Scientific Advertising: How to Avoid Expensive Habits
“Changing people’s habits is very expensive.”
So says advertising copywriter Claude Hopkins. He measures the returns on coupons — running the analytics in 1923. What he finds allows him to write many of the principles we know of early 20th century advertising, the guide for everyone in business to be known and make sales.
If more of us played by Hopkins’ book, we’d all make more money. His guide is true for website design just as it is for space advertising — apply his writing and design principles to A/B testing and you’ll probably come out ahead each time. He’s conservative. Practical to a fault. He dashes Absolut Vodka ads that say nothing of product, waste space and tout puffery over good sentences that sell.
That was last week when we discussed Hopkins’ views on ad art, and the backwardness of branding at the expense of sales. Now he explains why even the perfected ad fails absolutely when the recipient must be converted from too far afield.
How Much Does it Cost to Change Someone’s Mind?
“To sell shaving soap to the peasants of Russia one would first need to change their beard wearing habits. The cost would be excessive. Yet countless advertisers try to do things almost as impossible.”
Note this law of Russian Emperor Peter I in 1698: A beard tax designed to help Russia appear more European. Shave or pay was the motto. Those who opted out were forced to purchase a “beard token,” carried like a weapons permit.
The anecdote teaches that one Russian emperor, with the full power of a dictatorial state, was unable to control his men’s beards. How are you, a relative nobody, going to interest people in a product they don’t use? Hopkins speaks of dentifrice makers — and the knowledge that in 1923, not so many people brushed their teeth as do today, which made products in the dental hygiene market hard sales.
“The advertiser of a dentifrice may spend much space and money to educate people to brush their teeth. Tests which we know of have indicated that the cost of such converts may run from $20 to $25 each. Not only because of the difficulty, but because much of the advertising goes to people already converted.”
In 1923, that $20 amounted to today’s $277. Would you pay that much to sell a bottle of Listerine? “Such a cost, of course, is unthinkable. One might not in a lifetime get it back in sales.”
But what if you didn’t know that was the cost of a sale? You might try promoting your product with great ads without response and wonder why they don’t work. That’s why Hopkins demands a knowledge up front:
“The maker who learned these facts by tests make no attempt to educate people to the tooth brush habit. What cannot be done on a large scale profitably can not be done on a small scale. So not one line in any ad is devoted to this object. This maker, who is constantly guided in everything by keying every ad, has made remarkable success.”
“Another dentifrice maker spends much money to make converts to the tooth brush. The object is commendable, but altruistic. The new business he creates is shared by his rivals. He is wondering why his sales increase is in no way commensurate with his expenditure.”
Hopkins says we must never try winning over people beyond winning. At all. “There are many advertisers who know facts like these and concede them. They would not think of devoting a whole campaign to any such impossible object. Yet they devote a share of their space to that object. That is only the same folly on a smaller scale. It is not good business.”
Did you write a paragraph on a landing page about the benefits of your product, designed not for people who use a competing product, but for people who have never heard of the category?
Why Waste Your Paragraph?
Go for those you have a chance of winning and you’ll get the most for your money, not for those who are a step removed from a chance at winning; they aren’t yours to win.
“No one orange grower or raisin grower could attempt to increase the consumption of those fruits. The cost might be a thousand times his share of the returns. But thousands of growers combined have done it on those and many other lines. There lies one of the great possibilities of advertising development. The general consumption of scores of foods can be profitably increased. But it must be done on wide co-operation.”
“No advertiser could afford to educate people on vitamins or germicides. Such things are done by authorities, through countless columns of unpaid-for space. But great successes have been made by going to people already educated and satisfying their created wants.”
Tend Your Own Flock
Instead of inspiring strangers to your category, Hopkins tells us we must observe what we may truly attain, and then swim hard like a surfer chasing the surge.
“It is a very shrewd thing to watch the development of a popular trend, the creation of new desires. Then at the right time offer to satisfy those desires. That was done on yeast's, for instance, and on numerous antiseptics. It can every year be done on new things which some popular fashion or widespread influence is brought into vogue. But it is a very different thing to create that fashion, taste or influence for all in your field to share.”
This does put those tied to a product beside the trend at a disadvantage. But they must know their advertising is best served not preaching to the unconverted, but ministering to the flocks close at hand with the right message.
Find the Positive Slogan
“Costly mistakes are made by blindly following some ill-conceived idea. An article, for instance, may have many uses, one of which is to prevent disease. Prevention is not a popular subject, however much it should be. People will do much to cure trouble, but people in general will do little to prevent it. This has been proved my many disappointments.
“One may spend much money in arguing prevention when the same money spent on another claim would bring many times the sales. A heading which asserts one claim may bring ten times the results of a heading which asserted another. An advertiser may go far astray unless he finds out. A toothpaste may tend to prevent decay. It may also beautify teeth. Tests will probably find that the latter appeal is many times as strong as the former. The most successful tooth paste advertiser never features tooth troubles in his headlines …”
We can apply this now when using Google Keyword Planner to decide our headlines. Every one of us can be a mini-Hopkins, with instant keyword data that once took his coupon sorting secretaries days, weeks and months to count.
“Some claims not popular enough to feature in the main are still popular enough to consider. They influence a certain number of people — say one-fourth of your possible customers. Such claims may be featured to advantage in a certain percentage of headlines. It should probably be included in every advertisement. But those are not things to guess at …”
Headlines, like habits, must be judged only on how closely they resemble our buyers’ behavior.