Summary and book review of “My Life in Advertising” : Claude Hopkins, a true pioneer of advertising and marketing, details in this book his life, including how he became one of the greatest advertising masters in the United States from the end of the 19th century until his retirement in 1923; My Life in Advertising is full of life lessons and teachings for effective advertising that are still valid today.
By Claude Hopkins, 1927, 210 pages (the current edition also includes My Life in Advertising & Scientific Advertising for a total of 318 pages)
Book review and summary of “My Life in Advertising”:
Note: With this review, I am introducing a radically different way to review books: rather than summarize them in a linear way, I will give you the gist – the ideas. What do you think of this new format? Let me know in the comments!
(This approach was inspired by Josh Kaufman, creator of the Personal MBA, who put it into practice in a recent article)
In the age of digital marketing and the frenzy of advertising on social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram, it’s interesting to see how some of the first advertising campaigns were born and who proposed them.
Caution is a determining factor of advertising. “Safety first” is their motto.
All disasters – not failures – in advertising are caused by recklessness, because no experience, however great, can guide us in most cases.
But ordinary advertising failures mean very little. They are expected. Loss is a trifle, for operations that are well conducted.
When Claude C. Hopkins lost, he lost little money and didn’t lose confidence at all. And when he won, he often earned millions for himself and his clients, as well as a great wealth of prestige for himself.
Knowing your prospects
Claude C. Hopkins felt blessed because he was poor when he was young. This allowed him to rub shoulders with the common people, to understand their desires, their hopes, their aspirations, their fears. These common people then became his clients, and the advertising he did for them worked because they recognized him as one of their own. He didn’t feel he could do advertising for the rich. And all the better because the poor make up 95% of the population.
Note: By “poor”, Hopkins means “who is not wealthy or rich”. In France, 90% of the population receives between 0 and 35,667 € per year, 9% between 35,667 € and 84,469 € per year, and only 1% more than 84,469 € per year. Of these 1%, only 0.1% of the overall population receives more than € 225,767 per year (INSEE statistics 2004-2007). The famous distribution law of 20/80 wealth is therefore fully applicable, and the reasoning of Hopkins applies well to the current French market, as to most Western markets.
The importance of assessing
Claude C. Hopkins’ father printed advertising posters, among other things. Hopkins would then see the advertisers and offer them to post their posters in every house in the city (there were a thousand) for $2. The other kids offered it for $1.50, but they kept some of the posters at their house, skipping the far-away homes.
Hopkins asked the advertisers to assess the results. He soon had a monopoly on the distribution of posters. This was his first experience with the traced results. That taught him that doing anything blindly is madness.
A good product is its best-seller
When Claude C. Hopkins was 10 years old, he was selling door-to-door polish made by his mother. He realized that he sold this polish to about one in ten women when he simply offered it from the doorstep. However, when he managed to get into the house and do a demonstration, he sold it almost every time.
That’s how he’s learned that a good product is his bestseller, and it’s vital that customers can try out samples, or test it in one way or another. It’s essential to demonstrate the effectiveness of a product in order to sell it.
Hopkins was the first to include samples in newspaper ads by inserting coupons allowing for a sample.
The importance of working hard
At 18, after having quarreled with his mother because she was a fundamentalist Christian and he wasn’t, he left to work on the fruit farm of his uncle, giving up the religious career that he was promised. This allowed him to put aside $100, as well as other savings. He needed $200 to attend classes at a business school.
His grandfather lived with his uncle and admired his work. There was another grandson in this house, Hopkins’s cousin, who worked as little as possible and had no savings. The grandfather had set aside $100 for his burial. He offered it to Hopkins provided that he finance the funeral when the time came. Of course, Hopkins agreed to this.
This triggered great opposition in his family, since he had just arrived at his uncle’s house. That said, Hopkins had been working, and already had $100 saved. So, he managed to get the help that changed his life. His cousin became a locomotive driver.
The worker and the saver get the preference of the men who control opportunities. Often, this preference is one of the most important things that can change your life.
