I’ve always loved reading old magazines. As a kid in the mid-1970s, I spent hours on rainy afternoons with issues of Look, Sport, and Life saved by my mom and dad from the early 1960s. It wasn’t just the pictures and stories about JFK, Willie Mays and the Beatles that pulled me in; it was also the advertising. The cars, the foods, the TVs — a lot of it was already pretty different from what I knew.
The other day, I went further back in time – 75 years – via the March 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics that I had picked up at a yard sale. There are articles on developments in television, solar motors, and around-the-world travel on the Graf Zeppelin and the PanAm Clipper. And, the city of the future (1960!) is shown on the cover: a fantasy of terraced skyscrapers, giant pedestrian bridges and rooftop helicopter buses. (See image in the media player to the right.) Oh, well … “The future,” said French poet Paul Valery, “isn’t what it used to be.”
So, then I turned to the ads. Some of the brands are still around (Ford, Harley-Davidson, Simoniz), even though their products have changed in some big ways since then. And there are companies that have disappeared over the decades (LaSalle Extension University, Plymouth, Midwest Radio Corp.).
But for most of the ads, whether full page, fractional or classified, there was only one reply option: the mail. That’s right, no websites, no Twitter or Facebook, not even a phone number … just a mailing address for the prospect to reply to. Many of them even had a clip-out coupon.
Because only the inside and back covers were in 4-color (selling cigarettes), many of the rest have to rely a lot on their copy (and the emotional appeal behind it) to draw a response. “Send for FREE BOOK,” “Become a RADIO EXPERT.” Legendary bodybuilder Charles Atlas promises salvation with a new physique: “I’ll prove in ONLY 7 Days that I can make YOU a New Man!”
This is great stuff! As antiquated as the ads may appear, a lot of these techniques and rules are still at work today, in a variety of media, including direct mail and email. But what made my jaw drop was a page spread (see image in the media player to the right.). On the left page, the headline for a half-page vertical for the Encyclopedia Britannica: “He’s the best paid man here because he is the best informed.” At right, the full page for International Correspondence Schools (now Penn Foster Career School) shows three identical male faces, and asks: “WHICH ONE gets the job? They’re alike in everything — except just one thing! [O]ne factor … makes one of these applicants the logical man for the job! HE HAS TRAINING!” (See image in the media player to the right.)
I instantly thought of “Two Young Men,” Martin Conroy’s 2-page letter for The Wall Street Journal, the most successful advertisement in the history of the world (and which Denny Hatch discusses in his forthcoming book about copy drivers for DirectMarketingIQ.) That mailing was its control for 29 years starting in 1974, and earned it well over $1 billion. It tells the story of two men who go to their 25th college reunion, and while they’ve turned out alike in many ways, and even work for the same company, one of them is its president, because of what he knows — that made the difference.
That this classic mailing used a similar comparative technique to space ads from 40 years earlier is not surprising. Even in recent years, a dozen or more direct mailers have their own mailings that echo, loudly or otherwise, Conroy’s effort. They’ve just “stolen smart.” It’s more proof, that as much as culture and technology have changed, as sophisticated and clever as we may now think we are, the direct marketing rules and techniques of the past are still quite valid, and profitable, today.