Chapter 3: Learning to Write Effective Advertisements


This detour was my first experience in real travel. But on this job I was a total misfit.

I had now learned my lesson—at least temporarily. Now I was going to get back on the main track—the advertising field.

Stopping off in Chicago between trains en route to Des Moines, I went up to the Mahan Advertising Agency headquarters and succeeded in getting a job. But since it was still more than two weeks before I could become active again, I went on out to Des Moines to spend the time at home.

Hiring Myself a Job

Naturally I went almost immediately to my Uncle Frank’s office.

“Well, Herbert,” he said approvingly, “I’m glad you’ve got that bookkeeping fling out of your system and are ready to get back in the advertising field where you belong.”

I told him about the job with the Mahan Agency in Chicago.

“No, Herbert,” he said, seriously, “you’re not ready for agency experience yet. Mahan is one of the major agencies, and it would be years before you’d even work up to being noticed by any of the top men, who are the only ones over there that could teach you anything. They wouldn’t know you existed.”

“Besides,” he continued, “although faraway pastures may look greener, often the best opportunity is right where you are. Now it so happens that on a national magazine, right here in Des Moines, are two men that I regard as the two best advertising and merchandising men in the country. These fellows really know advertising psychology. They know people, and how to deal with them. They know merchandising and business principles. They specialize in finding which business methods, selling methods and advertising principles are successful, and which are not.

“They are two men over at the Merchants Trade Journal. It’s a trade journal in the retail field—read by owners and managers of retail stores—but they circulate among every line of merchandising, and it’s the biggest trade journal in the country, with a very large national circulation.

“One of these men is R. H. Miles, who is advertising manager, and the other is Arthur I. Boreman, manager of their service department, which is a sort of trade-paper advertising agency.”

“Why,” I interrupted, “I know Mr. Miles. He’s a neighbor of ours.”

“Well,” continued my uncle, “go hire yourself a job. Don’t let them turn you down. Over there you’ll be in daily personal contact with these two men. You’ll learn more there than anyplace I know. Don’t forget, you’re still going to school—you still have a lot to learn.”

I walked briskly over to the Merchants Trade Journal offices, and gained admittance to the advertising manager’s office.

“Why, hello, Herbert,” greeted Mr. Miles, surprised to see me in his office.

“Mr. Miles, I have decided that I’m going to join your organization, here in your advertising department. The doctors have told me I can’t start work for two more weeks. I will report for work the first Monday in next month!” This came out real snappy—very positively.

“You—you—what?” It caught Mr. Miles’s breath.

I repeated my affirmative statement.

“Well!!—so you’ve just hired yourself a job—is that it?”

“Exactly!” came the positive reply.

“Well, now—just back up a minute!” Mr. Miles began to recover. “You can’t come barging in here and hire yourself a job just because you’re a neighbor of mine. We haven’t any openings!”

“Oh, that’s all right! You’ve got two whole weeks to create an opening,” I came back promptly, in full self-assurance.

“Now, look!” Mr. Miles was beginning to get a little impatient at this youthful aggressiveness. “It seems you don’t understand plain English. I said, we don’t need any help!”

Now it was my turn to become a little nettled.

“Mr. Miles,” I came back, more positively than ever, “I’m surprised at you. Isn’t this a national magazine? Isn’t this an institution of national importance?”

“Yes, of course,” he responded.

“Well then, do you mean to tell me that an organization of national scope and influence is not interested in finding a way to create an opening for an ambitious, energetic young man like me? Do you realize that you probably don’t get a chance once in several years to add to your staff a man of my caliber, my talents and ambition and will to work! Why, you can’t afford to pass up this opportunity. I’ll grow with your organization. Of course you can create an opening! As I said, I’ll report for work the first Monday in next month.”

“Well, I haven’t the slightest idea what we’d have you do,” Mr. Miles was beginning to weaken a little.

I became more confident than ever.

“Oh, poppycock, Mr. Miles,” I snapped, disgusted. “Hand me a copy of that lousy sheet of yours!” This was commonly used advertising terminology.

On the back cover I saw two or three small ads, want-ad style, advertising stores for sale.

“Do you call these want ads?” I inquired.

