Timeless Marketing Advice from the Father of Advertising’s Favorite Book

david ogilvy eyes

Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.
~ David Ogilvy

The moment I saw these words an immediate investigation began: who, what, where, why, and how could I acquire this book?

Because when the “father of advertising” gives that sort of praise, you better listen.

The work in question, Scientific Advertising, was written by none other than the legendary Claude C. Hopkins. Many a master copywriter has hailed it as one of the most important works on marketing ever written.

Truthfully, no blog post could replace the experience of reading the book in its entirety. If nothing else, I’d simply like to be a conduit for some of the fundamental lessons inside.

Perhaps we wouldn’t have to be burdened with so many poor campaigns if all marketers would heed Hopkins advice, from cover to cover.

Allow me to highlight a few must-read passages from one of the most-earmarked books on my bookshelf.

[Editor's note: all blockquotes are taken directly from Scientific Advertising.]

Copywriting is part science

Fellow writers can put away the pitchforks — far from an attack on the artistic nature of the craft, this is a reminder that greatness is achieved by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The time has come when advertising has in some hands reached the status of a science … The causes and effects have been analyzed until they are well understood. The correct methods of procedure have been proved and established.

The “science” in this sense comes from our ability to learn from the experiments of others. Even the language we use is appropriate: there is a reason expert copywriters teach headline formulas to those willing to learn.

Individuals may come and go, but they leave their records and ideas behind them.

This also means applying the scientific method to your work. Writers needn’t fear technology these days. It is there for your benefit, so you can tell what worked and what didn’t.

Hopkins was an early innovator in rigorously testing his ads: “To track the results of his advertising, he used key coded coupons and then tested headlines, offers and propositions against one another. He used the analysis of these measurements to continually improve his ad results, driving responses and the cost effectiveness of his clients’ advertising spend.”

He would have been right at home with the conversion rate optimization techniques of today. You should too. Live by the mantra of “test and tweak” until you get it right.

As a writer, you already know that your first draft is just the beginning. The same is true for headlines, closing arguments, and everything in between.

The importance of human psychology

The times change, the tools change, but basic human emotions do not. Despite cultural shifts and the evolution of trends and tastes, human nature is perpetual.

The competent advertising man must understand psychology. The more he knows about it the better.

It’s for this reason that trying to predict the “future” of marketing is fruitless. Time spent (wasted?) guessing what the technology of tomorrow will bring should instead be used to understand how people “tick” today, and will for centuries to come.

So start educating yourself.

You needn’t slog through research papers. I’ve compiled a huge list of books on human behavior to get you started. Also, read well-written blogs by actual psychologists, such as Psyblog or the BPS Research Digest.

Understand that Wikipedia is your friend. If you want to learn about “cognitive biases,” there’s a good chance that a beautifully pruned list already awaits you.

And be a constant “amateur psychologist.”

When you come across new situations, seek to understand rather than immediately reacting. Reverse engineer why things happened. If Article X takes off, don’t simply admire it or roll your eyes; instead, look closely to see what elements made it happen.

Clarity trumps creativity

Words rule the web.

When persuasion is done at the stroke of the key, you have to make every word matter. This lends a heavy advantage to clarity, since it’s the language of a true salesman:

Let us emphasize that point: the only purpose of advertising is to make sales … Literary qualifications have no more to do with it than oratory has with salesmanship. One must be able to express himself briefly, clearly, and convincingly, just as a salesman must.

Flowery writing is a disadvantage when trying to sell. Paragraphs dripping with literary styling create the sense that one is being sold to, and when that happens, resistance occurs.

So take a page from Hemingway’s playbook and eschew obfuscation in your persuasive works. Too often I’ve landed on websites that are so confusing that I’m not even able to decipher what is being sold.

Value propositions fail when they aim for cute and creative over convincing.

Hopkins offers a way to determine if your prose is primed for selling:

There is one simple and right way to answer many advertising questions. Ask yourself, “Would this help a salesman sell the goods? Would it help me sell them if I met the buyer in person?”

These are wise words that showcase why the one exemption to this rule will always be good storytelling. Stories transport the listener, and transportation leads to persuasion.

In this sense, a casual tone becomes a part of the salesman’s arsenal, but never before he has made his case as to what he is selling, and who it is for.

People can be coaxed, not driven

Making things people want will always be more effective than trying to make people want things.

Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be. People will do much to cure a trouble, but people in general will do little to prevent it.

