- Historic Sites
The Personal Reminiscences Of Albert Lasker
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Albert Davis Lasker made no speeches and wrote almost nothing for publication, and when he died, on May 30, 1952, very few people paused to read the obituaries; yet the newspapers and magazines in which they appeared carried his monument, in a sense, on nearly every page, for Lasker was accounted by many the father of modern advertising. He put over many of its great coups and slogans; he taught it how to frighten, tempt, cajole and sell —that above all. Born in Germany in 1880, he was precociously successful as a newspaper reporter and tried advertising in Chicago in 1898 only to please his father, who thought the latter profession more respectable. He would have quit the distasteful job but for his misfortune in incurring a debt of $500—which he did not possess. It was necessary to stay to work off the debt and stay he did, for the rest of his life. Soon he owned the agency and it became one of the richest and most fabled advertising enterprises of this century.
From Teddy Roosevelt to George Washington Hill, the dynamic proprietor of Lucky Strikes, the people who met Lasker were impressed by his ability. Between 1918 and 1920 he was Assistant Chairman of the Republican National Committee, with a ringside seat adjoining the “smoke-filled room” which placed the mantle of Lincoln on the shoulders of Warren G. Harding. Always, however, his heart was in advertising, at which he was superb.
These reminiscences are excerpted from the transcript of interviews with Mr. Lasker over seven months in 1949 and 1950 by Professor Nevins and Mr. Dean Albertson. The interviewers’ questions are omitted, as they merely suggested topics. Repetitions are deleted, but nothing has been inserted.
I was born in Freiburg, Germany. My parents were both American citizens. I was the third child born to them—the two before me had been born in Galveston, Texas—and there were five children born after me, all of them in Galveston. My mother had not been well at the time I was expected, and my father took her over to Freiburg to the hospital. That’s how I came to be born there, although I was born a natural-born American citizen.
When I was six weeks old, they brought me back to Galveston, and I received all the education that I have in Galveston. I went through the primary schools and the Ball High School in Galveston, and graduated there in 1896.
I started working immediately after I graduated from Ball High School. Before I graduated I had started the high school monthly magazine. There were only about twenty high school magazines in the United States at that time. I organized athletic teams—football teams, tennis teams. I was the organizing spirit of the school.
Through starting this high school magazine, I began working with the people on the morning and evening papers in Galveston. Finally, on the side, even while I was still in high school, I did work for the Galveston Morning News .
There was a reporter on the News who served several papers in the North and received a small weekly compensation from each of them. He served two St. Louis papers, two papers in Chicago, and the United Press in New York. He reported the cotton quotations to them. He worked for the News for a small salary, but it gave him the right to service out-of-state papers with whatever Texas dispatches came to the “state desk” at the News . He sent Texas news to the Northern papers, and they printed various parts of that which would be of interest to their readers—particularly news of the cotton crops, Texas being the great cotton-growing state of the Union.
For some reason this reporter had to leave the city in a hurry, and for $100, he sold me his franchise. The News permitted me to take his place. At that time, I was definitely headed toward a newspaper career.
I worked on the News, and I got a very important scoop from Eugene V. Debs. He had been in jail as a result of the railroad strike of ’93, and the Locomotive Engineers, of which he was the head, were to have their annual convention in Galveston. Debs arrived on Saturday before the Monday of the convention.
The Tribune —Galveston’s evening paper—published a paper on Sunday as did the Morning News . One Saturday evening the Tribune carried on the front page the news that Debs was in town and that he was staying at a boarding house in the city. However they couldn’t get an interview with him.
I waited until it was dark, then I went to the manager of the Western Union and asked him for a messenger’s coat, hat, an envelope, and the book messengers carry to have receipts signed in. He said that he couldn’t give these things to me—that he’d lose his job if he did.
I said, “You stand a chance to lose your job if you don’t do it, because I can send my wires by Postal if I want, and my business is almost the largest in town.”
That convinced him, and he gave me what I wanted. I knew a building across the street from the boarding house where I could change my coat and hat, so that I wouldn’t have to walk through the streets in the uniform.
I knocked on the front door in the middle of the house and the door was opened. I knew that if I spoke loudly enough, everyone in the house could hear me. A man opened the door, put his foot in the door, and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I have a telegram to be delivered to Mr. Eugene V. Debs.”