“Oh, we don’t have a want-ad section. We only solicit display ads. Occasionally a merchant decides to quit and sell out, and sends in a small want ad to sell his business.”

“Well, I happen to know that hundreds of small merchants are going broke all the time, over the whole country. Now, supposing you had a full page, or even two pages, of these store-for-sale ads every month. The rate for these small ads is a lot higher than the display rate by the page. One page of want ads would bring in as much advertising revenue as three or four pages of display ads, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” admitted Mr. Miles, rather reluctantly, “but we have no way of selling ads of that sort.”

I was real cocky and confident by now. “I can put one or two full pages of want ads of businesses for sale in every issue of the Journal. One thing I’ve learned is how to bring in want ads by mail. So, if I have to create my own opening, I’ll report for work the first Monday morning in next month.”

“Well,” came a last objection, “we can’t pay you a very high salary. We couldn’t pay you over $10 a week.”

“Who said anything about salary?” I rejoined. “I still live at home with the folks. I’m not coming up here for the salary I make now, but for what I can learn and the salary I will make, later. I’m hired at $10 per week,” rising and extending my hand. “All I ask is that you agree to raise my salary as fast as I earn it. See you in two weeks.”

My First Display Ad

All this was along about July or August 1912. I do not remember now, after more than 60 years, whether I was actually put to work on building a page or two of want ads by direct mail solicitation; but it seems, in the dim distance of memory, that I did bring in a page or more of want ads the first two or three issues.

In any event, I was not long on want-ad work. I was assigned to the Service Department, directly under A. I. Boreman. For some little time I was given routine office work, with a certain amount of correspondence to answer. For this work, I was given a stenographer and a Dictaphone. During this period it was my job to break in a number of different stenographers. As soon as a new girl became experienced enough to be efficient, she was taken away from me, and a new green girl fresh out of business college assigned to me.

It was not long until I was given the opportunity to start writing and designing display ads. As mentioned above, this service department was a sort of trade-journal advertising agency. We handled the trade-paper division of the advertising budget of manufacturers who sold through retailers. As a rule, the larger advertising agencies were glad to relinquish the trade-paper portion of any client’s advertising. They were primarily interested in consumer media.

I shall never forget the first ad Mr. Boreman assigned to me to write and lay out. I have mentioned before that I had been studying every book on advertising writing I could acquire. I was studying books on psychology and on advertising psychology. I had diligently read the trade journals in the advertising field—Printers Ink and Advertising & Selling. I had studied diagrams of design and layout of ads. But as yet I had received almost no experience in actually writing the copy and designing the layout of an ad.

I do not remember at all the nature of the commodity or service or the name of the manufacturer whose ad I was to write.

But I shall never forget Mr. Boreman’s left-handed compliment when I laid the “dummy” and typed copy before him.

“Mm-hmm—well, Herbert, that’s a pretty good ad,” he drawled slowly, examining it critically.

“Now, that headline, of course, will have to be changed,” he continued. “You’ve used too many words. There’s nothing in that headline that will catch the eye. The average reader will be scanning past it to something else. You have only the fleeting fraction of a second to stop the eye. There’s nothing in your headline to arouse instant interest and create immediate suspense—nothing to make the reader say, ‘Well, I never thought of that! I want to read that!’ or to say, ‘Now I’ve always wondered about that!’—so he’ll want to read on.

“The headline is not displayed correctly on your layout. Not enough white space around the headline to create contrast between a bold, black, short headline and white space around it. Never be afraid of wasting white space around your headlines. Never waste white space around the text matter.”

“Now next,” continued Mr. Boreman, “your major subhead above the text matter is all wrong. You must grab attention—stop the eye—in the main headline, but you must go on to arouse interest and create suspense in the subhead if you are to win a reading for your copy. This subhead is in the wrong place in your layout, the wrong size and kind of type.

“Now, coming to the main text matter—that opening sentence won’t do, Herbert. It should have been indicated on the layout to be in larger type than the balance of the text matter, and the first word should have started out with a large initial letter. Unless this opening sentence follows up the headings by cementing interest and arousing more curiosity or suspense, no one is going to read past it. No, this first sentence will have to be rewritten, just like the headlines.

