When identifying the top print advertisements and best headlines in the last century of advertising, one written in 1926 by a young copywriter named John Caples, only one year on the job, is always part of the conversation. The ad is known by its headline, “They laughed when I sat down at the piano — but when I started to play!” His assignment was to entice people to buy piano lessons by correspondence from the U.S. School of Music. As inspiration he was given a pile of advertisements that worked, another pile that didn’t, and was left to attempt the task.
Under a picture of a young man at a party sitting down to play the piano, the headline set the stage and indeed summarized the story that was recounted in the body of the ad. The hero was ridiculed by the guests when he sat down, but the ridicule turned to accolades and applause when he begins to play, only a few months after starting the correspondence course. The ad was not only critically acclaimed but, more to the point, brought a lot of customers.
There is a lot to learn today from this ad. There was almost nothing about the offering or the learning process that surrounded it. Rather, the ad told a story in graphic detail about what happened to someone who took the correspondence course. A story, as we now know, is a powerful way to get people to engage, be involved and remember a message. And this was a captivating story.
There was a specific call to action. You could send in for a free brochure and sample lesson. Free! Think of all of the foot-in-the-door research that has shown that a small action step can lead to big commitment, and the fact that in the absence of an action step the response would have been much less.
Most remarkable, the ad shows that functional benefits are not the sweet spot of persuasion and communication. Rather, what grabs people are emotional, self-expressive and social benefits. There is the emotion felt not only by the piano player who excelled in a pressure context, but by those hearing the story that are bursting with pride that he did it. There is the self-expressive benefit, the ability of the person to express his talent, his perseverance, and his ability to face down doubters and those that ridiculed. And there is the social benefit when the man becomes not only accepted into a desirable reference group but also becomes an admired member.
Too often, brand strategists suffer from what I call the product-attribute fixation trap, whereby there is a compulsion to focus on attributes under the faulty assumption that people are rational and just want to know about attributes, functions and benefits. The breakthrough idea is that a brand is more than attributes and functional benefits: It involves personality, organizational associations, emotional benefits, self-expressive benefits, social benefits and more. When that is understood, the potential of creating deeper brand experiences and stronger brand/customer relationship will be realized.
One year after John Caples wrote that ad, he joined BBDO, where he enjoyed a career that extended well past a half-century. Amongst other things, he was one of the pioneers in ad research, published several books on advertising testing, became a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame, and was named by Ad Age as one of the top people of the century in advertising.
One of his tenets was to only use words you would expect to find in a fifth grade reader, because otherwise you will not reach the average American. Another was to avoid humor, because half of America lacks a sense of humor. Amazing start to an amazing career.