He said, “Give it to me, and I’ll receipt for it.”
I’d seen Debs’ picture in the papers, and I knew this man wasn’t Debs, so I said, “No, the manager told me I could only deliver it to Mr. Debs.”
I talked in such a loud voice and made such a fuss, that a door opened just off the entrance and Mr. Debs came out. I delivered the telegram to him, and when he opened it, it read:
I AM NOT A MESSENGER BOY. I AM A YOUNG NEWSPAPER REPORTER. YOU HAVE TO GIVE A FIRST INTERVIEW TO SOMEBODY. WHY DON’T YOU GIVE IT TO ME? IT WILL START ME ON MY CAREER.
That so amused Debs that he gave me the interview. If I remember, I made two or three hundred dollars that night. The News that Sunday morning scooped the Tribune .
”…I suppose I made more money out of advertising than any man who ever lived…”
My father had a dread of my becoming a newspaper-man, because in those days (and this is no exaggeration) almost every newspaperman was a heavy drinker. It went with the line. It was the custom of the trade—even among a great many inspired writers. I was very devoted to my father, and he proposed instead that I go to a firm in what he considered a kindred field—Lord & Thomas in Chicago, an advertising agency, with which he had had some prior business contact.
He wrote to Lord & Thomas, and they wrote back that they would give me a three months trial. Then they would see whether they could keep me on.
That suited me fine, for I was certain I wouldn’t last a three months’ test in advertising. I would be in a big city—I had never been in a city before—and have a good time. It would be a nice semi-vacation, and in ninety days I would be on my way to New York and my father would be satisfied.
Although I had made $20, $30, and $40 a week, they started me at $10 a week! They figured that in three months for $125, they would have liquidated their obligation. My father allowed me—and I wasn’t above it—$75 while I was there, towards my living expenses when I went to work at Lord & Thomas.
I went around the office to one and all to try to learn something about the business, but they didn’t have any system to teach. They let me shift for myself and with little to do, I got into a not-so-good crowd. (And for a biography, this isn’t a very inspiring story.) After I’d been there about eight weeks, I got into a crap game, and lost several hundred dollars I didn’t have and gave a due bill to the gambler.
Then I had to think, and think fast, so I went to Mr. Thomas, who was a very sympathetic man—an understanding man—and I told him what I’d done. I had never before sold anything to anybody, but I did a salesmanship job that day. I talked Mr. Thomas into advancing me $500—which was a fortune in those days. He went with me, and we settled with the gambler. I had to stay with Lord & Thomas to work out the $500. I never got back to reporting.
”…It really was in our office—as the result of a crap game—that modern advertising was born…”
I settled down to work, and I began seriously to try to find out what advertising was. Frankly, there was so much of it I didn’t like, that I just got stubborn and didn’t want to remember, although I might say in passing that I suppose I made more money out of advertising than any man who ever lived has made, or ever will make, in that business. It really was in our office—as the result of a crap game—that modern advertising was subsequently born.
I presume that at the time I went to work for Lord & Thomas there were from ten to fourteen agencies in all the United States. I do not believe there were more than that, and I do not believe that the total of general advertising in the United States through agencies was more than $15,000,000. Today any one advertising firm which does $15,000,000 is merely a moderate size firm—doing well, but nothing special.
While advertising was used somewhat, it was not known what the force was that made it effective. The general conception was that advertising was “keeping the name before the people.” Advertising would pay in some cases, and it wouldn’t pay in others. When I came to Lord & Thomas, their total copywriting staff consisted of one man on half time. He worked mornings for Lord & Thomas and worked afternoons for Montgomery Ward and Company. If I remember, he got $40 or $50 a week all told.
Lord & Thomas did the advertising of Armour & Company, but the total of that account wasn’t very much. They did Anheuser-Busch. I presume Anheuser-Busch spent $120,000 a year, and was one of the largest advertisers in America. They handled Cascaret, which was in those days one of the four or five largest advertisers in the country. They spent $300,000, and Lord & Thomas owned a third of the Cascaret business. It was a cathartic.