“Now, these smaller subheads through the text matter don’t add anything. They must create interest, make the reader want to read what’s under them. And they, too, are in the wrong kind of type. And this text matter will all have to be rewritten. It doesn’t hold the interest, if you had created interest in the first place. It doesn’t arouse desire for this thing you’re selling. It doesn’t make the reader—if he ever reads this ad—want to buy this product.

“And then, finally, there’s no emotional ending to arouse the reader to actionif you had first stopped his eye and gained his attention, aroused interest, created suspense, made him actually read through your ad, made him want what you advertise. The signature isn’t right, either—and the border around the ad will have to be eliminated.”

“But, outside of that, Herbert,” he said encouragingly, “that’s a pretty good ad!”

No, I shall never forget that experience!

That kind of encouragement was pretty hard to take—but I learned more about how to write an ad in that one analysis of this first ad than many copywriters and layout men in big agencies have ever learned, or ever will learn! This one experience was well worth all the time I spent on the staff of the Merchants Trade Journal—and I was to be with them three years.

I went to work with a will, writing that ad all over. Practice makes perfect. It was probably two or three years later before I was able to write ads that actually stopped roving eyes, grabbed instantaneous interest, created suspense, held the reader’s interest throughout, convinced the reader, and then moved him to action. It took time. But I was on the way.

Not long after returning from the South and starting with the Merchants Trade Journal, my father went out to Idaho, where he bought a small ranch near Weiser. The household goods were packed and stored, ready to be moved after he became located.

My mother, two younger brothers and sister went to the home of one of my mother’s sisters, on a farm some 25 or 30 miles south of Des Moines, for a visit. After my father was located in Idaho, they followed and joined him there.

Learning Effective Ad-Writing

For something like a year and a half I was kept in the service department of the Journal. There I received a most intensive and practical basic training in the true psychological principles of writing and designing advertisements.

It has always seemed to me that the advertising profession generally has “missed the boat.” It’s the same in many professions.

The admen have progressed into a system of intricate display designs, complicated artwork and overly rhetorical text matter which, after all, doesn’t really say much or do much to the readers—if any.

Take a look through the advertising pages of a magazine or newspaper today. It’s a confused, jumbled hodgepodge of fancy artwork, and small bits of text, artistically blocked off—usually in such a manner that no one reads it! Nothing stands out to catch, and stop, the fleeting eye trying to get to the next news or article headline. Nothing snatches attention away from all surrounding matter. There’s nothing to arouse instantaneous interest at the very point where the eye is drawn for that fraction of a second glance—nothing to hold that interest until it creates suspense sufficient to induce a reading of the text matter.

The ads I was trained to write, during those formative years between ages 20 and 23, always got results. Often they were more plain and simple in appearance than the more fancy, artistic, highly illustrated ads around them. But they stopped roving eyes—drew attention from surrounding matter—aroused and held interest—convinced readers, and moved them to act! (This early training was destined to serve a great purpose!)

Today all that early training and the years of subsequent experience are being put into the production of full-page ads, which are selling, not a commercial product or service for profit, but God’s truth, without price or profit.

Overhauling and Simplifying a Vocabulary

For some two years, prior to joining the Merchants Trade Journal staff, I had been striving diligently to acquire a large vocabulary. Ever since I had read Elbert Hubbard’s boast of possessing the largest vocabulary of any man since Shakespeare, it had been a challenge! I was determined to acquire a greater! To be able to pour out a torrent of big words incomprehensible to any but the highly educated had appealed to intellectual vanity.

But—at age 20—Mr. Boreman changed all that.

“When you write advertising,” he explained, “the purpose is not to impress the readers with your superior vocabulary. Your purpose is to sell goods, services or ideas! The purpose of words is to convey thoughts, facts, ideas—a message! When 98 percent of the people do not understand your words, they do not receive your message. They only become confused and turn to something interesting. In advertising we must reach the 98 percent—not the 2 percent.

“Use only plain, simple words. Use words that readers of no more than a third or fourth grade education can understand. Try to achieve good literary quality with a large vocabulary of common, simple words, and by the manner in which you weave those words into the sentence structure.”

