History of advertising: No 96: John E Powers' Wanamaker ads

Calling John E Powers the father of modern creative advertising is no hyperbole.

History of advertising: No 96: John E Powers' Wanamaker ads

Nor is it any exaggeration to proclaim him the pioneer of tell-it-like-it-is copywriting.

Born in 1837, Powers might arguably lay claim to being the world’s first full-time copywriter. He was stern and reticent, with a penchant for plain speaking that didn’t endear him to many people.

Even his one-time employer, the department store owner John Wanamaker, described him as "the most impudent man" he had seen.

His style was epitomised in one of his most famous ads for Wanamaker. Asked to create something to get rid of the store’s surplus of "rotten gossamers" (light gauze-like fabrics), Powers simply wrote: "We have a lot of rotten gossamers and things we want to get rid of."

On the day the ad appeared, Wanamaker’s customers had bought the store’s entire gossamer surplus by noon.

Later, when hired by a near-bankrupt Pittsburgh clothing company, he told his client: "There’s only one way out. Tell the truth."

His resulting ad read: "We are bankrupt. This announcement will bring our creditors down on our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow, we shall have the money to meet them. If not, we will go to the wall." Impressed by the directness of the ad, people rushed to save the store.

The ad showed his passion for telling the truth at a time when advertising had little regard for it. He limited his copy to 100 words and used neither illustrations nor fancy adornments. "Fine writing is not only intellectual, it is offensive," he once declared.


Subscribe to Campaign from just £57 per quarter

Includes the weekly magazine and quarterly Campaign IQ, plus unrestricted online access.


Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

Just published