Being part of those who make money rather than those who cost money
The business school turned out to be more of a joke than anything else, and Hopkins left after a few years to become an accountant in a business in Grand Rapids, a city in Michigan. He started as an assistant accountant, then became known for his hard work by the boss – real men judge us in terms of our ability to work, not because they like us, he says – and became an accountant. And he earned $75 a month and understood one important thing: his position no longer offered him the opportunity to go further.
He reasoned as follows: an accountant is an expense. In every company, all expenses are minimized. He could not earn more than any other accountant would. The high wages were given to the salesmen, or to the people who reduced the costs in the factories. They make companies’ profits and can therefore ask a reasonable proportion of these profits.
Claude C. Hopkins saw the difference between costing money to a company and making money for it. He decided to become one of those people who make money by making others money. He then took advantage of the opportunities presented in his company to write ads. And he soon realized that his humble beginnings gave him a considerable advantage: he knew how to talk to ordinary people, who make up the largest market.
The first great mistake of Hopkins’ life
Hopkins had great success in this endeavor. But he was nearing his limits at Grand Rapids. So, he was approached by a big Chicago company, who offered him a job. Ambition took hold of him. He became anxious to climb even higher.
He had a new house built in Grand Rapids. All his friends liked him and knew his status. He had prestige in the city. He knew that if he were to climb the social latter on his way to Chicago, he would have to sacrifice those things he loved the most.
These desires were right, according to the classic standards of success: ambition is everywhere applauded, but Hopkins often went back to Grand Rapids to envy his associates. They continued their quiet and comfortable life. Success and money came to them in moderation. However, in his turbulent life, as he later saw, Hopkins found no joy that they missed. Fame came to him, but he did not appreciate it. The money came, but he could never spend it with pleasure, being conservative in nature. His true inclination had always been towards quieter paths.
He met the Chicago company leaders and had to fight for them to recruit him. After convincing them and promising to start in three weeks, he returned to his home in Grand Rapids and saw his family on the porch. There was the shade of the trees dancing over it, and the garden was full of colorful flowers. He made a comparison with where he was going to live in Chicago. He regretted his action.
The price seemed too great to pay.
If he had not given his word, he would have turned his back on Chicago that morning to enjoy a quiet insignificance for the rest of his life.
And 30 years later, while writing My Life in Advertising, Hopkins thinks he should have turned his back on ambition that morning.
The power of a dramatic demonstration
His status in this big Chicago food company was quite different from his status in Grand Rapids: unknown, he was immediately taken in by the boss and had to work hard to prove himself.
To promote Cotosuet, a substitute for butter and one of the underdog products of the company – which struggled against a well-established competitor – he had the idea to make a dramatic demonstration of the product, just like what he had learned in his childhood and from the incredible demonstrations of charlatans who sold snake oil in the streets.
Note: Here is an example of a product sold on the streets of New York, with a live demonstration that leads many people to buy:
He took advantage of the upcoming opening of a new store to organize a great event: he booked a large display window in the store, went to see some bakers, and ordered from them the biggest cake in the world. Pure and simple. Obviously, it had to be made with Cotosuet and not with butter.
Hopkins then published half-page newspaper ads inviting everyone to come and see the world’s largest cake.
It was an incredible success. Thousands of people lined up to see the world’s largest cake. Police officers banned entry to people because the building was full. Cotosuet was sold in whole packs.
Hopkins successfully repeated the operation in many cities. As a result, he earned the respect of his employers.
How to use the free sample to penetrate a competitive market
Hopkins began working to sell Van Camp’s condensed milk, an agri-food business. Concentrated milk was a poorly differentiated product, subject to very strict standards, and some brands held certain sectors and were difficult to drive out because women naturally use the brands they know.
Hopkins then devised a plan to make Van Camp’s milk known. He designed an advertisement containing a coupon, valid in any grocery store, for a case of free condensed milk.
Then, before publishing the ad, he did two things:
- He published for 3 weeks an advertisement indicating when the coupon would be advertised
- He sent all the grocery stores a copy of these advertisements, telling them that they would be reimbursed for each coupon received, and that each of their customers would receive the coupons
It was obvious to the grocers that they had to have Van Camp condensed milk in stock: each coupon meant a sale, and if they did not have Van Camp milk in stock, those sales would go to their competitors.