Immediately my vocabulary underwent an overhauling. Deliberately I began dropping out of my speaking and writing vocabulary all the big words not in common usage. Every person has three vocabularies: smallest of all, his speaking vocabulary, consisting of the fund of words with which he is able to speak readily; next larger, his writing vocabulary; and largest, his reading or listening vocabulary. Everyone can understand many words which he may read, or hear spoken by others, which he could not readily use himself in conversation.

My effort, then, became that of developing the ability to use the largest variety of words readily comprehensible by most people when heard or read.

But effective writing is far more than memorizing a store of words. It is the manner in which those words are put together in sentence structure that determines effectiveness. So I began to study a style in writing. Immediately I set out to develop a distinct and effective style. It had to be fast-moving, vigorous, yet simple, interesting, making the message plain and understandable.

All this advertising instruction was the most valuable possible training for the real mission in life to which I was later to be called—our worldwide enterprises of today. It was a training such as one could never receive in any university. It was the most practical training.

Some speakers and writers seem to think they impress their audiences or readers by their ability to use big words beyond the comprehension of the audience. Others succumb to the temptation to become too “scholarly,” speaking over the minds of their hearers—but never plainly into their minds. The same rules that attract attention, arouse interest, create suspense, win conviction and stir emotions to action in advertising accomplish the same results in public speaking.

Another most important principle—I was taught to avoid the academic “outline” form of presentation. This is the manner in which nearly all students are taught in colleges to organize their writing or speaking. This is the one, two, three, a), b), c) form of outline. It is orderly and precise, but dull, dry, uninteresting to the readers.

But in writing advertising, I learned always to tell a story—to make it interesting—and to tell it in story form. That is, first, put a question in the minds of readers they really want answered—or make a statement that is so unusual it either raises a question in the readers’ minds, or challenges them to demand an explanation and want to read on to get it. It must arouse instant interest. It must create suspense! Like a mystery play, it must not tell the reader the answer at the beginning. It must develop rapidly, lucidly, increasing the interest, toward the final solution or answer. It must hold the interest until the story is told.

The advertising headline should, when possible, make people say either: “I’ve always wondered about that!” or, “I never thought of that—say, that’s interesting—I want to know the answer!!”

I learned in those early days to put a story flow into the text of an advertisement, holding the interest of readers to learn the answer. An ad of this nature may contain hundreds, or even thousands, of wordsand people will be glued to it until they have read it all.

I remember an incident that happened many years later.

This was in 1925, when I had established an advertising service of my own in Portland, Oregon. One of my clients was a laundry in Vancouver, Washington. I had a number of other clients in Vancouver—a retail clothing store, a jewelry store, a large drugstore and others. One of the banks had installed a new safety deposit department with new vaults and safety deposit boxes. The president of the bank called me in.

“Mr. Armstrong,” he began, “we have noticed the attractive and compelling ads you have prepared for clients here in Vancouver, and we would like to retain your services to prepare a short campaign to announce the opening of our new department.”

“Now,” he continued, apologetically, “we think your ads are fine—they certainly stand out—they’re interesting—but we have just one criticism. We think those ads you write for the laundry are too long—too many words. People won’t read so many words in an ad.”

“Well now, Mr. Jones,” I replied, “in the first place, your advertising requires entirely different advertising treatment, because you have a totally different advertising problem. The laundry is up against adverse public opinion, and suspicion in regard to supposed harmful laundry methods. Their problem requires what we call ‘educational advertising.’ It must educate women to the true facts—it must change public opinion. This requires more words—totally different advertising treatment.

“But, as to whether people ever read so many words, I wonder if you remember an ad of a month ago, captioned, ‘Is Mother Worth Saving?’”

“Why, yes!” he replied quickly. “Yes, I do remember that ad very well. That was unusually interesting.”

“How much of it did you read?”

“Oh, I read all of it,” he responded. “It aroused my curiosity, and I couldn’t stop till I found the answer.”

“Well, Mr. Jones, how many other ads do you remember reading in that same edition of the newspaper?”

“Why—why—“ he stammered, “I—I don’t remember reading any others.”

“Exactly!” I had won my point. “That ad was the longest, wordiest ad in that newspaper—and yet it’s the only one you remember reading, and you read it clear through! Moreover, it is the longest ad I ever wrote!”