Hopkins highlights here that this is a truth so ironclad that it often creates seemingly absurd situations.

Surely people see that prevention is better than trying to cure a trouble after it has arisen, right? Yet we know this isn’t the case, as the surging sales of diet pills and other quick fixes tell us.

Too often, businesses focus on what they are able to make, rather than if what they are making is something people really want.

Creating a monument to your talents in business is the equivalent of running the best asparagus restaurant in town — you may be the greatest for miles around, but who the hell wants to eat at an asparagus restaurant?

Recently, a Boston.com interview asked investors, “What can an entrepreneur say that instantly marks them as an amateur?”

Dina Routhier echoed the sentiments of many seasoned entrepreneurs, investors, and Hopkins himself when she said, “The most common thing that pegs an entrepreneur as an amateur is when they come in and immediately start talking about their amazing new technology, and forget to start the discussion with, ‘What big problem in the market am I trying to solve?’ If they don’t start with the problem, then I know they are green.”

And remember: features tell, but benefits sell. Start with the pain first.

Hopkins writes that if you were selling a new toothpaste, it might be your instinct to emphasize its ability to fight plaque, but if tests show that what people really want is whiter teeth, that is what you need to appeal to.

If you don’t, you’re simply fighting an uphill battle trying to create desire, rather than harnessing a desire that already exists.

Read to lead

Great writing is the result of extensive reading.

An ad-writer, to have a chance at success, must gain full information on his subject … Perhaps in many volumes he will find few facts to use. But some one fact may be the keynote of success.

The phrase “diamond in the rough” is one that veteran writers love to hate, because it can sometimes take ages to find that perfect insight, example, or inspiration … which is why it pays to read widely.

Hopkins cites the troubles early advertisers had in selling decaffeinated coffee. Initially, the “pitch” for coffee without caffeine was weak, until advertisers found research that showed it took up to 30-45 minutes for caffeine to kick in.

So the immediate bracing effects which people seek from coffee do not come from the caffeine. Removing the caffeine does not remove the kick. Now, it does not modify coffee’s delight.

This was a small tweak in positioning made from serendipitous insight, but one that was important enough to change the industry. Reading widely leads to this intersection of ideas that is so often the source of marketing success.

Read, research, and know how to keep track of it all. Know that even a short piece of writing often takes a slew of reading.

Consider this final quote from Hopkins on proper research, and replace his use of “ad” with the writing you create:

The uninformed would be staggered to know the amount of work involved in a single ad. The ad seems so simple, and it must be simple to appeal to simple people. But back of that ad may lie reams of data, months of research. So this is no lazy man’s field.

Remember your best salesman

Hopkins always believed that a good product was often its own best salesperson.

The product itself should be its own best salesman. Not the product alone, but the product plus a mental impression, and atmosphere, which you place around it.

The folks at Conversion Rate Experts have referred to this as the 100-Year Old Persuasion Strategy, named so thanks to Hopkins’ work in putting Schlitz beer on the map back in the 1900s:

“He toured Schlitz’s operations and noted down all the interesting aspects of the company’s process. In particular, he highlighted those that supported Schlitz’s main claim: that its beer was pure. The campaign was a huge success. Within a few months, Schlitz went from fifth place to being tied for first in the market.”

Hopkins was one of the first advertisers to focus on “behind the scenes” marketing: turning claims into reality by showing customers what really went on in bringing the product together.

Think about how Apple sells you on the Macbook by “passionately describing, and showing, how the body of each MacBook Pro laptop is carved from a single block of metal.”

The “mental impression” your brand leaves has everything to do with presentation.

Watch this footage from Oak Street Bootmakers on why they go the extra mile to craft hand made footwear. Compare that with showcases from MailChimp, who instead prefer to give you a behind the scenes peak at how customers are using their product.

The product you are building has a lot to say to prospective customers, but it’s your job to make sure it is heard.

Your thoughts?

Depending on your familiarity with Scientific Advertising, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following questions:

  1. If you’ve read the book, what’s one more major insight you gained from Hopkins advice?
  2. If you haven’t read the book, which of the examples above most resonated with you?

I’d love to hear what you think.

And if you adamantly agree with Hopkins’ stance on being a student of psychology, be sure to check out our free guide with 10 academic studies that relate to marketing.

Flickr Creative Commons Image by Nasos Efstathiadis

About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email support software for small businesses who love taking care of customers. Get more data-driven content from Greg by visiting the Help Scout blog.

