Learning From Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising

Scientific Advertising was written in 1923 by Claude Hopkins, one of the great advertising pioneers. David Oglivy, who has often been called “The Father of Advertising” has said this about the book: “Nobody, at any level, should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times”.

It’s a short read, only about 90 pages, but is packed with valuable lessons. The techniques focus on direct mail advertising, and while the book has been written a while back the same methodologies should still be applicable today because it is not technology that rules the outcome of business, but human nature–and that never changes.

Here are the lessons I found most valuable, along with a few select quotes.


You should think of your ad as a salesman, not just an advertisement on a piece of paper or a screen. It’s not text, pictures and video–it’s something that will sell your product–a distributed salesman if you will. This idea has a major implication.

When you’re creating your advertising, think back to what a salesman would do in the situation. In other words, would they scream at the top of their lungs as loud headlines do? Would they wear extremely decorative costumes as some ads do? Would they have little to say from the fear that you don’t have the time or desire to listen?

No. A salesman would be serious, yet approachable. They want your money, so it is no place for entertainment. They will dress well, but not over the top. They will talk to you in a friendly manner, not scream. They will explain the product in as much detail as necessary–after all, if the prospect is interested, more information will be necessary to help them make their mind, and close the sale.

Hopkins focuses on direct mail advertising which is where serious ads work best. The attractive and attention seeking ads you see on TV and in magazines are a different sort of ad. They tend to focus on growing the brand presence. They work, but it’s more difficult to measure how effective such ads are at actual sales. In direct mail marketing you can track the conversion rate of your ads, giving you an accurate performance metric.

But again, these ads differ in that when you see a magazine ad you’re unlikely to stop reading and purchase the item. When you’re reading a direct mail ad you will be compelled to make a purchase or request a trial there and then. If we are to apply the above to Internet marketing, we’ll get a similar split: banner ads across sites that increase awareness of brands even if they don’t lead to a direct purchase right away, and actual websites for the product that describe all its features and benefits and give you the means to buy them.

So the advice to keep ads long and serious and focused on the product applies more to the latter case. Of course there are examples of very profitable businesses with fun, even silly, marketing (Carbonmade and Mailchimp come to mind), but I still think the core point is very powerful–that of thinking of the ad as a salesman, and so working hard at doing what a salesman would do to sell your product.

There is one simple way to answer many advertising questions. Ask yourself, “Would it help a salesman sell the goods?” “Would it help me sell them if I met a buyer in person?”

A fair answer to those questions avoid countless mistakes. But when one tries to show off, or does things merely to please himself, he is little likely to strike a chord which leads people to spend money.

Free trials

The cheapest form of advertising in many cases is free trials. Give your potential customers the product to try, or a sample, and if they like, they can buy the full thing or simply pay for what you’ve already given, if that’s already the full product. Many advertisers are afraid to use samples or free trials because they seem expensive–you’re giving away products for free.

And they are expensive, but you have to weigh that against the cost of other forms of advertising: spending countless money on banners and ads that may or may not pay off. In terms of effectiveness, free trials tend to outperform every other form of advertising, which makes them very cost effective.

Never give away free trials to people who aren’t interested in your product. If you’re giving away free trials to anyone and everyone then you will waste money by giving away product to people who have no intention to buy. So before you give away your product for free to try, make sure you’re talking to potential customers. Build up an air of anticipation and desire first. Make the prospect want your product before they’ve even tried it. Doing this will ensure your potential customers value the trial more.

Give samples to interested people only. Give them only to people who exhibit that interest by some effort. Give them only to people whom you have told your story. First create an atmosphere of respect, a desire, an expectation. When people are in that mood, your sample will usually confirm the qualities you claim.

Address the prospect

When you’re writing a sales pitch, make sure you’re talking the prospect and not a general crowd of people. You’re addressing someone in particular, someone who already has a need for your product. I especially like this little point Hopkins makes about headlines:

The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you can interest. You wish to talk to someone in a crowd. So the first thing you say is, “Hey there, Bill Jones” to get the right person’s attention.

Notice how we’re not addressing a crowd–we’re addressing one specific person in that crowd. Most people don’t have a need or desire to buy your product, and that’s OK, because chances are, you’re not selling to everyone. It’s also important to understand that your headline isn’t there to attract as many people as possible: it’s there to attract the right kinds of people. So while you could write a clever headline to attract more eyeballs, if the people aren’t interested in your product you’re wasting their time, and yours.