“Yes,” he protested, “but that ad was interesting!”

“That’s just the point,” I concluded. “If what you write is sufficiently interesting—if it has created suspense, and holds the interest or even increases it as the reader is led along through it—people will read it all the way through, no matter how long.

“It is not a matter of how long an ad is, or how many words; it is altogether a matter of whether you have been able to catch readers’ attention, arouse their interest, and hold that interest. How many words are there in a complete novel? Yet the book stores sell such thick books by the millions—and people read them clear through!”

That is the principle I was taught under Mr. Boreman and Mr. Miles, between ages 20 and 23.

Applying All These Principles Now

The principles that make for effective advertising copy, which I began learning during those three years, apply also in broadcasting and in magazine writing, as well as in straight advertising copy.

Let me add here that, in advertising, there are different types of merchandising problems. The ads I wrote for the laundry required educational advertising. They had to reeducate the public in regard to laundry methods. They had to remove prejudices, create confidence, change habits.

But perhaps most advertising is in the field called convenience goods. This includes such products as toothpaste, shaving cream or soaps, cigarettes, where popularizing a brand name is the objective. This depends more on repetition than on lengthy educational copy. Such ads have few words.

I have been amused by the problems confronting the writers of cigarette ads. With the restrictions imposed by laws, there is not much an ad writer can say about a cigarette, anyway. I have marveled at the hundreds of millions of dollars spent saying nothing that means anything about cigarettes. The “kick the habit” commercials (1971) by the cancer society, however, seem really to have had a message.

I was to learn, later in life, that far more people will listen to a solid half-hour all-speech radio program applying these principles, than will listen to a one-minute dry talk or commercial that arouses no interest. For many years, the World Tomorrow program has enjoyed highest ratings of listener-interest on most stations we use—and second highest on most others. That is in comparison to all programs in most markets around the world where we are heard. The various editors of the Plain Truth magazine and our other publications have received training in these same principles in Ambassador College. And that is one reason why the Plain Truth is so avidly read, and its circulation continues growing so phenomenally, while other leading mass-circulation magazines are in deep financial difficulties, and several have gone out of publication. Plain Truth and Good News articles and the correspondence course lessons are interesting—they say something, and say it in a manner extremely easy to read!

But, to return to the story.

Mr. Miles had, perhaps, the snappiest, fastest-moving style of copywriting I have ever read. I thought it was too fast—too many short, terse sentences. Long sentences tend to slow down the reader. Short sentences tend to speed him up. But when writing consists of nothing but a succession of overly short, terse, staccato sentences, it becomes monotonous and unnatural. I strove for a style that gave change of pace! A proper balance between quick, short sentences, and occasional longer ones.

To hold a mass readership, writing should be reasonably crisp and lucid, not “dry” or slow. But a monotony of very short, terse sentences seemed to me to lack sincerity, and writing should, above all, be sincere!

In any event, this early training resulted in literally thousands of letters during recent years from radio listeners and readers of the Plain Truth saying that the facts are being made more plain, more clear and understandable than they ever heard them before! Today that early training serves and helps millions of people all over the world!

But there is another principle in advertising even more important than any of these. That is to be honest—to stick to the truth!

I attended many Ad Club luncheons, and even the national Ad Club conventions, during the many years I spent in the advertising field. From the start I was much impressed by the Associated Advertising Club’s slogan: “TRUTH in Advertising.”

But do you really know how much truth there is in most commercial advertising today? If you knew how little, you’d be shocked.

I spent 20 years in the advertising field. I got to know advertising men. The average advertising man, preparing to write advertising copy, searches for what ideas or statements he might make about his product that will cause the public to buy. It never seems to occur to most advertising men to check up and see whether the statements or claims are true! If a certain claim or statement about the product will sell it, the adman grabs it and makes that claim in his copy with enthusiasm.

You will see, later in this autobiography, that when I became a publishers’ representative in Chicago, I built a business on honesty that produced confidence. The advertising agencies, the banks and the manufacturers with whom I did business came to know that I knew my field—I had the facts they needed—and that I was accurate and truthful, and they could rely on whatever I told them.