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Comments

  1. I’m reading the book right now. The thing that resonates with me the most is the focus, time and again, on experimenting with customer behaviour and analysing what the customer wants. Then adding this to your offer – rather than guess work.

    It made sense then. It makes sense now. Yet, why do so few implement it?

    • Hopkins would be right at home with today’s customer research, analytics and conversion rate optimization.

      He had all the hallmarks of a great marketer, which is probably why a book written in 1923 still sells so well today. :)

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I’ll add it to my library.

    What struck me most in this article is, “The competent advertising man must understand psychology. The more he knows about it the better.”

    I’ve read job advertisements for content writers and freelance content writers where one of the qualifications was: MUST know, understand and have an interest in human and business psychology.

    I knew my psychology courses and love of psych would come in handy. ;)

  3. Excellent. Brian, Sonia, I love the articles on hard core copywriting.

    I have a pdf of Scientific Advertising, although it’s fighting Advertising Secrets of the Written Word and Tested Advertising Methods for my time.

  4. Well, I haven’t read the book, Gregory. But your post is a big incentive to read it. You did a great job bringing Hopkins’ timeless wisdom directly into our daily digital lives now. Whew, awesome! Thanks for a timely blast from the past that landed straight into my working reality today. I appreciate it.

  5. Great article – love these old school guys!

    Don’t forget another Ogilvy fave, John Caples: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0130957011/

    Given Caples’ penchant for storytelling in copywriting, he might be considered the father of content marketing.

  6. The first time I read that book – I was blown away by how much was relevant it was, how well he explained the concepts, and how easily it all can be applied to “modern advertising and marketing.”

    Imagine what Hopkins could have done with the internet!

    The one thing I really remember hitting home in Scientific Advertising (or maybe it was My Life in Advertising) was when Hopkins talked about how it’s a waste of time to try and sell the benefits of oatmeal to people who simply don’t like to eat oatmeal.

    At the time I was trying to do the same thing with a product – and I just felt like – “Wow, I’m an idiot.”

  7. Trevor Williams :

    I’m actually reading this book right now, it came bundled with My Life in Advertising. It’s a great book.

  8. Although I can’t say that I’ve read the book, Gregory, one thing I can say is that I’ll be adding it to my Amazon wishlist (right behind Breakthrough Advertising and The Adweek Copywriting Handbook).

    What resonated most for me was the block quote that read, ‘Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be. People will do much to cure a trouble, but people in general will do little to prevent it.’

    This is so true when trying to educate people on living a healthier lifestyle that it’s almost physically painful to read.

    Just because the choices you make now don’t manifest themselves immediately (like text messages, fast food, or social media), doesn’t mean those choices won’t come to haunt you years down the line.

    Great post, man. Keep up the high quality material — I look forward to reading more.

  9. An excellent, well-in-depth analysis when it comes to advertising to the human level.

    Great work Gregory!

    What caught my attention was the area of what the text-copy of each sale’s page or product description is the most effective.

    I myself do catch the persuasive, suave, salesman type of writing for each product page.

    It may become pretty obvious and it’s sad to see how it dominates so many sales pages on the Internet.

    Be you, be real, and the product should sell for you (the best advise).

    - Sam

  10. I really like the subtle point : Clarity Trumps Creativity. Beautifully put.

    I think getting clear is critical. As I’ve learnt from copyblogger (awesome site have you heard of it?) it’s critical be be crystal clear as a writer. I strive for simplicity in my blog which is all about productivity : http://www.productiveinsights.com

    Demian Farnworth has written some awesome posts on writing. Short, readable sentences. No overwhelming blocks of text.

    When I write a post I make sure the copy is crystal clear. Once I’ve completed this I try and add the creative sauce. I do this by:

    1) I re-read the post imagining myself as the reader.
    2)With this new perspective, I look for ways in which I can make the copy more entertaining.
    3) I look to see if I can insert power words as Jon Morrow teaches.
    4) I look to see if I can add a few hooks – this usually involves the element of surprise at the start of paragraphs (particularly the longer ones)
    5) I look to see if I can break up the text further. No paragraph should be more than 3-5 sentences
    6) I revisit all the subheadings to make sure they follow the headline hacks report from Jon Morrow
    7) I re-read the post and ask myself – is this entertaining? Is this informative? Is this actionable?
    8) I then hit publish. (I know I should let it ‘simmer’ for a day but I’m usually too impatient to wait)

  11. Brian, I haven’t read the book.

    Here’s what most resonated with me: ‘What big problem in the market am I trying to solve?’

