Five unlikely lessons from a 100-year-old book on advertising

Writing an Advertisement by S. Roland Hall from 1915—a real throwback. Or is it?

Writing an Advertisement by S. Roland Hall from 1915—a real throwback. Or is it?

Sometimes, pulling an old book from a shelf is like stumbling across a miniature time machine—especially if that book somehow relates to you. I’ve been thumbing through an old-timer called Writing an Advertisement by S. Roland Hall. The published date is May 1915.

Hall’s book was written against the world’s entanglement in the First World War. Claude Hopkins, considered by many to be the father of advertising, was a powerhouse in the industry at the time, raking in more than $180,000 a year (his actual salary, NOT adjusted for inflation)—because his copy sold millions in products.

And Babe Ruth hit his first career home run off pitcher Jack Warhop—a distinction I’m sure eventually haunted that poor ball slinger.

But, Hall mentions none of it.

The book gives glimpses of its time, of course—like mentioning “trolley car cards” as an effective advertising medium—but otherwise, much of it is surprisingly current in its advice. Here are five nuggets I found particularly compelling… so much so, they leaped off the 100-year-old pages and landed in this blog:

1  The best marketers understand human nature.

This, to me, is one of the most powerful lessons in marketing or any kind of communication. Hall urges us to not only know our audience, to “study them,” talk to them, ask them questions—but to go out, mingle and know people. Rather than be too academic or scientific, Hall reminds us that, “The best study of mankind is man.” He calls on us to load up on empathy, ratchet up the understanding, and rely on our own experiences and humanity.

“Human nature is the most wonderful thing in the world. It is true, however, that there are certain mental processes that are common to most people. Because human minds are fundamentally alike, we are able, by reflecting how we ourselves observe, reason, remember, and act, to approximate how others will observe, reason, remember, and act.”

2  Pictures matter, a lot.

At a time when reproduction of photographs or illustrations was costly and complicated, Hall still stresses that a picture will always do better than words.

“The child is attracted by pictures long before printed words mean anything to him. Everybody likes to look at pictures. Let both the wording and the picture be of one hundred percent strength and fit into each other harmoniously.”

Hall says a single picture, in an instant, replaces a thousand words of text. I think of how metric after metric in social media show that posts with photos always outpace those with just text.

3  Your content must have depth, or else.

Throughout the book, Hall insists that you must dig deep into your subject—be an expert in the history of what you’re marketing, know your audience thoroughly, get down to the nuts and bolts. Why? It is the only way to be authentic and connect with people. If you’re a phony, eventually, your audience will be on to you…

“…it is one of the mysteries of the writing business that, in order to make the deepest impression on your reader, you must know what you are writing about.

We are wiser than we can explain, and the writer who is superficial, unnatural, or insincere is more than likely to betray himself and defeat his own purposes. We are fearful of being cheated by the salesman who is too smart.”

4  Have a single, powerful message when you can.

Long before the “unique selling proposition” of the 1940s, Hall talks about something he terms “points of contact” with readers. These are, essentially, messages that connect with people. He speaks of appeals to economy, appetite, love, health, vanity, convenience and others. But to really make a connection and a difference, pick one and run with it.

“There is a point of contact … that will connect you to your group of readers, if you can find it. Maybe there are several … but one is stronger than any of the others. That is a most important thing to decide.”

One of my favorite parts of this book was its many examples of “great” advertising—like this ad on lard!

One of my favorite parts of this book was its many examples of “great” advertising—like this ad on lard!

5  Headlines can make or break your success.

I’ve experienced this firsthand, and I’m sure you have, too. I’ve changed something as small as a word or two in a headline, and my click-through rates on a post explodes. Headlines still have a deep effect—perhaps more so today than ever.

Hall practically begs us to sweat over our headlines. Their most important attribute, he rightly claims, is getting someone’s attention.

“The incompetent advertiser shows his incompetence by selecting headlines that posses little or not interest value. Good headlines may be coined for even the most ordinary products.”

Hall also warns of trends in headline writing…

“If a style is radical and is overworked, it soon loses its effectiveness.”

Pretty brilliant, right? Of course, there are quite a few parts of the book that are very 1915 and, frankly, a little bizarre. But overall, I was pretty amazed at how a book a century old—in very good shape physically—was also in remarkable philosophical shape.

If you’d like to check out Writing an Advertisement by S. Roland Hall, click here. There’s a PDF archive of it you can page through.

I can’t quite remember where I heard it, but as I journeyed through these pages, I was reminded of the saying, “If you want to learn something new, read an old book.”

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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