Blast from the Past: 5 Advertising Secrets of the Ages

AdvertisingSome things never change.

Advertising is almost as old as mankind. In the Middle Ages, shop signs were shaped like fishes, shoes, or drumsticks. In Pompeii, ads were carved on the walls of the buildings. And in 1923 America, a comprehensive 67-page manual on the most important principles of advertising was published by Claude Hopkins.

Scientific Advertising reads like a period piece today. But human nature being what it is, many of Claude’s pearls of wisdom still apply:

Honesty is Still the Best Policy

This is hardly headline news, but it bears repeating – your great-grandparents were suspicious of advertising claims in 1923, and your customers are suspicious now. Try to reek of scrupulous honesty in everything you say and do. Want an easy way to do this? Try:

Service with a Smile

A well-worn cliché that continues to work. Great service – which is often simply a great offer – is one of the most effective ways to convince customers you truly believe in your product and truly mean what you say. Claude suggests free trials, samples, giveaways, exceedingly generous return policies, warranties – anything that will show your customer you stand by your product. Sound familiar? 

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Hard facts are a valuable currency, and the most successful ads spend them liberally. Vague assertions and meaningless superlatives, such as “The Finest Widget in Existence!” sound like unconvincing fluff – because they are. Use numbers, cite specifics: “Get 25% more widgets per pound!” or “Tests show that purple widgets use 50% less energy than yellow widgets!” A classic example from Claude: “Used the world over!” has far less punch than “Used by the peoples of 52 nations!”

Man’s Head Explodes in Barber’s Chair: Great Headlines

Claude observes that advertising is easily ignored. Even in 1923 people felt they were suffering from information overload (they thought they were suffering?!). But unlike the salesman who has to seek out likely prospects, a great headline will attract the ideal prospect – someone who is actually interested in green widgets, who will want to read the rest of what you have to say. Thus, your most important marketing decision will always be your headline. Make it a good one.

Freud in the Outhouse

Psychology was in its infancy in 1923, but Claude didn’t need Freud to help him create great offers. Some rules of thumb he proposed:

  • Tap into peoples’ innate curiosity. Puffed Wheat was an amazing concept at the turn of the 20th century. “Food shot from guns!” was an unforgettable description.
  • If something is cheap, then it’s junk, but a bargain is a valuable product at a great price. Even better, if it normally commands a high price, it is seen as more valuable.  
  • Free trials engender greater trust and desirability than money-back guarantees. In the latter case, you must wrest your money away from the merchant; in the former, the merchant apparently believes so strongly in his product, he’ll give it away to prove his point. Even better: make them ask for it after extolling its virtues; don’t just hand it to them because they walked by.
  • Personalization is an ego-feeding winner, whether it’s a gold-embossed collector’s item, a Who’s Who in Manufacturing, or anything else. Stick their name on it or in it and they will want it.
  • More ego-feeding: limit your offer to a certain group, like veterans, executives, law enforcement. Your customers will feel unique, treasured, fortunate, or otherwise special.

More Pearls

These ideas are only a drop in the bucket; Scientific Advertising has a dozen more chapters not even touched on here. But one last bit of advice – be fresh! Don’t lean heavily on clichés for cleverness, like this blog post.