    “Resonate” doesn’t describe it. It jolted me as if I were stepping into an elevator shaft with no elevator.

  12. Great post Gregory with links to some really awesome resources. I love your hook with the David Ogilvy quote to grab the readers full and undivided attention.

    I have not read the book (but will after reading this post). The part about resonated most with me was the following statement you made:

    “times change, the tools change, but basic human emotions do not. Despite cultural shifts and the evolution of trends and tastes, human nature is perpetual.”

    Perpetual change is both exciting and a course at the same time. It is easy to get distracted with new networks, applications and technology which change so quickly that it is hard to get an ROI from the investment to learn them.

    Learning about fundamental principles is the “hard” part because it must be studied and is the opposite of the immediate gratification that we have become addicted to.

    Those that do master these principles will set themselves apart in an ever changing, increasingly connected and mobile marketing environment.

  13. Thanks for sharing this article Gregory. i enjoyed reading it.

  14. I’ve read it a few times, not the 7 times that Olgivy reccomends. I also like Colliers Letter Book for a practical take on things.

  15. Thanks, Greg, for the post. I read the an ebook version of the book as a gift for subscribing to a blog. And after reading, I decided to share a few insights with fellow copywriters.

    You can see the blog post here: copywriters4businesses.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/advertising-wisdom-from-claude-hopkins-27-lessons-for-grabs/.

    Indeed, it’s a great read. I even wrote the same lessons for a newspaper and received two emails from readers. They loved it.

    Anyone who wants a free copy of it, can request one from my blog: copywriters4businesses.wordpress.com.

  16. Hi Greg,

    Been wanting to read this one…will grab it soon.

    So what stood out to me in your article was this:
    “Literary qualifications have no more to do with it than oratory has with salesmanship. One must be able to express himself briefly, clearly, and convincingly, just as a salesman must.”

    I already knew that literary qualifications didn’t guarantee successful ad writing, but the comparison to oratory skills and salesmanship brought the point home to me.

  17. Awesome post, Gregory! “Scientific Advertising” is one of two “must reads” for anyone who writes copy…or is in any part of the direct marketing world, online or offline.

    The other was mentioned in this thread: “Breakthrough Advertising” by Gene Schwartz.

    Gene was instrumental in my career and when I saw a live bid for the “lost classic” at $925, I just re-published it myself (with the permission of Gene’s widow Barbara) and it’s been a privilege sharing it with a new generation of marketers.

    And speaking about these books being about “human behavior” and not just “copywriting”: Not one word has been changed from the original 1966 version of “Breakthrough Advertising” to the current Boardroom version…which tells me that human behavior has not changed since then…nor has it changed since 1923 when “Scientific Advertising” was first published…and come to think of it, it hasn’t changed since the Palaeozoic Era either…

  18. I love this post, thank you for sharing it!

  19. Gregory:

    As I have not read the book, this was super educational for me. What most resonated with me was, “people can be coaxed, not driven”. That’s a truth I experience daily in my counseling practice (and in my family).

    I can see that clients will be drawn to me as I write about the problems they are trying to solve. And I see that I must write with clarity. My my second take away is “clarity trumps creativity”. If I resist the lure to be cleverly creative, I can actually write with greater freedom.

    Thanks for making this clear for me and for writing about my challenge.

  20. Interesting quote but wrong book. According to Dryton Bird, who worked for Ogilvy, the book in question is The Robert Collier Letter Book.

  21. Pera Novacovici :

    I learned a ton from this article. Great job.

  22. Looks like my Psychology degree might actually come in useful.

  23. To: Gregory: Saw your comment about making “Breakthrough Advertising” more available to more people at a reasonable price…at least I’m not selling it for $925! :-)

    We do sell it for $95…but I need to speak with Sonia and Brian about making a special deal available to the Copyblogger family…everyone needs to have this classic…I need to work on that.

    Thanks again for your awesome article. I feel like I still have Hopkins and Schwartz on “retainer” sine I refer to their books all the time…although I don’t have to send a check anywhere every month! :-)

  24. This is an excellent book, as is My Life in Advertising (also from Claude Hopkins) and the Robert Collier Letter Book. Glad to see word of it is spreading among bloggers.