What Is Scientific Advertising? A Century Later, This Copywriting Bible Still Slaps

Claude Hopkins’ book on advertising, written in 1923, teaches you how to slice through a noisy internet landscape.

Do you want to improve your social media advertising, leverage human psychology, and sharpen your marketing approach?

Would understanding how readers and consumers behave help you create content and feel more confident when it comes time to sell?

The good news is that the fundamentals of sales writing and conversion copywriting haven’t changed much over the last 100 years. Master the basics and you’ll be able to turn words into dollars on command.

This post will cover the most important takeaways of one of the most influential writing books of all time. Let’s dig in.

scientific-advertising

What Is Scientific Advertising?

Scientific Advertising, written by Claude Hopkins in 1923, spawned a new era of writing and marketing. Lauded by many legendary marketers and copywriters of the 20th century, including agency king David Ogilvy and legendary copywriter Gary Halbert, its message has only become more relevant in the digital age.

When it comes to influence and sales, the pillars of persuasion outlined in Scientific Advertising have remained largely the same over a hundred years. (The book is also public domain and you can read it in its entirety for free.) We’ll touch on what those pillars are in just a moment.

Controversy still brews over whether our attention spans have actually shortened, but opportunities to fracture our concentration — whether they be endless social media feeds or nagging push notifications — have certainly risen with the proliferation of the smartphone.

Writers are now tasked with capturing the undivided attention of readers faster and more intensely than ever before. By following the rules of science and psychology, your message can reach a much larger audience.

scientific-advertising

“Why Should I Care About Advertising Copy? I Just Wanna Createeeeee”

Real talk: If you ignore human psychology and the method by which information travels on the internet… your content isn’t going to be seen by anyone.

I get it:

➡️ You’re excited (and also a litte nervous) about putting yourself out there

➡️ You know that your area of expertise can help people and that they are looking for someone like you to help them

➡️ And perhaps your previous (or current) profession was sitting in a cubicle and having your creative ideas stifled all day long

So now you want to be free free freeeeeeee to write, say, and do whatever the hell you want, damnit!

Please be cautious here. Otherwise, you’re gonna end up like this guy, but instead of being on a late-night talk show, you’ll be sitting in your living room talking to a wall.

To write words that effectively sell your services, programs, and products, you need to leverage human psychology. Advertising guru David Ogilvy knew this well, which is why his approaches have stood the test of time for decades.

You need to focus more on how your readers will behave and what they want, rather than what you want.

Good copywriting is selfless. It is obsessed with what readers want, think, and feel.

Scientific Advertising encapsulates these principles beautifully. So here are 5 takeaways you’ll want to be aware of before you explore your next written marketing or advertising campaign.

Scientific Advertising Takeaway #1: Clarity Trumps Persuasion

It can be tempting to slide into industry jargon or fancy language, but often this attempt to come off as smart or commanding backfires. As Hopkins says: “Fine talkers are rarely good salesmen.”

When your reader has to strain to keep up, they lose interest and move on. It’s on you to keep them engaged. An example shown in Scientific Advertising displays the following advert from Mead Cycle Company:

In case that image is hard on your eyes, here’s the text of the first paragraph:

“Try before you buy. Select the bicycle you prefer from the 44 styles, colors and sizes in the famous “Ranger” line. We send it on approval and 30 DAYS TRIAL, freight paid to your town. Return if not pleased and the trial costs you nothing.”


So boring. But so clear! The owner of Mead Cycle Company once stated that this particular advertisement was so lucrative he didn’t change a single word. 💰

You are your own best salesperson, but that doesn’t mean you should tell readers your entire life story for context. Keep it about them!

Takeaway: Add charm or detail later; your first objective in tighter writing is to communicate the value proposition quickly and well.

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Scientific Advertising Takeaway #2: Find Ways To Gauge Reader Interest

⁉️ Pop quiz: Which title is better – A or B? If you don’t have a way to measure your results and determine the answer, marketing is going to be tough.

We’re blessed to have a tremendous number of feedback loops on writing at our fingertips, such as page views on a website, book sales, or email newsletter opens. Remember: Numbers help you improve your writing.