Be specific

Everyone claims their product is good, or even the best. Everyone claims their product is innovative, advanced, powerful, reliable, safe, easy etc. These things don’t mean very much because everyone says them. Even if you believe the claim, the impact of the claim is very weak. Being specific–very specific–strengthens the perception of any claim.

In the old days all beers were advertised as “Pure.” The claim made no impression. The bigger the type used, the bigger the folly. After millions had been spent to impress a platitude, one brewer pictured a plate glass where beer was cooled in filtered air. He pictured a filter of white wood pulp through which every drop was cleared. He told how bottles were washed four times by machinery. How he went down 4,000 feet for pure water. How 1,018 experiments had been made to attain years to give beer that matchless flavor. And how all the yeast was forever made from that adopted mother cell.

All claims were such as any brewer might have made. They were mere essentials in ordinary brewing. But he was the first to tell the people about them, while others cried merely “pure beer”. He made the greatest success that was ever made in beer advertising.

This reminds me of how Apple market their products, especially the latest line of “unibody” notebooks. When they first released the new MacBook Pro created from a solid piece of aluminum, they really emphasized this fact. They created a video to show the manufacturing process and explain why this new design is so good. It makes the product more attractive because it pushes the message that it’s not just a pretty design on the outside, it’s really thought out on the inside, too. I don’t know how great and revolutionary the manufacturing processes are at other PC makers, but now I know about Apple’s because they’re the only ones who told me about it.


Like everything else, pictures must fight for their place in advertising, and it need not be said that superfluous imagery has no place in it.

But the picture must help sell the goods. It should help more than anything else could do in like space, else use that something else.

Whether images or video, these advertising materials have to serve a purpose–they have to sell the product better than text could do in the same space, and only then should they be used. That’s not to say pictures are any weaker than text–in many cases they are stronger. If you’re selling anything visual–a computer, a piece of software, a car, clothes–pictures and videos will help demonstrate the product much better than text could.

Using color to attract attention or amuse? Don’t bother unless it attracts the right kind of attention. As mentioned before, we’re not trying to attract a crowd–we’re trying to attract interested prospects, people who are interested in your product, so using color merely to attract attention or amuse should not be done. Of course the big advantage of the digital era is that what used to be expensive in direct mail advertising, ink and space, is now free on a computer screen. This gives us a lot more freedom to work with, but as anything, less restraint means more opportunity to steer of course, so keep your eyes focused on the target.

Standing out

A mail order advertiser had a catalog. He needed a way to make it stand out from the rest since his clients probably had two or three similar catalogs from his competitors. Here’s what he did:

So he wrote a letter when he sent his catalog, and enclosed a personal card. He said, “You are a new customer, and we want to make you welcome. So when you send your order please enclose this card. The writer wants to see that you get a gift with order–something you can keep.”

With an old customer he gave some other reason for the gift. The offer aroused curiosity. It gave preference to his catalog. Without some compelling reason for ordering elsewhere, the woman sent the order to him. The gift paid for itself several times over by bringing larger sales per catalog.

Another way to stand out is to show individuality. If you have some authority, use that authority in your business. There’s another Apple example that came to mind when reading the chapter on individuality, and that’s how they marketed their new iMovie software. Anyone could have demoed the software–it could have been Steve Jobs, who is a phenomenal salesman himself. But Jobs chose the developer of this software to present it himself on stage. Here’s the man who made this new release, and he’ll share with you why it’s so good. This gives the message a lot more authority. You know this guy knows what he’s talking about, and that he cares about what he has to say.


Hopkins raises a lot more points in the book, but it all boils down to one thing: testing. Scientific Advertising is a way of thinking about advertising. Advertising is not an exercise in throwing money at arty banners. It’s a tool to make money–a safe tool at that if executed correctly. Testing your campaigns allows you to find out what works in your market and what doesn’t. It allows you to fine tune your message and optimize its performance in the market. It allows you to kill off bad ideas so they’re no longer a money drain. It lets you advertise in a way that’s safe because the campaign has been tested, rather than throw the creatives you like at the market in the hope that it will work.

If it’s not possible to test, then you should learn from the campaigns of the past to see what methods work best, and apply them. For example, the things I’ve mentioned above like free trials, being specific, speaking from authority, have all been proven in the market, so making use of them should provide a decent start. Today, email marketing software like MailChimp offers tools to run A/B split tests, and services like Google Website Optimizer let you run the same for your website. Don’t leave money on the table by not using these opportunities.

December 2010