5 Reasons This 97-Year-Old Marketing Book Is More Relevant Than Ever

The 1923 book Scientific Advertising by Claude Hopkins spawned the modern world of direct marketing. It’s lauded by many legendary marketers and copywriters of the 20th century, including agency king David Ogilvy and legendary copywriter Gary Halbert, and its message has only become more relevant in the digital age.

While controversy still brews over whether our attention spans have actually shortened, the opportunities to fracture our concentration — whether it be multiple tabs on a browser screen or texting while driving–have likely arisen with the proliferation of the smartphone. Entrepreneurs are tasked with capturing the undivided attention of their prospect faster than ever before.

Video marketing, perfect Instagram feeds, and impressive TikTok filters blast us with flashing lights and novelty. But when it comes to influence and sales, the pillars of persuasion outlined in Scientific Advertising have remained largely the same. (The book is even public domain and you can read it in its entirety for free right now.)

As a content marketer, I’m working day in and day out to capture and hold users’ attention in the most cost-effective way possible. The principles of Mr. Hopkins’ seminal book enable me to deliver on that, as they’re considered a cornerstone of direct response marketing.

Here are 5 important points from the book that still apply nearly a century later

1. To capture attention, create clarity

Mr. Hopkins comes out swinging, noting that “fine talkers are rarely good salesmen.”

It can be tempting to slide into industry jargon or fancy language, but often this attempt to come off as smart or commanding backfires. When your reader has to strain to comprehend your pitch, they lose interest and move on.

Chipotle nailed this approach in a recent billboard campaign. Rather than waste space on high-definition close-ups of airbrushed burritos, they used the entire billboard to show a single sentence:

“We wanted to write about our locally sourced natural ingredients, but short billboard headlines are better.”

The sentence was then greyed out except for four words, which remained in black capital letters, spelling out a new sentence: “OUR INGREDIENTS ARE BETTER.” The headline is witty and economical, and even when driving on a highway, you get the message in a brief glance.

An example shown in Scientific Advertising displays an advert from Mead Cycle Company; the company owner found the ad so lucrative he wouldn’t change a single word. The opening paragraph below makes a clean, compelling proposition.

“Try before you buy. Select the bicycle you prefer from the 44 styles, colors and sizes in the famous Ranger line. We send it on approval and 30 DAYS TRIAL, freight paid to your town. Return if not pleased and the trial costs you nothing.”

Add charm or detail later. Your first objective in tighter marketing is to communicate your value proposition quickly and well.

2. Measure the data or risk losing money

Scientific Advertising is considered one of the first books to tout the benefits of split testing. You must test, measure, and tweak your approach based on the feedback your numbers give you.

Many modern online marketers first encounter split testing through the glory of email marketing, as they use an email service provider to automatically send different subject lines of the same newsletter to a list and determine which subject gets a better engagement rate.

But even Mr. Hopkins’ data measurement techniques of coupon redemption and tracked phone calls hold their weight today both in analog and digital forms. Google UTM parameters are key for an online entrepreneur to correctly track where their website traffic comes from, and the custom links of affiliate marketing have made it an industry seeing double-digit growth each year.

The approach is simple: test different campaigns, chop the initiatives that fall flat and do more of what works.

3. Leverage human psychology

We can try to tell ourselves the world is different now and humans have different motivations than they did nearly a hundred years ago. But part of what makes Scientific Advertising so timeless is that the core principles of human psychology really haven’t changed all that much.

The good news, as Mr. Hopkins notes, is that since human psychology is unchanging, once you learn these critical marketing triggers you’ll never have to unlearn them.

A few tactics particularly lauded in chapter six of the book include

  • Curiosity. Unexpected and exciting details capture the heart and mind of an intrigued consumer.
  • Price. Mr. Hopkins highlights that no one likes cheaply made products, yet everyone likes the idea of a deal.
  • Guarantees. The opportunity to try a product risk-free changes the psychology and defense mechanisms in a buyer’s mind.
  • Samples. Rather than desperately give out samples to everyone in sight, educate your followers first, and let them ask for a sample or to give the product a try. When the initiative is made by the prospect, psychology is in your corner.

Nectar uses the psychology of guarantee to great effect. When Nectar wants to sell you a mattress, they offer you a 365-day trial, more than 3 times their industry competitors. “Which of these sounds better to you, a 100-day trial or a 365-day trial?” is a powerful headline rooted in psychology.

Even as photography, videography, and other forms of content production rise in popularity, these psychological triggers continue to run the show behind the scenes. Any entrepreneur looking to market or sell must employ one or more of these tactics to hook a prospect’s interest.

4. Tension relief outsells prevention

The unfortunate truth is that it’s much easier to identify a consumer’s pain and offer to remove it than it is to encourage precautionary measures. This doesn’t mean you have to be all doom and gloom, but you do want to elicit tension in some way when attempting to persuade others.

Many of Scientific Advertising’s examples still apply today. Toothpaste ads that promise whiter teeth outperform ones that tout the continued prevention of cavities. Soaps that promise more radiant, glowing skin will always outperform a headline like “keep clean”.

To move others to act now and not later, focus on trouble and how your product, program or service alleviates that trouble.

5. Consumers buy complete stories

A Nielsen report found that Americans spend an astonishing 11 hours and 27 minutes each day consuming media, a number that has risen year after year.

That’s because stories sell, whether we’re paying with our dollars or our time. Mr. Hopkins notes that it’s an advertiser’s job to sell a complete story or proposition within a single ad, and then let the consumer decide if they are for or against the proposition.

Hopkins notes that, at $10 a word (about $151/word in today’s dollar), every word has to be a “super-salesman.” It sounds like every word also has to be a “super-storyteller”, and in this scenario, your value proposition is the story.

Mastering marketing

No matter your industry of expertise, it’s a valuable use of time to learn and master the strategies that persuade people to click or buy.

Whether your dominant marketing approach is SnapChat or direct mail, the principles in Scientific Advertising are timeless, proven, and a tactic you can start putting in place for free today.


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