5 Stunningly Good Nuggets of Business Wisdom from One of History’s Greatest Ad Men


Business wisdom from Claude C. Hopkins

These days, when somebody says the phrase “Ad Man” we all instantly think of Don Draper in Mad Men. If Don Draper had a grandfather, that grandfather would have been Claude C. Hopkins.

Claude C. Hopkins is one of the all time advertising badasses. At least as badass as a grizzly bear with chainsaw arms.

Pictured: An early photo of Claude C. Hopkins

Need proof? He’s credited with popularizing teeth brushing. TEETH BRUSHING! He didn’t just sell toothpaste, he created the thing kids least like to do before bed time and revolutionized oral care.

He also revolutionized advertising by talking to his customers to find out their needs and testing the results of his advertising: two things all advertisers do today. I guess before him, people just guessed, wrote something down on a sign and went on break.

According to Wikipedia, he was hired by an ad agency in 1907 and paid a salary of $185,000 which, when adjusted for inflation is about a bajillion dollars.

He wrote several books including My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising. Today, they usually come together in one volume. On my copy, David Ogilvy, known as “The Father of Advertising” is quoted as saying, “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.”

So boom. There you go: crazy good bona fides.

In this post, we’re looking at 5 stunningly good nuggets of wisdom from those two books.

Everything below each headline is quoted directly from this copy of these books. This is helpful if you’re going to use my page references.

Now, onto the nuggets…

5. Learn the Value of a Dollar, Yours and Your Clients

Because of my mother, a dime to me has always looked as big as a dollar. Not my dimes only, but the other fellow’s dimes. I have spent them carefully, both as owner and trustee. I have never gambled in a large way, whether acting for myself or for others. So the failures I have made — and they are many — have never counted strongly against me. I have escaped the distrust engendered by conspicuous disaster. When I lost, I lost little in money and nothing in confidence. When I won, I often gained millions for my client and a wealth of prestige for myself. That I largely owe to my mother. (p. 5)

4. Cultivate a Love of Work (and Gamify It)

Up to the age of six or seven I was surrounded by college students at play. I knew nothing of the serious side of student life, but I saw all the college pranks. Thus I gained a rather firm idea that all life was a playground.

This section foreman reversed that idea. He impressed me with the difference between him and his helpers. The helpers worked from necessity. They did as little as possible. They counted the hours to quitting time, then on Saturday nights they would go to the city and spend all they had earned in the week.

The foreman worked with enthusiasm. He said: “Boys, let us lay so many ties today. Let us get this stretch in fine shape.” The men would go at it stoically, and work as though work was a bore. But the foreman made the work a game.

That man built his home in the evenings, after ten-hour days on the railroad. He cultivated a garden around it. Then me married the prettiest girl in the section, and lived a life of bliss. Eventually he was called to some higher post, but not until I learned great lessons from him.

“Look at those boys play ball,” he said. “That’s what I call hard work. Here I am shingling a roof. I am racing with time. I know what surface I must cover before sunset to fulfill my stint. That’s my idea of fun.”

“Look at those fellows whittling, discussing railroads, talking politics. The most that any of them know about a railroad is how to drive a spike. They will always do that and no more. Note what I have done while they loafed there this evening — built most of the porch on my home. Soon I will be sitting there in comfort, making love to a pretty wife. They will always be sitting on those soap boxes around the grocery stove. Which is work and which play?”

“If a thing is useful they call it work, if useless they call it play. One is as hard as the other. One can be just as much a game as the other. In both there is rivlry. There’s a struggle to excel the rest. All the difference I see lies in the attitude of the mind.”

So the love of work can be cultivated, just like the love of play. The terms are interchangeable. What others call work I call play, and vice versa. We do what we like best. If that is chasing a polo ball, one will probably excel in that. If it means checkmating competitors, or getting a home run in something worth while, he will excel in that. So it means a great deal when a young man can come to regard his life work as the most fascinating game that he knows. And it should be. The applause of athletics dies in a moment. The applause of success gives one cheer to the grave. (p. 15-16)

3. Never Judge Humanity by Ourselves

I realize now why Mr. Resigue received me so politely that morning. I was a town boy, struggling to succeed. Never in my busiest hour have I ever refused to meet such a boy or girl myself. I have spent many precious hours with them, financed them and advised them. There is nothing I admire more than the spirit to win one’s way.

But I struck a snag that morning. Mr. Resigue was a deeply religious man. He had some extreme and exacting ideals. One idea of his was that a detective, dealing with criminals, had no place in polite society. He had outgrown the hero stage.

He listened to me until I brought out my book. Then he gave it one glance, and threw the book in my lap. He said, “You are welcome in my home, but not your book. One of you must depart. You may stay here as long as you wish to, but your book must go into the street. I consider that an Allen Pinkerton book is an offense to all I stand for.”

That was a revelation. I have seen it exemplified scores of times since then. Hundreds of men have discussed their pet projects with me. Boards of directors have gravely decided that the world must be on their side. I have urged them to make tests, to feel out the public pulse. I have told them that people in general could never be judged by ourselves. Some have listened and profited, some have scorned my opinions. Sometimes those who decided to judge the world by themselves succeeded. Four times in five they failed. [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]I know of nothing more ridiculous than gray-haired boards of directors deciding on what housewives want.[/highlight]

We must never judge humanity by ourselves. The things we want, the things we like, may appeal to a small minority. The losses occasioned in advertising by venturing on personal preference would easily pay the national debt. We live in a democracy. On every law there are divided opinions. So in every preference, every want. Only the obstinate, the bone-headed, will venture far on personal opinion. We must submit all things in advertising, as in everything else, to the court of public opinion. (p. 23-24)

2. Please People and You Can Sell Anything

It was then, at the height of his fame, he submitted a pamphlet to the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company, by request of Mr. Williams. It was written on butcher paper. One of Powers’ ideas was that manner should never becloud matter. I well remember the first sentence — “A carpet sweeper, if you get the right one — you might as well go without matches.”

