Selling the Sell

Good, bad or ugly, when it comes to advertising, ­influencing purchase behaviour is the name of the game

MOST PEOPLE WILL readily recognize the name John F. Kennedy. American president, king of Camelot and all that. Less well-known is John E. Kennedy.

He was a Canadian-born former Northwest Mounted Police officer who once wrote ad copy for the Hudson’s Bay Company and became one of the early giants of the advertising world.

Armed with a magnificent 19th-century ­moustache and the firm belief that advertising must be “salesmanship in print”, he insisted it must actively sell the product, not just describe it or suggest its potential utility.

When Kennedy shared his insight with print advertising pioneer Albert Lasker in Chicago in 1905, it came as a revelation. Lasker was already one of the top ad men in the country, but he embraced Kennedy’s beliefs with a passion.

John E. went on to explain that to simply “put your name in front of the public” was both ­expensive and ineffective in driving sales. Advertising must do more than identify the product. It must give prospects compelling reasons why they should buy it, and convince them it’s a better value than the competition’s offerings.

Albert Lasker is often referred to as the Father of Modern Advertising because of the ­incredible success of the dozens of products that came under his creative eye. And he made no secret of his admiration for Kennedy and his singular insight. After all, it made him tens of millions back in the day when the tax man took only a nibble.

The list of the products Lasker used Kennedy’s idea to build into world-beaters is long and impressive. To name just a few: Sunkist orange juice, Kleenex tissues, Palmolive dish soap, Van Camp’s Pork and Beans, Lucky Strike ­cigarettes, Quaker Puffed Wheat (shot from guns!), Goodyear Tires, Sun-Maid Raisins, Pepsodent toothpaste and many more all became ­industry leaders and tremendously profitable under Lasker’s direction.

Having been inundated by advertising all of our lives, it’s easy to forget the industry as we know it today began to flourish only in the early days of the 20th century. But thanks to the ­success and support of Albert Lasker, Kennedy’s words (John E., not John F.) had a profound ­influence on much of the following 100 years.

At one point in my checkered career I worked in advertising, and that created a deep ­appreciation of the ingenuity needed to create the truly impactful ad—the one that really is salesmanship in print, online or on-air.

Ever wonder why so many ads appear ­uninspired or even annoying, yet come around again and again? Because they sell merchandise. Push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter if your ad is a work of art, stunning to look at, explores creative new uses of the English language or is done by Marcel Marceau. If it makes you money, it’s good. If it doesn’t, it makes no difference how impressive or inspired it is, it’s bad.

The only true test of an ad’s success can be summed up in four words and a question mark: Does it sell product?

Lots of business owners today enjoy doing their own advertising, especially when social media allows them to reach out directly to their customers in exciting and timely new ways. A lot of money is being spent by people who think they know how to reach potential customers. If you’re one of them, you ignore the story of Kennedy and Lasker at your peril.

Homemade or from a major agency, creative or plain-Jane, inspired or pedestrian, if your ­advertising isn’t actively “selling” your wares, you’re wasting your time. And money.

John E. Kennedy would not approve, either.  Jim Chapman