The history of copywriting is a long and illustrious one, filled with groundbreaking work, amazing writers, and incredible stories of darn good copy that have turned heads for decades. Here’s a brief look at just a few interesting copywriting stories from almost 100 years ago.
The Wall Street Journal’s famous “Two Young Men” letter is an iconic piece of the paper’s history. The two-page letter tells the story of two men, reunited at their 25th college reunion. Both were well-off, happily married, and surprised to learn that they had worked for the same company since college. One of them was a small departmental manager. The other was the company’s president. The paper asks the rhetorical question of what separated these two men so drastically in business, then goes on to pitch the Wall Street Journal. There’s no direct sales pitch related to the story—it’s not stated that the WSJ is the reason one man was president and one wasn’t—but the story provides context that allowed the writer Conroy to imply exactly that. You can read the full text here.
Martin Conroy wrote this piece of copy in a few hours, and the WSJ put it to use in 1974. The letter was sent as a subscription offer for 25 consecutive years, and estimates today say that the ad was responsible for driving $1 billion dollars in subscriptions and sales to the paper. Talk about a serious piece of conversion writing!
Conroy’s billion-dollar copywriting wasn’t divinely inspired or even entirely original, however. Conroy picked up the story and basic format for the letter from a 1919 ad written by Bruce Barton, then a client for the Alexander Hamilton Institute. Barton’s ad tells a similar story of two men, reunited after serving in the American Civil War. One is a drifter, totally dependent on his children for support. The other “accumulated a fortune” as a business mogul. The pitch is almost predictable: the difference between these two men is that one went to the Alexander Hamilton Institute after the war. The full text can be found here.
Of course, the chain of copy-copying keeps going further back into history: Barton picked the idea for his article up from a successful advertisement for a memory-enhancing seminar written a year prior by ad agency Ruthrauff & Ryan, a famous ad agency that employed some of history’s most famous copywriters. Who knows if they lifted their stellar ad campaign off of an older ad.
Another unrelated but similarly successful and often-imitated ad crops up in 1925. John Caples, a Naval Academy graduate at his first day for Ruthrauff & Ryan—the very same—was asked by his manager to read through two binders. One contained hundreds of their historically successful ads. The other was a seven inch-thick stack, thousands of examples of the firm’s “failed” ads. Caples studied these ads for two months, then wrote one the most successful ad of the 20th century: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…”
Similar to the “Two Men” article, the ad is a story first, and an advertisement second. The story centers on a man who is ridiculed and made fun of until he blows everyone away with his exceptional piano-playing skills. The ad, predictably selling prestigious piano lessons, is successful thanks to the context of the story, and instead of a direct pitch, offers the potential customer to opt-in for information rather than receive or purchase a product outright. The success of this ad came almost overnight, and drove sales through the roof. The ad itself is an exceptional story, but the story of its creation is an amazing example of content development in action: Caples studied prestigious ad firm’s entire legacy, then distilled it into his writing.
It’s easy to think that in the age of social media and the internet, we’ve single-handedly built the copywriting industry from scratch by ourselves. But a quick look into history suggests otherwise: storytelling is part of our rich history, and the copywriting industry has simply evolved and adapted itself to the conventions and customs of the time.
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