They had several railroads, but the railroad accounts didn’t amount to anything in cash, for it was all done on an exchange basis. They exchanged transportation to the papers for space, and they paid Lord & Thomas the commission in transportation. The papers and we in turn would sell the transportation to cut-rate agencies. In Chicago on Clark Street I imagine there were fifteen or twenty of these cut-rate agencies. They had signs in front giving perhaps half rate for the same tickets you would buy at the station—and for the same trains! Subsequently a law was passed forbidding any transportation being sold, save at the full rate.
I found that Lord & Thomas did a business of $800,000 the year I came with them. From that, they made $28,000. They were one of the three largest firms in the business. During all the time I was with the business, the same three firms which were the largest firms when I came, remained the largest practically all of the time—J. Walter Thompson, N. W. Ayer, Lord & Thomas. N. W. Ayer was the largest firm, and shortly after I came to Lord & Thomas, they became by far the largest. Ayer & Son got the first million dollar account, and here is how.
The Moore Brothers in Chicago were, I believe, the lawyers who had thought up the modern trust. They had brought several hundred local cracker factories together under the name of the National Biscuit Company. They paid these several hundred local cracker factories with stock. I think this was the first trust.
They wanted a common trade-mark, and the idea in putting that trust together was that they could do national promotion. It was really the birth of the national promotion idea. Ayer & Son thought of the title—U-Needa-Biscuit—and had as a trade-mark (I don’t know why) a boy in storm slickers. The new corporation, by combining the local appropriations for advertising of the scores of absorbed companies, could muster a national appropriation of $1,000,000. Nothing like that had ever been heard of. Before that, no advertiser had an account larger than Cascarets—which was around $300,000. The U-Needa-Biscuit appropriation gave wings to the idea of advertising.
Most of the advertising then was patent medicine advertising. It was all largely a gamble. The first few years that I was in advertising (and it had been that way for years) most bankers were very opposed to advertising as being a gambling device. Many times when a firm began advertising, their bankers sent for them and said, “Unless you quit this, we’ll withdraw your credit.” They could not see any tangible addition to their security in advertising. They looked upon it as a gamble that might take away from their security. They would loan the same people large sums of money to build plants of brick and mortar—the product of which they might not be able to sell—but there was a violent prejudice generally among bankers against firms which advertised.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, a Doctor Kellogg had worked out a diet treatment with various taboos—for instance, coffee was taboo. Out of grain, he made substitute foods. He ran a sanitarium there where people came for this diet.
One of his patients was a man named C. W. Post, who came to Battle Creek from Texas. Post partook of these substitute foods and became cured of his ailment. He therefore became convinced that this type of substitute food should be generally made known to the public—that there was a service to be rendered and a profit to be made.
Post stayed in Battle Creek after he was cured and started a small plant to make his own brands. These he called Postum and Grape Nuts. Postum was a substitute for coffee; Grape Nuts was a cereal breakfast food to be served ready cooked. Post advertised these with simulated news copy, the same as the patent medicine people used, and he was successful from the beginning.
Dr. Kellogg never forgave Post. Kellogg felt that Post was a plagiarist, but from a small beginning Post built the great institution from which later grew the General Foods Corporation. Kellogg subsequently relented as to offering his goods to the public through advertising and proceeded to manufacture for general consumption. Some years later he originated Corn Flakes.
Kellogg was successful—and Post was successful. All of a sudden, in 1902 or ’03, a boom in cereal foods was born—a boom comparable to a real estate boom. People came from all over the country and started cereal food factories in Battle Creek. At one time I believe there were 24 of them. Brokerage firms sold stock in these companies all over the country.
When I went to Battle Creek for Lord & Thomas, the atmosphere was the same as in the oil towns. Food company stocks soared in price with each passing hour and of course in the end most of the money invested was lost. When it was all over, only Post and Kellogg remained. The rest disappeared.
All that I have already described about Battle Creek, the format of copy and U-Needa-Biscuit was really concurrent with my starting to work. It was on this background that I entered the advertising world.
I couldn’t see how I was ever going to earn enough money to pay back the $500 and get out of bondage.
About that time, the man who solicited accounts in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan for Lord & Thomas resigned. He was earning, I think, all of $3,500 a year.
This resignation gave me an opportunity to make my second sale to Mr. Thomas. I said to him that while he was looking around for a trained man, why didn’t he let me cover the territory. I would not ask more than the $10 a week I was currently being paid. I told him that I wanted a chance to learn. I thus became an advertising solicitor.
