I struggled for weeks developing a timeline—cribbing it mostly from Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes—and finding myself rehearsing a history of colonialism, a topic I’m probably not the best person to tackle.
After reviewing my notes over and over, though, I realized I kept coming across the same three points. The same three lessons that, throughout each major generation of advertising—from the late 1800s all the way to today—we seem to keep relearning. That we keep rediscovering through each change in media, culture, economics, and politics.
And that’s partially why we keep relearning these lessons: the media—the water in which we live and swim—is both invisible and ever changing. By the time we’ve noticed a new medium emerging, we’ve found ourselves in a totally new space, trying to relearn everything we knew about the place we came from.
So when radio came along it took a decade before we realized that radio advertising needed to apply most of the same rules we’d discovered from print advertising. By the time we codified the rules of television advertising we discovered they were largely the same as the last set of rules.
The other reason we keep relearning these rules is that there’s tremendous money to be made in convincing our clients and ourselves that this changes everything. And, of course, things do change. As McLuhlan said, “The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions.”
The radio didn’t introduce music or news or storytelling into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged their places in our lives.
But still we insist every time there is a new medium—or even just a new website—that things have changed a lot, and forever. Because there’s a lot less money to be made by insisting that books from the 1920s on advertising are every bit as useful as the latest book by everyone’s favorite overly aggressive social media marketer.
But that happens to be true. The lessons we learned in the 1890s largely still hold up. The lessons we learned last year are largely identical to the lessons of the 1920s.
Just because the conditions of the water have changed doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly forgotten how to swim.
The first lesson of advertising: Reason Why
Up until about the 1870s, advertising was meant to “keep your name before the people.” Trademarks and brand names were still new—when you went to buy coffee, flour, or tobacco, you’d mostly see packages labeled “coffee,” “flour,” and “tobacco” instead of a prominent brand name.
Once brands and trademarks emerged, companies felt it their primary duty to tell people they existed and to insist that the customer ask for their product by name.
Once markets began saturating with products and advertisers, a new school of advertising had to develop for businesses to effectively compete.
John E. Powers, an in-house copywriter at Wanamaker’s, “pioneered the use of many new marketing techniques, including full-page ads in the form of a story or play, free trial uses of a product and installment purchasing plan.” In addition to these innovations, he developed what would soon be called “Reason Why” advertising.
John Kennedy and Albert Lasker refined the technique, transforming advertising from the land of loudly shouted brand names to persuasively written long-form copy that played with the consumer’s curiosity, and gave them real reasons why to buy the product.
Claude C. Hopkins mastered this school, literally inventing the concept of tooth film to give people a persuasive reason to buy Pepsodent, and refining the art of couponing to give consumers tangible financial reasons why to buy one product over another.
Why give reasons
Why did these advertisers embrace Reasons Why? Because it worked. Early advertisers lived and died by returns—literally the number of coupons cut out and mailed in to determine whether their ads performed. They would interrogate sales numbers. They would seek as best they could to know. To know whether one ad performed better than another, or whether one reason why was more compelling than an alternative.
Hopkins ran test campaigns in small markets before launching anything broadly, attempting to ensure that any significant expenditure was guaranteed to work. Rosser Reeves obsessively measured his campaigns’ and his competitors’ campaigns’ market penetration and purchasing pull.
In short, they gave reasons why in their advertisements because they knew it worked.
In the 1950s, Rosser Reeves coined the term Unique Selling Proposition, and popularized it in his book Reality in Advertising. Today, every advertiser has heard of a USP, but back then it was a brand new concept—or more accurately, it was Reasons Why packaged up as a brand new concept for a new era.
As radio and TV advertising took off, advertisers looked for rules to help them make the right decisions. Reeves worked like a modern data scientist, measuring as much as he could as often as he could to determine whether simple changes in campaigns would help or harm performance. He would insist that advertisers never change their ads until they could prove they were no longer performing as well as they had been.
Above all, he believed that ads could not just be empty branding exercises, but that the soul of a campaign was the USP—the reason why a person should buy the product instead of another.
How to find a reason
Around the turn of the 20th century, George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco, discovered something that Claude C. Hopkins would write down and popularize in the 1920s—that a reason why doesn’t have to be unique, it just has to be new to the consumer.
Don Draper didn’t invent the slogan “It’s Toasted” in the 1960s. Hill knew his cigarette tobacco was toasted the same way all cigarette tobacco was toasted—but he also knew he’d be the first to promote it as a selling point. “It’s Toasted” was a perfect reason why—the now-horrifying idea being that Lucky Strike cigarettes are therefore “better” for you—and all he had to do was be the first to claim it.
Hopkins realized most businesses could benefit in the same way, but that they just couldn’t see their own industries clearly enough. He wrote, “The maker is too close to his product. He sees in his methods only the ordinary. He does not realize that the world at large might marvel at those methods, and that facts which seem commonplace to him might give him vast distinction.”
Old Spice realized the same thing, in one of the most effective modern examples of Reason Why advertising.
Why buy body wash? To smell better.
All body wash makes you smell better—if it didn't, you wouldn't be buying it. So how can Old Spice stake a brand position around making you smell better? Because while everybody else may have the same product, or be saying the same thing, they weren't saying this way. They weren't giving this reason why.
You buy body wash to smell better. You buy Old Spice to smell like Isaiah Mustafa—the man you wish you were.
It’s a heck of a reason why. If you use Old Spice body wash, you won’t be Isaiah Mustafa, but you’ll be closer than ever before. Closer than any other body wash will get you.
Any other body wash could make the same claims, but no other body wash could effectively take that position, once Old Spice made and staked it.
And it resulted in doubling their sales.
What is advertising?
In the modern day media changes faster than ever. The water’s moving more than we can possibly notice, and every day we write an advertisement we’re writing it under different conditions than yesterday.
But does that mean that your ad doesn’t have to contain a compelling reason why? That it can just be a “brand exercise” or about “keeping your name before the people?” No.
The people who would tell you advertisements don’t need to contain a compelling Reason Why or USP could probably give you a thousand reasons why advertisements don’t have to make sales. Because theirs don’t.
Which means they’ve forgotten what advertising is or what it is meant for.
And just what is advertising, by the way?
Albert Lasker—who was responsible for naming and popularizing Sunkist, Sunmaid, Kotex, Kleenex, and Planned Parenthood, who convinced Mr. Wrigley to buy and name Wrigley Field, who was friend and mentor to U.S. presidents—said he was well into his advertising career before anyone could tell him what advertising was.
Finally, he met John Kennedy who insisted that he knew.
But first, he asked Lasker what he thought.
“Advertising is news,” Lasker said.
“No,” said Kennedy. “It is salesmanship in print.”
That is the first lesson of advertising. And like any other type of selling, if you don’t tell the person why you will not make the sale.
In our next post, we will talk about the second lesson of advertising: Positioning.