Selling Sunlamps in the Sahara: The Formula for a Powerful Offer

by Scott Martin

Last updated on April 3rd, 2018

I’m sure you’ve heard a version of the old saying, “That salesperson…they’re so good, they could sell sunlamps in the Sahara—or ice cream to the penguins!”

My travels have not taken me to the Sahara but I’m extremely confident that when I finally take my Saharan adventure, I’m not going to run into someone selling sunlamps.

And when I make it to Antarctica, I’m NOT finding anybody hawking cartons of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

In the Sahara, I will most likely crave cold water and some shade. In the Antarctic, I will need a down jacket, insulated boots, thermal underwear, and a mug of hot chocolate.

Offer me water in the desert and heat at the South Pole and I’m finding my wallet. Offer me sun in the Sahara and an ice cream in the frozen wasteland and I will, quite rightly, label you as crazy.

I’m using these somewhat extreme examples to help you focus on the foundation of all successful marketing campaigns: THE OFFER.

Here’s a simple formula…

OFFER = Product or Service + The Bonus + Price (maybe shipping, too).

It’s pretty simple: the offer defines what the customer gets for their money. But it’s much more complex when you get to the details.

If I’m selling a laser printer, then the product is the physical printer plus a 3-month supply of toner cartridges for just $199 with free standard shipping plus a 5-year guarantee.

As a direct response copywriter writing about your laser printer, you’ve given me a solid offer I can sell:

  • The price is competitive.
  • The bonus is attractive.
  • The shipping is zero.
  • The guarantee is really strong.

However, if you took away all the goodies and increased the price to $1,500 then I’ve got a “selling sunlamps in the Sahara” problem and the copy WILL fail.

The world’s greatest copywriters became the world’s greatest copywriters because they only wrote copy around rock-solid offers. They politely declined to write copy when faced with a marketing challenge, which is a polite phrase for an offer that nobody will buy.

In a perfect world, a copywriter spends 50% of his time writing. The first 50% is spent researching. I often spend a chunk of this time helping the client define, then refine, their offer.

Ultimately, you have to base the generosity of the offer on your business model.

But here’s a useful guideline when you’re creating a customer acquisition offer: organize the offer so it breaks even.

The top direct marketers focus on back end sales for profit. If you’re making money on the acquisition offer, the offer isn’t generous enough and you’re not attracting as many new clients as you could. If you’re losing money, the offer may be too generous.

Here are some keys to creating your offer

Understand all the different types of offer:

  • A hard offer asks the customer to send their money immediately.
  • A soft offer asks for money down the road.
  • The installment offer asks for money in chunks…3 easy payments of $98.
  • A charter offer is a low-price offer for the first people to try a product.
  • A limited-time offer has a deadline so you must BUY NOW.
  • An exclusive offer is only available to a certain number of people…often in a defined geographic area.

Over the next couple of weeks, whenever you see any type of advertising, note the type of offer.

Closely look at the offers your competitors are making. Make sure your offer is stronger…or radically different.

TEST your offers so you determine what works.

Dig deep to find bonuses that make your offer a “no-brainer” purchase.

Bonus items work best when they are complementary and not the same as your original product. For example, if you’re selling fish oil capsules, offer a book about heart health as a bonus—instead of another type of fish oil.

Make the offer generous and irresistible but not crazy. If the offer goes overboard, then you lose credibility…and sales.

If you can provide a simple “A” vs. “B” offer, that’s even better. The choice becomes, “you’re going to buy, or you’re going to buy.” It’s like asking a small child if they want carrots or broccoli.

Always remember the golden question…the potential client or customer is asking, “what’s in it for me?” Focus on what they really want, not what you think they want.

And finally…make sure the offer is crystal clear to the potential customer.

As I’ve written before in this blog, getting to simple is hard but DO NOT make the mistake of sending customers away with a super-complex or confusing offer.

The Oldest Offer in the Book

Some friends own a small local restaurant and they asked me to help with some basic marketing. They didn’t have an email database so, to get opt-in emails, I used the oldest trick in the book…free dinner on (or near) your birthday.

We quickly got 1,600 opt-in emails. On average, each birthday boy or girl brings two people with them; at least 3 times a week, the promotion brings parties of 8 or more to a tiny restaurant in a poor location.

There’s no need to create hyper-creative promotions: start with what’s worked before.

Here’s the sign-up postcard.

sample postcard

Some examples of other strong offers

Here’s one from Oprah Magazine.

This one uses the sweepstakes offer. But I have to admit that a vacation valued at $250,000 seems a bit crazy.

Oprah's dream vacation

Here’s a simple letter I wrote for a client.

The offer created thousands in roofing work for a local contractor.

roofing offer

This is from the American Alpine Club.

This site offers a superb list of special deals and bonuses if you become a member. Look in the red box below.

Crazy Offer 4

Just one of these benefits makes it a great offer. But no…they keep piling on the goodies.

Here’s one from a financial newsletter.

Asheville, NC-based direct response copywriter Deanna Blanchard clearly details the offer in the example below for a financial newsletter.

Crazy Offer 5

You know precisely what you’re going to receive. Note the simple options: a 1-year subscription or a 2-year subscription.

Keep it clear and easy to understand

Most mornings, I spend an hour in a coffee shop waking up, planning the day, and going through emails. At least once a month, I’ll sit next to an entrepreneur, a dreamer if you like, who is pitching an idea to a potential client.

Overhearing the conversation, on purpose, I often hear the “pitcher” completely confuse the “pitchee” with an offer or idea that has no value and/or makes absolutely no sense.

They’re selling ice cream to a penguin—and not even making it clear they’re pitching ice cream.

As you plan and execute your marketing and copywriting, pay close attention to your offer. Get the offer right and you can succeed…get it wrong and you’ll be forced to complete a painful and expensive post-mortem.

It boils down to this: Make sure you’re selling cold water and cool shade to people who visit the Sahara…not sunlamps.



Get updates on new articles, webinars and other opportunities:

Scott Martin

Scott Martin is a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also written or edited 18 books including The Book of Caddyshack: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Scott provides free resources for marketers including direct response checklists.


Comment Policy

Please join the conversation! We like long and thoughtful communication.
Abrupt comments and gibberish will not be approved. Please, only use your real name, not your business name or keywords. We rarely allow links in your comment.
Finally, please use your favorite personal social media profile for the website field.


Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Stella says:
    February 24, 2017 at 4:04 am

    Thanks for this useful step-by-step guide for Marketing 101. I really like some of the ideas for attracting customers you have mentioned. I think this post is a must read by anyone trying to establish a new business or improve the sales of their products or services. Thanks once again!

  2. August 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    A good thought provoking post and I liked the analogy of selling sunlamps in the sahara. As the first commenter said and your post sums up – it’s all about the benefits to the customer, but they have to be believable.. Really like the idea for free birthday meals in restaurants – I had never come across that one before or thought of it so will add it to the marketing arsenal – thank you..

  3. says:
    July 30, 2013 at 10:18 am

    As we always say in, when you want to sell your product or service, you have to focus on telling your client how your product is going to help or benefit. For example, we create websites, but we offer our clients: a way to grow your business, we offer a new sales channel for your company, we offer that your brand to a wider audience.

    • July 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      You’re so right. If copy isn’t customer focused, it can’t work. It needs to clearly show how the product will help then overcome problems or reach their goals.

Show Me My Heatmap

Got my mind pleasantly blown today by @CrazyEgg's heat mapping tool. Thanks @Assafslv.

Brett Brownell


What makes people leave your website?