Wisdom from the Golden Age of Advertising

A few years ago, my parents retired and bought a place in Florida (because according to Seinfeld, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you retire). When they took ownership, they found that the previous owner had left an entire room lined with bookcases full of books. There were interesting books about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, books about being a writer, and several books on marketing and advertising, many of which dated back to the 1960s.

Being the eternal marketing geek, I gathered up these books during a holiday visit to Del Boca Vista. I was drawn to the older books and couldn’t wait to see what outdated practices and advice these aged tomes had in store for me. The first one I cracked open was called “How to Write a Good Advertisement: a Short Course in Copywriting” by Victor O. Schwab.

I jumped right into chapter one: Get Attention. Surely the way to get attention in 1962 was way different from today. TV was in its infancy. We didn’t have computers, the internet, or smartphones. Yet as I began to read, I quickly realized that Schwab’s insight and advice is just as applicable today as it was 53 years ago:

  • You are an uninvited guest. Schwab discusses the competition advertisers face when trying to get the audience’s attention. No one is on the edge of their seats, waiting and hoping to hear from you. So what value or entertainment are you going to provide to get their attention?
  • The headlines of yesterday are the clickbait of today. Schwab explores 100 headlines that worked, and as I read through them I immediately realized these headlines were the clickbait of the 1960s. I read things like:
    • A little mistake that cost a farmer $3,000 a year
    • How a new discovery made a plain girl beautiful
    • Why some people almost always make money in the stock market
    • How I improved my memory in one evening

Even though the media used in 1962 was different from what we have today, the idea is that they grab attention and make someone curious.

  • Convey your message clearly, directly and in as few words as possible. What will your audience gain by engaging with your message? What value are you bringing? How can you help them avoid a common pitfall? How will you fulfill on your promise to them?
  • Use Captivating Photography. It was true back then and it remains true today. Pictures attract attention. People like to envision themselves experiencing what you’re showing them, or see the person(s) behind the brand. Pictures are relatable. (See our blog on photography)
  • Show your product in use. While in the 1960s this principle was limited to print ads and television (and maybe the door-to-door Kirby salesman), today we can shoot and edit videos relatively painlessly. We also have the ability to distribute these videos online and through social media to get even greater engagement.

And that’s just chapter one. The book goes on to explain the importance of demonstrating the advantage of using the product or service, how to explain that advantage in a manner in which the audience can understand and appreciate it, and finally, inspiring them to action.

Of course, there are differences – some more subtle than others – from the principles, beliefs and audience mindsets of today. Yet I was surprised to find how much has remained the same. What I thought would be an outdated, entertaining read turned out to be a valuable reminder of the fundamentals of good writing. Do you have an old marketing classic that you find yourself turning to? I’d love to hear about it.