package was used for both mailings, with only minor modifications to the copy for the $1 offer.


A variation of the magic of a dollar offer is the magic of a penny offer. Here, something is offered for a penny. In direct mail, this is particularly effective when you glue a real penny to the top of page one of the letter – a real attention-getter.


You can use the magic of a penny for any offer where there is either a free premium, free trial, or free evaluation or estimate.


In your letter, you say a variation of the following:


“The [premium, trial, evaluation, or estimate] costs only a penny. And we’ve even enclosed the penny for you!”


Yes, it’s a gimmick, but it works.


Free, of course, is the industry standard offer. It’s easy to use, applicable in almost any situation, and almost always effective.


But the magic of a dollar or the magic of a penny can sometimes do even better. I suspect the reason is its rarity: Because dollar and penny offers are much less common than free offers, they stand out and get more attention.


That’s just a theory, but I have seen enough tests to know that dollar and penny offers can in fact work. Try it. You make like it. 


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books). He can be reached at or e-mail