4 Copywriting Tips From Bruce Barton

bruce barton with lassieWhen it comes to creating website content, why not learn from the copywriting masters? Before there was David Ogilvy, there was Bruce Barton (1886 – 1967), next-door neighbor to a young Ernest Hemingway in Oak Park, Illinois. Though his neighbor may have achieved more public fame, Bruce Barton actually sold more books than Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald combined during the 1920s. Check out some of his other remarkable accomplishments…

Selling Words… With More Words

Bruce Barton got his start in copywriting with Robert Collier. Collier was in the business of selling books, and one of his clients was the Harvard Classics’ “Dr. Elliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books.” In a panicky moment of confusion, Barton was asked to fill a quarter page of the advertisement’s double page spread. Not having time to fill that space with good copy, Barton took a page out of one of the classics and wrote, “This is Marie Antoinette riding to her death. Have you ever read her tragic story?” (source)

This basic marketing idea went on to sell 400,000 sets of the Harvard Classics.

The Tip? Sometimes the best advertisement is a teaser of the product itself!

Making Corporate Human

Bruce Barton also had quite a knack for making big corporations appear human. I think he would fit right in with IBM’s vision were he around today. His clients included:

  • General Electric
  • Gillette
  • Sears
  • DuPont
  • Polaroid
  • Liberty Mutual
  • Corning
  • Goodrich
  • Standard Oil
  • U.S. Steel

(source: Berea College Magazine)

Take this General Electric ad, for example, in which Barton writes to “free” women by selling them a product that really isn’t all that personal:

Bruce Barton ad

The Tip? All copywriting – even “SEO copywriting” – is about connecting with a consumer on a level that’s below the actual product or service being sold. Good copy doesn’t preach; it understands.

Barton Turned 1,376 Words Into $24,000 – In the 1920s!

In 1925, Bruce Barton penned his famous five-page letter to 24 executives at some of the country’s biggest corporations. His appeal was simple: give $1,000 to help educate the hard-working students of Berea College.

The response was amazing. Barton’s powerful and persuasive copy had a 100% response rate, bringing in at least $1,000 from every single recipient of the letter. In today’s dollars, that $24,000 is equal to about $318,000. Read the full letter here.

The Tip? Know your audience! Sure, you can argue that Barton was appealing to men of means. However, he certainly knew exactly what strings to pull and what buttons to push with these men of means.

The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton

By the 1920s, Bruce Barton was an advertising machine. In the same year that he sent out his famous five-page letter, he published The Man Nobody Knows, a book that attempts to make the Christian religion accessible to the modern businessman by portraying Christ as “the world’s greatest business executive.”

No doubt, a little odd. And, as you might imagine, there was a great deal of backlash against the idea of Jesus as “salesman.” Nevertheless, the book sold remarkably well, promoted Barton’s name, and didn’t hold him back from serving as a Congressman from 1937-1941.

The Tip? Be creative with your copy. SEO copywriting shouldn’t be dull, rote words, churned out for search engines. Focus on – and respect – your audience by writing something that hasn’t been said before, by doing something that hasn’t been done before.

Three years after publishing his best-seller, in 1928, Bruce Barton’s ad agency would merge to form BBDO (Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne), which is one of the most powerful, well-known advertising agencies around today, with innumerable awards and more than 15,000 employees.

Have any quotes or lessons you’ve learned from Bruce Barton? Share them in the comments section below.

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Ben Richardson is a writer based in Nashville, TN. While he loves writing on a variety of subjects, he's our go-to on all things related to branding and the creative aspects of content marketing. Follow him on Twitter!

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