History of advertising: No 158: Claude Hopkins' Scientific Advertising

"The time has come when advertising has, in some hands, reached the status of a science. It is based on fixed principles and is reasonably exact. The causes and effects have been analysed until they are well understood."

At a time when attention spans are limited, millions of messages are delivered via all kinds of devices and ad campaigns are tested almost to destruction, this may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Yet Claude Hopkins had no benefit of hindsight when he wrote those words in his book, Scientific Advertising, when it was published 90 years ago.

Hopkins, however, was truly a man ahead of his time. Hailed an outstanding copywriter and strategist, he was as much a psychologist as an adman. And while the ways in which marketing communication operates may have changed, the principles of how products are marketed and sold have not changed since Hopkins first expounded them.

Indeed, Rosser Reeves was so profoundly influenced by Hopkins’ theories on selling that he honed and refined them to evolve the unique selling proposition, which involved creating a benefit for a product even if none existed.

Hopkins propounded many ideas that have a contemporary ring to them. He believed advertising existed only to sell and should be measured and justified by the results they produced.

And long before social media’s arrival, he was warning against advertising with a corporate tone and stressing the importance of companies taking a user-friendly approach in their communications.

Above all, Hopkins deplored advertising that tried to show off. "You are selling your product, not yourself," he warned agencies.

Things you need to know

  • Hopkins worked for several advertisers before being hired in 1907 by Albert Lasker, the owner of Lord & Thomas (the forerunner of Foote, Cone & Belding), for a breathtaking $185,000 a year.
  • For Pepsodent toothpaste, Hopkins "discovered" plaque before making another fortune by investing in the company.
  • An early episode of Mad Men features Peggy Olson preparing for her new career as a copywriter by reading Scientific Advertising.