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Old masters

“A recent study of the advertising now running in our leading magazines shows that less than 20% of the campaigns have a U.S.P.”

A U.S.P is a unique selling proposition.

It’s something that sets a product or service apart from the competition.

But you know that.

And you probably know — deep down — that the majority of modern advertising lacks one.

Weird thing is: the quote above is not from some creative director lamenting the state of advertising in the digital age.

It’s a quote from Reality in Advertising, a book written by the brilliantly named ad man, Rosser Reeves, in 1961.

So how come it sounds like it was shared yesterday to describe the state of advertising in 2023?

It’s because we have failed to learn from the old masters of direct response.

We are too eager to emulate the exciting darlings of Cannes, who just filmed a “dope ad” with Lil Wayne and some ironic old celeb whose turn it is to be hailed a “national treasure.”

I propose you and I begin to change that today.

If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t work

“I want my rock stars dead,” demanded the late, great comedian Bill Hicks.

I wouldn’t go quite that far about my ad men and women. But I would at least like them to have proven experience in a market that measures success in sales, not statuettes.

The old masters of direct response were not concerned with industry awards or baubles.

Their focus was the end result.

You make the sale.

Or you don’t.

Having worked in the pre-internet age, the old masters were forced to fail faster and learn quicker than we are today. Their insights into the art of persuasion are stark, focused, and grounded in statistics.

Before it was possible to fire an email to the world and split test a hundred variables, writers like Claude Hopkins, Rosser Reeves, and Eugene Schwartz lived and died at the moment of the sale.

As Schwartz wrote in his 1966 masterpiece Breakthrough Advertising:

“[A piece of direct advertising] must accomplish its sale from a single ad, without relying on the cumulative force of the campaign, and without help from product display or salespeople.”

The format encouraged discipline.

It promoted a deeper study of the prospect before publishing.

And the direct response (or non-response) of the customer left no room for interpretation: either the advertising worked, or it didn’t.

As Hopkins states in Scientific Advertising:

“The only purpose of advertising is to make sales. It is profitable or unprofitable according to its actual sales.”

It was true when Hopkins wrote it in 1923.

It is still true today, a century later.

As I point out in my own book, The Art of the Click, even the late, great David Ogilvy is reported to have said he would not employ any writer at his agency who did not have at least two years of experience working in direct response.

If you’re not already in the direct response game, I’m not suggesting you quit your current position to find a job as a direct response copywriter.

What is much more practical is to actively seek out the knowledge of the old masters of direct response and learn from them.

By digging into advertising’s past, you can uncover effective tools for its present.

Indeed, there is a whole wealth of literature out there, but I would recommend you begin by reading three of the best:

Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz

Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins

Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves

Study these books. Learn from them. Apply their insights in your own advertising. By doing so, you will give yourself an edge that few people truly understand in today’s market.

Five things you can learn from the old masters today

To give you a headstart, let me share five quick things you can learn from the old masters today.

1. You need to do more research – Claude Hopkins wrote: “An ad-writer, to have a chance at success, must gain full information on his subject.” This is key. The edge good research will give you in advertising is invaluable. You must become equal with the experts on a subject and then find the detail not even the experts know.

2. Show, don’t tell — “Good advertising does not just circulate information,”said Leo Burnett. It’s obvious to most. But observed by few. You must find a way to go beyond a simple retelling of your research. Create a narrative, use simile and metaphor, and identify what’s at stake and where the drama lies. Understand the emotions you’re aiming for and make sure they’re not contradictory.

3. Put your prospect in the picture – The writers of old looked often to the art of salesmanship and how a salesman on the doorstep would demonstrate products. In writing, you should do the same. Says Eugene Schwartz: “…put your reader right smack in the middle of this product-in-action story, and give him a verbal demonstration of what will happen to him the first day he owns that product.”

4. Offer a specific benefit – Another idea often acknowledged but rarely practiced in modern advertising. As Rosser Reeves points out: “Each advertisement must say to each reader: ‘Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.’” Look at most criticism of modern advertising and the problem will be that it’s very clever, but doesn’t actually highlight a specific benefit.

5. Your headline doesn’t need to sell – Contrary to what many may think, the job of a headline is not to sell. As Schwartz points out, a headline has only one job: “to stop your prospect and compel him to read the second sentence of your ad.” Your focus here should be disruption. Your aim is to create intrigue and a burning desire to read on. Don’t bog yourself down in trying to foreshadow the sale.

And there you have it.

Five quick things you can learn from the old masters of direct response.

Don’t get me wrong…these are simple ideas to understand.

Having the discipline to apply them is a different matter!

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