But he knew nothing about carpet sweepers. He had given no study of our trade situation. He knew none of our problems. He never gave one moment to studying a woman’s possible wish for a carpet sweeper.

I said to Mr. Judd, “That cannot sell carpet sweepers. There is not one word in that pamphlet which will lead women to buy. Let me try my hand. In three days I will hand you a book to compete with it, based on knowledge of our problems.”

Mr. Judd smiled, but consented. During the next two nights I did not sleep at all. On the third day I presented a pamphlet which caused all to decide against Powers. He sued them for his fee, but on my pamphlet they fought and won the suit.

The carpet sweeper business was then in its infancy. Users were few and sales were small. On the strength of my pamphlet I asked for permission to try to increase the demand. Christmas was approaching. On my nights pacing the streets I had thought of the idea of a sweeper as a Christmas present. It had never been offered as such. I designed a display rack for exhibit. I drew up cards, “The Queen of Christmas Presents.” And I went to the manager and asked his permission to solicit some trade by mail.

He laughed at me. He was an ex-salesman, as were all of our directors. He said: “Go out on the road and try to sell sweepers. Wherever you go you will find them covered with dust, with dealers ready to give them away. The only way to sell a new lot is to use a gun. Get a man in a corner and compel him to sign an order. When you talk of selling such men by letter, I can only laugh.”

But the pamphlet I wrote had won his respect. He consented to try a few thousand letters. So I wrote and told the dealers about our display racks and our gift cards. I offered both free for Christmas, not as a gift, but as a reward. Not then, or ever since, have I asked a purchase. That is useless. I have simply offered service. I required a signed agreement from the dealer to display the sweepers on the rack with the cards I furnished. This made him solicit me.

I sent out some five thousand letters. They brought me one thousand orders, almost the first orders we had ever received by mail. That was the birth of a new idea which led me to graduate from the expense account to the field of money-earners.

I conceived the idea of offering Bissell Carpet Sweepers in some interesting woods. If my Christmas idea had excited ridicule, this excited pity.

I asked them to build Bissell carpet sweepers in twelve distinguishing woods, one in each wood to the dozen. I wanted them to run from the white of the bird’s-eye maple to the dark of the walnut, and to include all the colors between.

That aroused real opposition. As I have said, all the directors of the company were ex-salesmen. One was the inventor of some new devices and was a power to be regarded. He said: “Why not talk broom action, patent dumping devices, cyco bearings, and the great things I have created?”

“I am talking to women,” I replied. “They are not mechanics. I want to talk the things which they will understand and appreciate.”

They finally let me do that as a concession. Since I had done what they deemed impossible and sold sweepers by the letter, they could hardly refuse me a reasonable latitude. They agreed to build 250,000 sweepers, twelve woods to the dozen, for me.

While they were building the sweepers, I arranged my plans. I wrote letters to dealers, in effect as follows: “Bissell carpet sweepers are today offered twelve woods to the dozen — the twelve finest woods in the world. They come with display racks free. They come with pamphlets, like the one enclosed, to feature these twelve woods. They will never be offered again. We offer them on condition that you sign the agreement enclosed. You must display them until sold, on the racks and with the cards we furnish. You must send out our pamphlets in every package which leaves yours store for three weeks.” I offered a privilege, not an inducement. I appeared as a benefactor, not as a salesman. So dealers responded in a way that sold our stock of 250,000 sweepers in three weeks.

Let us pause for a moment. That was my beginning in advertising. It was my first success. It was based on pleasing people, like everything else I have done. It sold, not only to dealers, but to users. It multiplied the use of carpet sweepers. And it gave to Bissell sweepers the practical monopoly which they maintain to this day.

Other men will still say: “I have no such opportunity. My line is not like that.” Of course it isn’t, but in all probability it offers a thousand advantages. No man is in any line that is harder to sell than carpet sweepers were in those days. I care not what it is. The usual advertising was impossible. A carpet sweeper would last ten years. The profit was about one dollar. Never has anyone found an ordinary way to advertise profitably an article of that class. (p. 43-47)

1. Be Specific

Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water from a duck. They leave no impression whatever. To say, “Best in the world,” “Lowest price in existence,” etc. is at best simply claiming the expected. But superlatives of that sort are usually damaging. They suggest looseness of expression, a tendency to exaggerate a careless truth. They lead readers to discount all the statements that you make.

People recognise a certain license in selling talk as they do poetry. A man may say, “Supreme in quality” without seeming a liar, though one may know that the other brands are equally as good. One expects a salesman to put his best foot forward and excuses some exaggeration born of enthusiasm. But just for that reason general statements count for little. And a man inclined to superlatives must expect that his every statement will be taken with some caution

But a man who makes a specific claim is either telling the truth or a lie. People do not expect an advertiser to lie. They know that he can’t lie in the best mediums. The growing respect in advertising has largely come through a growing regard for its truth.

So a definite statement is usually accepted. Actual figures are not generally discounted. Specific facts, when stated, have their full weight and effect. (p. 249-250)


4 comments on “5 Stunningly Good Nuggets of Business Wisdom from One of History’s Greatest Ad Men

  1. I actually have a BISSELL carpet sweeper at home. I use one of those rechargeable ones. It works so well I use it all the time. I don’t think they’re such a hard sell anymore. 🙂

  2. Pingback: BUX Podcast #63: Claude Hopkins + Email Tools Rundown | A Better User Experience

  3. Pingback: Claude Hopkins: An Inspiration to the Advertising Business | Allison Waterfield

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