Scientific Advertising was one of the earliest books to tout the benefits of split testing, in which you test two or more variables in a marketing campaign.

For most writers, their first encounter with split testing is in email marketing; most email list software will allow you to send different subject lines of the same newsletter to your list, which lets you see which subject line gets a better engagement rate.

Mr. Hopkins measured feedback through coupon redemption rates and tracked phone calls; this is how split testing was done a century ago. Lucky for you, you only have to press a few buttons to create a similar feedback loop.

Takeaway: Harvest feedback, then do more of what works.

Scientific Advertising Takeaway #3: Know How Human Brains Are Wired

Human motivation hasn’t changed much over the last hundred years. Neither has direct response marketing. This is good news for us, because as Mr. Hopkins notes, once you learn principles of human psychology you’ll never have to unlearn them.

Here are a few specific advertising techniques recommended in chapter six of Scientific Advertising:

Curiosity


When you pique interest with unexpected and exciting details, you capture readers’ attention and get them more emotionally invested in your work. Great advertising pioneers swear by this rule.

Guarantees


Humans like to stay on defense – especially when considering a purchase or investment. The opportunity to try a product risk-free erodes natural defense mechanisms in a buyer’s mind.

Samples


In a series of fascinating examples, Hopkins found that when advertisements were structured so that the consumer could get a free sample by taking initiative – rather than a spokesperson pandering the sample first – engagement improved.

It’s kind of a paradox, really: People don’t want to be sold to, but they love to shop and buy.
Mattress company Nectar uses the psychology of guarantee to great effect. When Nectar wants to sell you a mattress, they offer you a 365-day trial, more than 3 times their industry competitors.

One version of their advert headline reads: “Which of these sounds better to you, a 100-day trial or a 365-day trial?” Nectar also uses the tagline “Take a year”. It’s a simple, emotionally arresting jingle rooted in psychology.

Even as photography, videography, and other forms of content production rise in popularity, these psychological triggers run the show behind the scenes and are delivered well through writing.

Scientific Advertising Takeaway #4: Relieve The Tension I Experience Now

The unfortunate truth is that it’s much easier to identify a consumer’s pain and offer to remove it than it is to encourage precautionary measures. This doesn’t mean you have to be all doom and gloom, but you do want to elicit tension in some way when writing for others.

Always keep this marketing maxim in mind: “Painkiller, not vitamin.”

Many of Scientific Advertising’s examples still apply today.

🦷 Toothpaste ads that promise whiter teeth outperform ones that tout the continued prevention of cavities.

🧼 Soaps that promise more radiant, glowing skin will always outperform a headline like “keep clean”.

To encourage readers to act now and not later, focus on present-day inconveniences and how your product, program or service alleviates the trouble. This straetgy results in more profitable ads, higher cost effectiveness, and more targeted advertising spend.

Scientific Advertising Takeaway #5: Stories Feel Familiar

A Nielsen report found that Americans spend an astonishing 11 hours and 27 minutes each day consuming media, a number that has risen year after year. That’s because media prioritizes stories and stories captivate us, whether we’re paying with our dollars or our time.

Scientific Advertising notes that it’s an advertiser’s job to sell a complete story or proposition within a single ad, and then let the consumer decide if they are for or against the proposition.

Hopkins also notes that, at $10 a word (about $151/word in today’s dollar), every word has to be a “super-salesman”. It sounds like every word also has to be a “super-storyteller”.
Whether you’re writing articles, social media captions, or advertisements, see if you can thread story into your writing.

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No matter your industry of expertise, it’s a valuable use of time to learn and master the strategies that persuade people to click and read. The principles in Scientific Advertising are timeless and proven; they’re good advertising strategies you can start putting in place for free today.

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A version of this article was originally written for Entrepreneur.com. Copyright 2020 by Entrepreneur Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Nick Wolny is a business and marketing strategist for entrepreneurs. Named a “40 Under 40” by the Houston Business Journal, he’s a contributor for Entrepreneur and Fast Company and a technology commentator for NBC and FOX with over 60 live TV appearances.

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