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How to write an automotive classified ad

By Marc K. Stengel

JUNE 26, 2000:  If you're looking to buy or sell a used car, it's a near certainty you'll be writing or reading the classified ads. It's just one of those nuisances that go with the territory. For the typical seller, it's usually just a matter of compressing the basic facts into the smallest possible rectangle of newsprint for the lowest possible cost. For the typical buyer, it's generally a matter of letting your gaze skim lightly over a gray sea of newsprint until something like the invisible hand of a Ouija board guides you to your next used-car purchase.

It doesn't take a Pulitzer Prize winner to write an effective classified any more than it takes a university-tenured literary critic to read one. It does, however, take a little common sense and a basic understanding both of the product being advertised and of human nature to read or write a classified ad so that you end up with the negotiating advantage in the deal.

Writing the ad

Writing a classified is by far the easier task to master, because when you write the ad, you make the rules. The burden of reading "through" a classified ad requires an inexact combination of instinct, hunch, and skepticism. But when you're writing the ad for the used car you plan to sell, you're in the driver's seat; you can direct the reader's attention wherever you choose.

The ad-writing process actually rests upon three basic insights: 1. Specifics are like icebergs; a little can suggest a lot. 2. Appetite is truth; "wants" trump "needs" most of the time. 3. The deal is the meal; the ad is only the hors d'oeuvre.

In the first instance, it's important that you accurately and fairly describe what you're trying to sell; but that doesn't mean writing an exhaustive technical description. What it does mean is trying to understand what makes your vehicle special in the marketplace, and that specialty may have more to do with function than with form. You simply can't presume that the ideal buyer for your car shares either your tastes or enthusiasms.

Which brings up point No. 2: Look at the marketplace and determine what people in general--not just you--are looking for in your category of car. If the car's a subcompact, maybe you emphasize the fuel mileage in your ad. If it's a sedan, sell the practicality. Find the one word or short phrase that generates "appetite" for your car--is it a good value? An efficient performer? Easy to maintain? Older but reliable? Don't make a claim you can't support, of course; but remember that the newspaper ad doesn't actually sell the car. What sells the car is a handshake.

In other words, you've got to word your ad to attract the phone calls that lead to the appointments that climax in a sale. State your price in the ad if you want; it can be a good screening device. But you might also consider stating how your price compares--favorably, of course--with a Blue Book or Yellow Book value. If you're willing to negotiate, say so in the ad, but know ahead of time how low you'll go, and refuse to haggle over the phone. Do it in person, next to the car.

Remember that your ad is bait, and you're holding the rod and reel. Hook a prospect with the kind of information that satisfies the largest group of potential buyers for your category of car. Set the hook during the phone call, and reel in your prospects with the promise of a payoff--literally--when it's time to show the car personally and negotiate its final price.

Reading the ad

While hardly an exact science, analyzing an eye-catching ad does depend a great deal on the three F's facts, fuzz, and financials. In the first instance, evaluate the basic correctness of the facts as advertised. In other words, know what you're shopping for, and beware the garbled or misleading description. It's easy to confirm, for example, whether four-wheel ABS brakes existed for certain models in certain years. A little harder to envision is the possible condition of a car with, say, 60,000 miles on the odo; but if that mileage number is parked next to the phrase "like new," your skepto-meter ought to start buzzing.

The overall tone of the ad will tell you much. Is it all description, full of emotionally charged terms but few facts? That's a fuzzy ad, pure and simple, and the truth may be hard to detect. Is it hyper-technical and full of stats but with no acknowledgment of condition? That's fuzz of a different flavor, and such an ad seeks perhaps to distract rather than inform.

By all means, have a general command of the price range for a car at the age--and in the general category--of the one being advertised. Even if there's no price in the ad, you'll know how to respond when you call about a car that interests you. Let the seller name his price, as in every shrewd negotiation; but be aware of the financial impact that age, condition, and style bring to bear before you counter or fold. It should go without saying, of course, that you must agree to nothing before a direct inspection. Even then, if you're interested in the car, ask to have it professionally examined at your expense. If the answer is no, then it's time to go.

Don't let the brevity of a classified ad fool you about its potential either to help or to harm your negotiations over a used car. The shrewd seller and the clever buyer both know that a good classified often says more about its writer than about the car--and that the less that's said, the more there is to know.

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