Hopkins was thus successful in obtaining an instant mass distribution, as well as the sympathy of the grocers, who were very happy to make so many sales so easily.
It worked in every city where he implemented this strategy. In New York, the market was dominated by a competing brand. In 3 weeks, he managed, almost exclusively by sending mail, to secure 97% of the distribution.
And it worked equally to perfection on the customers. The ads created expectations and explained the story of Van Camp’s condensed milk, and the benefits of concentrated milk versus bottled milk. So, on a Sunday, the ad with the coupon was published in a single New York newspaper. In all, 1,460,000 coupons were presented. As the grocers had been paid 10 cents for each box of condensed milk, it cost Van Camp $146,000. But for the price, their milk was tried by 1,460,000 households.
The total cost of the operation in New York was $170,000. It became profitable in less than nine months. Van Camp had captured the New York market, and every year it sold millions of cases of condensed milk.
Successful advertising… turned into a disaster
Hopkins did several advertising campaigns for the emerging automobile industry. He worked for the Mitchell company, which needed him to get sales off the ground.
Mitchell Junior Car Model 1917
Hopkins, as usual, reflected at length on the subject, and studied the situation of the car at the time, the ideas of the moment, and trends. He saw that the biting point would be efficient. Efficiency was then a hot topic for businessmen (it has not changed much today 😉).
As Mitchell had an efficiency expert, and they had a very efficient plant, Hopkins created ads focused on “John W. Bate, Efficiency Expert”.
One of the advertisements written by Hopkins for Mitchell
This campaign caused a sensation. This was Hopkins’ most resounding success as a car advertiser. Sales started at an incredible rate.
That said, the car was horrible. It seemed that the engineers had screwed up on every possible detail. Hundreds of cars were returned, and every car sold tarnished even more so Mitchell’s image. This resounding success in advertising became a ruin for Mitchell. The company went bankrupt in 1923.
It was a lesson for Hopkins. He had played a note too high in relation to the capabilities of the product.
The crucial importance of assessing
One of the greatest successes of Hopkins’ career was with Pepsodent toothpaste. This product earned millions of dollars for its business and for himself.
The primary function of the toothpaste was prevention. But Hopkins’ long experience had taught him that preventive measures were not popular. People would do anything to solve a problem but very little to prevent it. Countless advertisements had been ruined by not understanding this part of human nature.
It was then proposed to present the results of a neglected teeth. However, Hopkins had learned that repulsive ideas seldom convince readers. “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone”. People don’t pay attention to warnings against disasters. Their main ambition is to have more success, more happiness, more beauty, more recognition.
Hopkins understood this fundamental principle. Every illustration he used showed attractive people with beautiful teeth.
But he had many other things to learn. So, he tested hundreds of headlines and ads, including reply coupons with specific numbers, which allowed him to quickly know the success of an advertisement.
He learned that beauty was the greatest appeal.
Most men and women want to be beautiful and attractive.
But he learned something else. The man who argues for his own advantage is usually disregarded, often held in contempt. This is especially true for all subjects related to hygiene.
When he urged people to buy Pepsodent, he was only met with apathy. When he asked them to send 10 cents to get a sample, they almost ignored him. Consequently, Hopkins offered the sample for free.
This lead him to another revelation. For most product lines, the word “free” is appealing. The gift of a free sample seems to be a natural way to sell.
That being said, when it comes to something related to hygiene, the psychology is different. Pepsodent professed to offer people benefits of great importance. When Pepsodent offered a gift, it minimized its importance. This made Pepsodent a merchant, just wanting to sell, rather than a scientist seeking to improve the lives of others. When Hopkins offered free samples at the top of his ads, he divided the results by 4.
These things are not easy to discover. Hopkins spent some time learning it. He wasted some money, but he knew almost immediately, thanks to his numbered coupons, the effect of each of his advertisements. He learned his mistakes in a week.
Hopkins never spent a lot of money on a bad theory.
He quickly discovered the good and the bad.
