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Reality in advertising

My father gave me a first edition (1961) copy of Rosser Reeves ‘Reality in Advertising’ for Christmas. Reeves was the president of Ted Bates from 1940 to 1965 and is best known as – if not the inventor, then certainly the definer – of the USP (Unique Selling Proposition). He was a copywriter who became a colossus of advertising throughout the 50s when TV ads were at the peek of their power. Apparently some aspects of Mad Men’s Donald Draper where based on Reeves’ career.

I like reading these old books about the industry (I’ve unearthed a few more gems from my father’s bookshelves in the last few days) because it’s fun to compare how much has changed with how much hasn’t. And often the latter outweighs the former.

Legend has it that Reeves’ career began to tank in the 60s when his particular style of no-nonsense, ‘ram it home’ sloganizing lost favour to the new Bill Bernbach style of more clever and subtle ‘art’ ads which appealed to a younger and more jaded audience.

But there is some interesting back-to-basics value in Reeves’ ideas when you read them today. If Reeves was concerned about the ‘artyness’, self indulgence and abstraction of advertising in 1960, imagine what he would think now.

By his definition, the USP meant that all ads should include a proposition (if you buy this you will get this); that this proposition has to be unique (if yours isn’t the only product that can make this claim, then it has to be the first that does) and that proposition has to be something that people care about enough to go out and buy, i.e. it has to sell. (Reeves was a firm believer that advertising doesn’t create desires it has to tap into pre-existing human needs.)

Now, I, like any of us, have been aware of the idea of the USP ever since drafting my first business plan, but after reading Reeves’ definition I’ve been curious about trying to apply it as a filter to today’s advertised products and see if we can’t use it to weed out some of the crap.

Perhaps more powerful and interesting as a secondary effect of Reeves’ faith in the USP was his belief that if a product did not have one then it probably shouldn’t be on the market. He was famous for sending clients away saying don’t waste your money with us, until you have a better product, and often working with them to improve said product until a viable USP emerged. Perhaps more advertising people today should shed their cynicism and be so honest instead of cashing the cheque and flogging dead horses onto our supermarket shelves.

Reeves believed that products should live and die on their quality and that advertising was simply there to communicate that quality efficiently and effectively. He was also known for saying that nothing will kill a bad product faster than a good advertising campaign, because people will more quickly learn that the promise in the ad does not hold up.

For Reeves, and Ted Bates at the time, there was only one measure for the success of an ad campaign and this was what they called ‘usage pull’. ‘Usage pull’ was quite precisely calculated as the percentage difference between customers who had seen the ad and customers who hadn’t. This percentage being a measure of how many people were ‘pulled-across’ by the advertising as opposed to those who found the product themselves through word-of-mouth or other means and therefore would be customers whether the ads ran or not.

I love the purity and simplicity of this. It appeals to me to forget the vast quantity of qualitative research that is done in favour of a large-scale quantitative study which asks only two questions: have you seen the ad and have you bought the product? 

Ted Bates made a fortune for themselves and their clients for several decades based on this kind of research. Granted it was a different era but I would like to think that there is still clarity and merit in this simplicity: the ad is there to clearly and persuasively communicate the inherent benefits of the product. If the product is selling the same amount to people who have never seen the ad, then the ad is either not good enough or not needed.

We lead ourselves to believe that marketing and branding are so much more complicated these days. But really great products are undeniably easier to advertise than mediocre ones (think Apple vs pretty much any other consumer electronics ad).

A lot of the over complication in marketing consumer goods these days (which would not have existed so much in Reeves’ time) comes from what Rob Walker describes as the ‘pretty good problem’ in his wonderful book ‘Buying In – Who we are and what we buy’. The pretty good problem means that most products for sale today do their job pretty well. Variations of price, quality and value are fairly easily deciphered while browsing the supermarket shelves and it is rare for a new product to enter the market head-and-shoulders above the rest. In the developed world, pretty much everyone can have access to a pretty good range of pretty good products, pretty much all the time.