Another principle I was taught is this: “A customer is more profitable than a single sale.” Win the confidence of a customer through honesty and integrity, and many repeat sales will come your way without selling expense.

One other ingredient is absolutely necessary, along with telling the truth. And that is sincerity!

I Was Never Insincere

I was never insincere. True, I had swung from a sense of inferiority, to one of supreme self-confidence.

But I was entirely sincere. Usually a bragging, conceited young lad who is cocky, is also an insincere flippant smart aleck. I was not. It seems I was, by nature, deeply sincere and in earnest, and although excessively self-confident, even snappy and cocky in manner, there was always with it a sense of earnestness and dignity. At least I thought I was right, and in my heart meant to be. Human nature wants to be good—but seldom does it want to do good. That natural desire in one to wish to consider himself good, I suppose, led to an attitude of sincerity.

Later, God had to take the self-confidence, conceit and cockiness out of me. He replaced it with a different kind of confidence—an unbounded faith in God. I have far more assurance for the future today than I had then—many times over. But today it is based on what God is going to do—not what I am able to do.

All these are the principles I was taught under Mr. Boreman and Mr. Miles during the three years with the Merchants Trade Journal. I owe them much.

In the service department of the Merchants Trade Journal I was sent on occasional trips to places like Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Albert Lea, Minnesota; and others, selling ads I had prepared to manufacturers.

I remember vividly, at this point, a trip of this kind to Waterloo. I think it was a refrigerator account. I worked carefully on the advertising copy and layout in the hotel, then went over to see the manufacturer. This, I believe, was the first magazine display ad I ever sold.

What a thrill it was! As I walked from the factory back to the hotel, I was floating on air! Ah, sweet success! It was elation! Thrills ran all through me!

Playing With a Million Dollars

The Journal regarded a Waterloo department store merchant as one of the best merchandisers in the nation. His name was Paul Davis. There were two department stores in Waterloo—the James Black Co. and the Paul Davis store. The Black store was the older, established and larger, but the Davis company was catching up.

Then Paul Davis had a fire. His store was totally destroyed. The next time I was in Waterloo, after his misfortune, I found the Paul Davis store in temporary quarters in a two-story building in the middle of a block. It was only a fraction the size of the department store occupying a prominent corner that had burned down. At that time, Mr. Davis said he was planning to build a new building, larger than the Black Co. store.

But on my next visit, some six months later, there was no sign of any new building activity.

“What happened to that big new quarter-block multiple-story building you were going to erect?” I asked.

“Oh, that!” Mr. Davis laughed. By this time he called himself my “second Daddy.” “Well, I’m not going to build it for a while yet. I’m having a lot of fun. I have one cool million dollars, cash, in the bank. It’s the insurance money. It was no time at all until every manufacturer in New York knew we had that million dollars cash. Every time a manufacturer gets overloaded with some stock, or needs to raise some quick money, he comes or sends a representative out here to Waterloo. I am able to buy chunks of merchandise in this manner, by sharp trading, at far less than any competitors. Then I put on a big sale. I take a small profit, cut the price way down, and the public simply streams into our little two-floor store here. We have low overhead. We have a small inventory, compared to what we carried in the bigger store. We sell fast, turn our stock more times a year. And the secret of success is not the total volume of sales, but turnover—the number of times you turn your stock a year—the number of times you make a profit on the same capital!

“I find that money attracts money! That’s a principle of life. Don’t ever forget it! Truly, ‘to him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath!’ I can do things with a million dollars cash I never dreamed could be done. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying it! No, I’m not going to put that million into a new store building right away. I’m going to keep it in the bank, and working for me a little while longer!”

I never did forget the lessons this successful merchant, Paul Davis, taught me.

Soon after this, I became “the Idea Man” of the Merchants Trade Journal. I was sent on long trips, either to the Atlantic Coast or to the Gulf of Mexico and back, interviewing merchants, businessmen and chamber of commerce secretaries, looking for ideas and material for articles in the magazine.

On one of these trips, a challenge from an angry merchant resulted in what I believe was the pioneer experience in all these surveys and samplings of public opinion. So far as I know, I was the originator of such polls.