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A Lesson In Advertising From The Eighteenth Century


Back in the 1760s, the great Dr Samuel Johnson delivered himself of the dictum that 'promise, large promise is the soul of advertising'. It's a good thought, a great thought; and I contend that what was true then is equally true today. But it seems to me that modern advertisers are tying themselves into unnecessary knots in an attempt to reach audiences which they believe are becoming increasingly indifferent to their blandishments.

Well, yes, markets are turning deaf ears and blind eyes, but they always have done, though not for the reasons generally espoused by the world's marketers. I am convinced that despite all the sophisticated research and marketing effort that goes into advertising these days, the real reason that markets are indifferent to advertising is because much of it ignores the many splendoured principle that people don't buy products, they buy the benefits of owning those products.

Today, the great proportion of advertisers don't deliver sales messages, they tell what they hope are emotive stories with which the market can empathise, then they drop the product in as an afterthought, hoping that enough emotional cross-communication has been achieved for people to reach for their credit cards. That it doesn't and people won't has resulted in huge advertising budget cut-backs in the developed world in recent years. Only a manufacturer who has taken leave of his senses will throw even more money at a strategy that doesn't work.

The strategy responsible operates under the title Emotional Sales Proposition (ESP), thought in some quarters to be an advance on the Unique Sales Proposition (USP) which, on the contrary, does actually work. What has been overlooked or, more likely, ignored, is that in developing the principle of the USP in the late 1950s, the brilliant Rosser Reeves was striving to replace an advertising strategy that had been in situ for 30 or so years and was fast running out of steam. What was the device he was hoping to supersede? Well, by any other name, it was the emotional sales proposition. I won't bore you with the detail, but if you'd like to find out more, you should lay your hands on Reeves' book, Reality in Advertising (MacGibbon & Kee - 1961). It could be an eye-opener.

So, it's true - the one thing we learn from history is that we never learn anything from history. Let's go back to Dr Johnson. It's worth remembering that the kind of advertising old Sam was talking about in the 18th century was fairly innocuous and largely unexceptionable. It could be read in coffee- house flyers, in chapbooks and in rudimentary newspapers; and it consisted of sales messages as diverse as where to get your wig powdered and the date of the next public hanging at Tyburn. Even so, the products and services on offer were as important to the people of the time as mobile phones and computers are to us.

In the human condition, nothing much changes. Our egos still need to be massaged and we are all in hot pursuit of happiness. Only our methods for achieving these goals, only our technologies, vary with time.

So the next time you are tempted to commit advertising, think about Sam Johnson and give your market a reason for owning your product. A good reason.

About The Author

Patrick Quinn is an award winning copywriter with 40 years' experience of the advertising business in London, Miami, Dublin and Edinburgh. He publishes a FREE monthly newsletter, AdBriefing. Subscriptions are available at: http://www.adbriefing.com


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