Bill Bernbach—the ad exec behind Volkswagen’s “Lemon” campaign, and “Mikey likes it” for Life cereal, and Avis’ “We Try Harder” and a thousand other campaigns—once famously said:
It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.
In other words, when you compare the humans of the 1920s—for me, the early dawn of “copywriting,” as a discipline—with humans today…
You’ll see our psychological needs haven’t changed a bit.
We still want to fit in.
We want people to notice us.
We want to be admired.
We want to attract the attention of fine mates, and so on.
Before this kind of copy emerged, ads essentially said, “Buy our soap. It’s great and it smells fantastic. It’s made with pure blah blah blah. You should try it.”
But in the 1920s they started to tell people, if you’ll let me continue the example, “Do you have problems with body odor—problems you may not even know about? You could be losing friends. So buy our soap.”
You can sense the shift, right?
The first ad brags about the product.
The second lasers in on a customer’s pain and pitches the product as the solution.
So how did we end up in a world where the ads do that relentlessly—where they choose not to soothe our pain but make it more painful? (And worse, follow us around all over the web?)
Well, here’s what those 100-year-old advertisements had that we see less of today: gentle respect for their readers.
That, in my opinion, has disappeared from an increasingly bigger percentage of the ads we see. (Incidentally, that’s why I’ve been working hard to solidify my “real-world copywriting” technique.)
Over the 20th century, even as ad formats evolved, they stayed more or less the same in tone.
They became radio messages, and television commercials, and massive direct mail campaigns—the envelopes with the “Dear Friend” letter…
But they still did largely the same thing: identify a buyer’s pain and speak to it.
Perhaps with increasing force, but mostly with readers’ best interests in mind.
However, by the time we got to the so-called “golden age” of the infomercial in the mid-90s, with Don Lapre and his tiny classified ads, and Tom Vu on his yachts, something had shifted.
Some marketers stopped simply speaking to customers’ pains, and they were instead preying on them.
Even then, however—nobody was ready for what was to come.
More on that in my next post.