Timeless Marketing Truth: What Is Advertising, Anyway?

Your first clue to the truth about advertising was written more than 100 years ago.

Let me tell you the story of a young, confident copywriter by the name of John E. Kennedy. Early one May evening in 1904, Kennedy, a former Canadian Mountie, sat in a New York barroom.

He sent a note upstairs to the office of A.L. Thomas, the head of the Lord and Thomas advertising agency. “I’m in the saloon downstairs,” the note began, “and I can tell you
what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you.  If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy. (Signed) John E. Kennedy.”

Thomas dismissed the note as arrogance. But his junior partner, Albert Lasker, did not. The note struck a chord with Lasker and he summoned Kennedy to his office that same night. That meeting of Lasker and Kennedy changed the face of advertising—forever.
Kennedy told Lasker, “Advertising is Salesmanship in Print.” No one has been able to better that definition of advertising, not to this very day, more than 100 years later.
Kennedy was subsequently hired by Lord and Thomas and became the highest paid copywriter of his day—$52,000 a year, a phenomenal sum in the first decade of the last century.
Nearly all the top marketers of today derive their killer ideas from the marketing legends of the past. Why? Because all the top marketers understand what makes people buy. They understand that human nature just hasn’t changed over time. Human beings will continue to be sold by the same emotions that have been used since the days of Caesar.

The same things that made people buy 10,000 years ago will continue to work 10,000 years from now.  These principles just do not change. No lesser modern marketer than Ted Nicholas says, “Ads which ran 30-50 years ago, even a hundred years ago, are often better than those you see today. You’ll get great ideas to use in your marketing, too—human emotions never change.” (From “The Golden Mailbox”)

Many of those bygone legends, along with writing great advertising, also wrote great advertising books. For instance, Lasker got Kennedy to write all of his principles into a series of lessons called “The Book of Advertising Tests.” Lord and Thomas utilized these and the agency became the training center for all New York copywriters. In 1912 the text was published as Reason Why Advertising. How many billion-dollar advertisers a century later still just say “Buy our brand” and give no real reason why?

Kennedy left Lord and Thomas a few years later, leaving Albert Lasker with big shoes to fill. Lasker showed that he had not just been lucky in hiring Kennedy; in fact he showed himself to be a genius, by hiring the equally legendary and possibly even more brilliant Claude C. Hopkins. Hopkins’ 1927 masterpiece Scientific Advertising revolutionized the industry all over again.

There is a lot to learn from the Old Masters. How hard is your advertising working—is it truly salesmanship in print?