Thanks to this, Pepsodent was a resounding success. And yet, one of the advertising campaigns he had prepared for its debut would have ruined the business in 3 months. By that time, Hopkins had almost a 30-year career in advertising.
But Hopkins assessed the result of his advertisements. He learned very quickly from his coupons that his strategy was not the right one. And he changed it immediately.
This is the key to his success. A hundred toothpaste manufacturers could start, and fail, simply because they were all based on a flawed theory that had nothing in common with human nature. They did not learn from their mistakes because they did not verify the results quickly.
What is the lesson? That none of us can afford to rely on judgment or experience. New problems require new experiences. We must test our presuppositions in the most accurate way possible.
The importance of positioning and cross-promotions
Hopkins worked for a mail-order sales company, creating their mail-order advertising. One day Hopkins noticed a tall building next to his client’s, and he asked what it was. He was told that it was a business that sold women’s clothing by mail and on credit. Hopkins replied, “Why do you allow such a concern to grow up next to you? Why don’t you create a line of women’s clothing?”
That’s what they did, and under Hopkins’s guidance, they selected a middle-aged, seemingly capable woman whom they pictured in every advertisement that she signed herself.
Hopkins positioned the supply of credit in a very subtle way, emphasizing the importance of good clothes in a woman’s life, so that they appear in their best light, and in the fact that the woman shown in the ads would help them by giving them 6 months to pay for their clothes.
The offer was flattering, not humiliating. The evident desire that was reflected through this offer was to serve. In fact, their offer was the same as the competitors next door, but their attitude was different. Hopkins ensured that the 6-month credit resembled the 30-day credit that wealthy women got at their stores.
The result was that they immediately dominated the market. Soon after, the company next to them closed.
In addition, it significantly increased the sales of furniture supplies.
Here’s how Hopkins did it:
For each customer who bought clothes and repaid her credit, the president of the company wrote a letter: “I met today Mrs. X [the emblematic woman in the advertisements]. She told me that you are one of her customers, that she sold you on credit, and that you paid as agreed. She says you’re one of her valued customers, and you’re always welcome to buy whatever you want from her whenever you want.
I want to make a small offer. We sell home furnishing supplies here, and I am sending you our catalog. Disregard the terms of the catalog, which requires payment in advance. I am willing to send you whatever you want without any payment in advance, in view of what Ms. X told me. Just order what you want. Don’t send any money. Start paying in a month if you find the article satisfying, and take your time.”
Such an offer was almost irresistible. These women could hardly believe that strangers, and the president of a large company, were so trusting to them. Any woman receiving such a flattering offer will find a way to use it.
Obviously, they did the same thing in the opposite direction: the emblematic woman wrote to the customers of furnishing supplies to offer them the same conditions for clothes.
These cross-promotions made a killing.
The second great mistake of Hopkins’ life
At age 21, the day before Christmas, while he had just had his first success in advertising in Grand Rapids, the president of the company asked him to come into his office and said:
“I have some advice to give you. You have many of the qualifications necessary for success, including the selling instinct. You are too talented of a man to work for me. And you should start working for yourself, as I did.”
He then told him his story. How he refused every salary offer, every safe position, and continued alone. And how that put him on the road to fortune. He ended by saying:
“I’m selfish enough to want you to stay. If you do, your salary will be much higher next year. But I’m honest enough to tell you not to stay. Don’t let someone else glean the main profits from your hard work and talent”.
His conservative nature made him stay. This was his greatest mistake. Soon after he got married, and any business venture became more and more difficult for him. Therefore, he devoted himself to a lifetime of service as an employee.
Note: I describe this growing difficulty in transitioning out of the status of the employee the longer we wait in my podcast 10 reasons why you should not be employed, and I give ways to overcome this procrastination.
Yet, he watched many of his colleagues start their own business, largely based on things he had taught them, with great success. He knew he was just as well equipped as they were to succeed, aside from courage.
He helped many men to wealth and to prestigious social positions. And in most cases, they had started with almost no money.