I like to ponder the idea that as it gets harder to capture audiences’ attention with advertising, it gets harder to sell products unless they really do have a captivating and relevant differentiating feature. No more bad ads. No more unnecessary products. (Does anyone really want or need another shampoo with real fruit extracts and ‘strengthening proteins’?)

Reeves was adamant that advertising could only sell products with genuine merit (“A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen!”). But he also believed that advertising was important in a quite broad and noble sense. He saw a great ad campaign as being a way to give strength to the underdog by creating a situation where:

 “The entrenched companies are forced to defend their own brands...this cannot be done with words. They must improve their products. This they do, and counter merchandising begins. Still better products emerge.”

To him, advertising was essential to the cycle of product evolution bringing advantage to the consumer and dynamics to the whole economy. 

We don’t tend to view the profession with anything like this sort of importance or respectability today. Most of the general public think advertising people are a little bit evil and that ads in general are something to be avoided lest they corrupt the mind. Most of us in the industry could go home a lot earlier at night if our work had anything like the power that it is credited with.

So in my imagined world — where ads are easy to avoid and therefore ineffective unless they are really of interest to the consumers — products are only launched if they are significantly better than what already exists and Reeves’ version of ads that are just about delivering information that sells, seems to look more relevant.

Sure, there are a lot of other activities and opportunities at our disposal today to build brand recognition, enhance reputation and plant ideas about our products into the psychs of our audience (and we should continue to use and perfect these opportunities). But wouldn’t it be nice if ads, in the traditional sense — be they on TV, the internet, print, posters or iphone apps — just told us good, clear information about why we should buy the product? Perhaps it’s just me but I would find this much less annoying than the plethora of strategy-flaunting, concept ads that dominate our media today. 

This doesn’t mean that ads can’t or shouldn’t be clever, fascinating, beautiful. More than ever they need to be all three. But I would like them to actually tell me something useful about the product rather than just expecting me to respond, monkey-see-monkey-do, to images of some sort of life-style ideal. (This underwear will help me ‘feel more like me’. Really?)

‘Reality in Advertising’ is worth a read if you can get hold of a copy (it is out of print). You won’t agree with everything Reeves says but he doesn’t mince words when it comes to his opinion of most advertising that was contemporary to him so it’s sobering to turn his thoughts on to today’s industry and see how much worse it has gotten in many ways.

Here are a few of my favourite extracts:


“There is a finite limit to what a consumer can remember about 30,000 advertised brands…It is as though he carries a small box in his head for a given product category. This box is limited either by his inability to remember or his lack of interest...When one campaign goes in, it must displace one that is already in there.”

“The better product, advertised equally, will win in the long run.”

“The USP is not a tight, closed structure. A USP is an end result. It is a totality projected by an advertisement. It is a fluid procedure rather than an arrangement of static elements. It is what comes through. It is what is played back. The creative man can let his imagination run riot, for a USP may be realized through a complex of visual and verbal elements.”


“...there is an incredibly long list of proved desires out of which we can evolve a diversity of creative, and imaginative campaigns. We know, for example, that we do not want to be fat. We do not want to smell bad. We want healthy children, and we want to be healthy ourselves. We want beautiful teeth. We want good clothes. We want people to like us. We do not want to be ugly. We seek love and affection. We want money. We like comfort. We yearn for more beautiful homes. We want honesty, self-respect, a place in the community. We want to own things in which we can take pride. We want to succeed in our jobs. We want to be secure in our old age.”

“We cannot do without words, which are the content, and we would be foolish to not to try for the image, which is the form. It is admittedly difficult in advertising to achieve both...But the best theoretical objective is to surround the claim with the feeling.”

“Of course copywriters like to swing ‘way out’. It’s lots more fun out there...The writer, being human, would naturally like to define creativity in his own terms. He is likely to regard his client’s budget as a canvas on which he can paint according to his own whim. He would be wiser to approach advertising more as a designer, say, of jet planes, who knows that the end result may still be beautiful, but that the plane must fly.”

Kate Leury Nielsen 2011

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