Cracks me up when I see folks who seem to believe advertising is an American invention. Fact is, it’s been with us as long as people have bought, sold and traded with one another.
If you had taken a stroll down a busy street in downtown Babylon 5,000 years ago, you’d have seen some of the first known instances of advertising all over the place – a bush over a wine shop door, for example.
Ancient Egyptians are famous for carving ads onto stone tablets and also introducing the world’s first billboards: Pillars along the roadside often advertising rewards for runaway slaves.
The Egyptians put ads on paper, too – like this one, found on an ancient papyrus …
“The man slave Shem having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoined to help return him. He is a Hittite, 5’2” tall, of ruddy complexion and brown eyes.
“For news of his whereabouts half a gold coin is offered.
“And for his return to the shop of Hapu, the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desire, a whole gold coin is offered.”
I love that ad. Good old Hapu the Weaver needed his slave returned, but he couldn’t resist inserting a plug for his shop: “ … where the best cloth is woven to your desire …”
The ancient Greeks and Romans continued the advertising tradition. The Classical world is littered with signs advertising taverns, property for rent, even –houses of ill repute.
The Greeks introduced the concept of the town crier – a guy who’d wander the neighborhood shouting about some product his client was trying to sell.
In 1472, moveable type made mass print advertising possible – and the English took to it like ducks to water. The first English handbill – advertising a prayer book – appeared on church doors that very same year.
By the 1600s, ads began populating the pages of British newspapers – the first offering a reward for the return of 12 stolen horses. It must have worked – because it lit an explosion of newspaper advertising that continued for nearly a century – until the early 1700s when an idiotic monarch, politician or bureaucrat imposed an exorbitant tax on advertisers.
Fortunately, the American politicians weren’t quite as moronic so no advertising tax was imposed here. As a result, the Colonies quickly became the stage upon which most advertising innovations would make their entrances.
The first newspaper ad in the U.S. appeared in 1704, and the first known magazine ad appeared in Ben Franklin’s The General Magazine in 1741.
Most of these early ads were pretty basic simply listing product features. If someone was selling a piece of land for example, the ad would cite the location, what it was suitable for, its size, and price. Ads for manufactured products told what they were made of and what they did. A nail was two inches long. A plough was made of wood and steel.
An all-too familiar problem arises …
By 1880 – 177 years after those first American print ads appeared – advertisers had a serious problem. There were so many ads in every newspaper, consumers couldn’t possibly read them all – even if they wanted to; which they didn’t, of course, so they didn’t (sound familiar?).
So along came the irascible John E. Powers – former publisher of The Nation Magazine, the world’s first professional copywriter with an idea.
Instead of listing product features like everyone else did – or outlandish, unbelievable claims as some had taken to doing, Powers began writing ads that:
- Presented the arrival of a new product in his client’s store (Wanamaker’s), as front-page news written in a similar style to other headlines and subheads in the local paper …
- Did so in short, brutally honest, concise, frill-free, “just-the-facts-ma’am” copy. “Fine writing,” said Powers, “is offensive.”
Once when asked to write an ad for Wanamaker’s, his copy read, “We have a lot of rotten gossamers and things we want to get rid of.” The ad sold out the lot in hours.
As the story goes, when a reporter from an advertising publication entitled Printers’ Ink asked Powers for an interview, it was short and sweet:
Powers: “I don’t care for an interview.”
Reporter: “Do you read Printers’ Ink?”
Powers: “Never read any of those advertising publications. They ain’t worth reading.”
Reporter: “Well … how do you go about writing your copy?”
Powers: “The first thing one must do to succeed in advertising is to have the attention of the reader. That means to be interesting.
“The next thing is to stick to the truth, and that means rectifying whatever’s wrong in the merchant’s business. If the truth isn’t tellable, fix it so it is. That is about all there is to it.”
Long story short: Consumers read Powers ads, believed them, went to Wanamaker’s and promptly doubled the store’s sales to $8 million a year (more than $158 million in today’s dollars!).
Mr. Powers did OK for himself too. Not only did he become the world’s first professional copywriter, he became the world’s first six-figure copywriter. The success of his “News-Of-The-Store” approach won him a salary of more than $200,000 a year (today’s dollars).
Powers explained his approach this way:
“Print the news of the store. No ‘catchy headings,’ … no smartness, no brag, no ‘fine writing,’ no fooling, no foolery, no attempt at advertising, no anxiety to sell, no mercenary admiration; hang up the goods in the papers, one at a time, a few today, tomorrow the same or others.”
Would YOU run an ad like this one?
In My Life in Advertising, Claude Hopkins tells a great story about Powers — a story with implications of everything you’re working right now, today …
“A clothing concern was on the verge of bankruptcy,” says Hopkins. “They called in Powers, and he immediately measured up the situation. He said: ‘There is only one way out. Tell the truth. Tell the people that you are bankrupt and that your only way to salvation lies through large and immediate sales.’
“The clothing dealers argued that such an announcement would bring every creditor to their doors. But Powers said: ‘No matter. Either tell the truth or I quit.’
“Their next day’s ad read something like this:
We are bankrupt.
We owe $125,000 more than we can pay. This announcement will bring our creditors down on our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow we shall have the money to meet them. If not, we go to the wall. These are the prices we are quoting to meet the situation.
“Truth was then such a rarity in advertising that this announcement created a sensation. People flocked by the thousands to buy, and the store was saved.”
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Powers’ breakthrough is as effective today as it was 126 years ago – and suggests three ultra-powerful sales techniques with the potential to ramp up advertising response and revenues right now – today …
1) News sells. Power’s innovation – presenting your ad as if it were a front-page news story … and then telling “the news of the store” in an objective, straight-forward, no-nonsense way – is still a powerful way to get attention and establish credibility. But it’s only the tip of this iceberg. Topicality – tying your major theme, headline and opening copy to an event that’s at the top of the news is one of the nuclear weapons of the marketing world.
I’ve had scores of opportunities to test this writing for investment newsletters. In test after test, the timely, newsy test panels – focusing on a major on-going news story – left evergreen straight benefit and USP leads in the dust.
Why? Because if it’s in the news, your prospect is thinking about it. If he’s thinking about it, he has feelings about it. Connect with those feelings, and you’ll make your copy nearly irresistible.
Next time you choose a theme or write a headline or lead, ask yourself, “What important, long-running news story could I hitch a ride on?”
2) Always have a reason. Always, always, ALWAYS. Explain why you’re writing this ad (or advertorial) … why you created the product … why you’ve decided to offer your discount – maybe even how you arrived at the amount of your discount … why you’ve decided to “bribe” your prospect with a premium and why this premium … why you need the prospect to order in the next 24 hours or the next 10 days.
Have a solid, believable, even self-revealing answer for these questions, and your credibility will soar – along with your response.
3) When everyone else in your market is writing unbelievable “blind-‘em-with-bullshit” headlines and ads, the simple objective, unvarnished truth in a headline lifts you head and shoulders above the din. Self-revealing themes and headlines – revealing a non-fatal flaw about yourself, your business or even in some cases about your product are refreshing. Admitting a past failure is a great way to billboard your superiority today.
More than that: Showing a vulnerable side immediately endears you to your readers … evokes feelings of empathy … makes everything else you have to say 100% believable … validates your guarantee … and establishes you as a transaction partner your prospect can trust.
Plenty to chew on!
The source of this article is the renowned advertising guru, Clayton Makepeace. His archives are a treasure house of information – well worth discovering… We love this article about advertising copy writing and would urge anyone interested in the subject to check out his website.