Start own business
Finally, Hopkins decided to start his own business at a time when others were thinking about retirement. He teamed up with a well-known actress, Edna Wallace Hopper, who at the age of 60, stills looked quite young, to create an incredibly successful women’s cosmetics business.
Advertisement from 1924 praising the merits of the cosmetics line, Edna Wallace Hopper. Note the use of a key in the coupon to have the samples, which allowed Hopkins to know exactly the returns of his ads.
If you are interested in marketing, I recommend that you read my review on the book, All marketers are liars by American marketing guru, Seth Godin and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing Law by Al Ries and Jack Trout.
Book critique of “My Life in Advertising”
This is my first review of an autobiography. “Reading is the only way to live many times,” says Pierre Dumayet. This is all the more true with biographies and autobiographies, in which we can see a life of successes and failures unfold before our very eyes, and draw lessons for our own lives.
My Life in Advertising is an excellent autobiography, which tells us about the social climbing of a poor but clever young man who started working hard at the age of 10, a habit he never lost throughout his whole life. It is scattered with sound advice and relevant lessons to succeed in life, that we can draw from both Hopkins’ successes and failures. And it has even more to offer: it traces the birth of modern advertising through the eyes of a genius advertiser who was decades ahead of his contemporaries.
Hopkins explains how he invented keyed reply coupons to assess the effectiveness of his ads, what strategies he used to take the best of what face-to-face selling allows and to apply it to the power of advertising and direct mailing, by using samples and warranties eliminating the risk for the buyer, how he organized real events to promote products, how he used cross promotions to jack up with little effort the sales of two different product lines, etc.
Hopkins gives us terrific insight into the birth of advertising, while teaching us the example of many universal principles, such as the importance of assessing, of samples, of dramatic demonstration, of warranties, of positioning or cross-selling. Principles that are still in force today, and which are nevertheless ignored by the majority of salespeople, marketers, and advertisers.
Hopkins’ failures and mistakes are very enlightening, in particular, the two great mistakes of his life, detailed in this review: the fact that he considers the sacrifice of a peaceful life for ambition as a mistake is an opportunity for us to reflect on the meaning of the sacrifices we are making on the altar of this same ambition, and the fact that he regrets not having the courage to start his business earlier prompts us to examine the fears that prevent us from realizing our dreams and motivates us to find ways to combat them so that they do not paralyze us throughout our lives.
Hopkins also discusses ethical reflection concerning the power of the talented advertiser, when he talks about medical advertising in his younger years, when it was unregulated in the United States (this part is not reviewed here), and that he tells us that he was ignorant in this area at the time and that at the time of writing this book “My Life in Advertising”, he refused to participate in the promotion of medical products. What he tells us is that the advertiser has the power to change the lives of people, and that if he promotes dangerous products, he can be responsible for much human suffering, and that the advertiser must therefore carefully select the products he or she promotes.
3 books in one
My Life in Advertising offers three books in one: an exciting autobiography about the social climbing of a poor American, from 1866 to 1927, a story of the birth of modern advertising seen by one of those who shaped it, and a collection of universal principles to make a successful living and to succeed in selling products.
My Life in Advertising is an excellent book. It’s easy to read, full of lessons to be applied in our lives, and fascinating from start to finish. I therefore highly recommend it 😉.
I will soon be reviewing Scientific Advertising, which is Hopkins’ book that sets the universal foundation for scientific advertising, and which is sure to be even more interesting and exciting. Stay tuned!
Strong points of My Life In Advertising:
- My Life in Advertising is a fascinating autobiography about the social climbing of a poor young man in the world of advertising and marketing
- A story of the birth of advertising told by one of its pioneers who shaped it
- A collection of universal principles to sell one’s products
- Packed with advice and lessons to better live our lives
- Reads very smoothly
- Has aged very well and its concepts even apply to digital marketing. What would Claude Hopkins say with the ever-changing and monumental developments through digital marketing tools, like mobile marketing, virtual reality and marketing automation
Weak points of My Life In Advertising:
- Some parts are a little dated… although this is expected for the biography of a man born in 1866!
- There have been French editions of this book entitled “My life in advertising”, but they all seem sold out
My rating :
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