I had three assets—energy, dedication, and luck. I was a success from the first—from the time I was nineteen. The main things in my favor were dedication and energy, because I wanted to work to pay off this debt.
The first town I covered, after Mr. Thomas gave me a territory, was Battle Creek. There was a prospect there who was going to spend $3,000. That was a big account. The agencies fought for it in those days as they would today over a $200,000 account. They worked just as hard. The sights weren’t so high.
I was lucky. I was full of energy and determination. I was a young boy—and that intrigued people. The first day I was out in my new territory I was awarded this order of $3,000 to which I have referred—which my predecessor could have landed any time before. He was a fine man, but he wasn’t a “closer.”
I went out on the road and got these accounts largely as a result of the good work done by my predecessor. That made me quite a figure, because by the end of six months I had $40, $50, $60,000 worth of business. Any man who handled $150,000 worth of business at that time was quite a figure in the line. If he received for the firm ten per cent commission on the accounts he landed or in major competition worked it around to ten per cent, that meant he was bringing in $15,000 in commissions. The expenses of the firm were not very great. We had just the one copy writer to whom I referred, one artist at $35 weekly and a few clerks to send out orders and check insertions. They could afford to pay a man who got $150,000 worth of business $3,000 to $5,000—even in those days. If he traveled on the road, they had to pay his expenses, but travel expenses then were very small.
I wanted to find out what advertising was. I had the reporter’s instinct that never left me. I kept asking, “What is advertising? What is advertising?” I couldn’t find out. After a bit I concluded, “Advertising must be created to look like reading matter. Post had made this type of advertising pay, and the patent medicine people had made it pay.”
Lord & Thomas turned over to me to handle—but didn’t pay me anything extra for it—the business that they previously had in the territory assigned me. Any raise I would get had to come through new business. Lord & Thomas had perhaps $100,000 worth of business in my territory.
Sometimes I would drive in a sleigh through snow fifteen miles to a school in Indiana that was going to spend $300 a year. The place could not be reached by train. If I landed the account, we made ten per cent on it—$30. It might take me the whole day to get there and back in the sleigh, and out of the $30, the sleigh might cost $6. However, there was no copy expense as the school prepared their own and $24 net profit was $24.
I quickly saw that I would get nowhere under the status quo, because it took so much of my time to handle the business Lord & Thomas had in the territory when I took hold. I didn’t expect them to pay me much for that. They had it already. The $40,000 or $50,000 worth of business which I got took a lot of time to handle because I had to write the copy.
I found that Lord & Thomas had, among other accounts in my territory, one in Louisville that was spending $3,000 a month. The commission was ten per cent. Lord & Thomas wrote the copy, and it was very successful. This advertiser made an ear drum—a small device to be inserted in the ear to aid hearing. The ads were three-inch ads. These ear drums were sold by mail for only $5. All of the business had to come from people who responded to the ads.
I thought, “If we run copy for this ear drum like Post uses it should increase results. But if I tell the client I’m a great copy writer, he won’t believe me, for he looks on me as only a solicitor.”
There was a young man named Katz on a Chicago paper who had worked on papers in the South with me. I went to him and said, “How would you like to be a professional copy writer? Maybe I can make you a good deal of money. I want you to study the structure of copy such as Post and others use, and write me some ads for this ear drum along those lines.”
Without saying anything to my firm, I went to the man who owned the ear drum business—Mr. George Wilson. I said to him, “Look. Suppose Lord & Thomas could multiply your sales. That would be very good for you, and it would multiply our volume of business with you, because you would spend more money. We will write a new kind of copy for you, but you must pay us fifteen per cent commission on all ads that contain the new copy. If at the end of ninety days the results haven’t increased, we’ll give you back the money, and your account will still be on a ten per cent basis. But as an earnest that you are interested, you will have to pay me a fee of $500.”
I talked him into it, and he paid me the $500, which I in turn paid to Katz (my young friend) to write the advertising. It didn’t cost my firm anything. Then I brought Katz (on a railroad pass) to Louisville and introduced him to Wilson as the great copy writer who was going to do this job.
Inside of a year, Wilson was spending $20,000 a month with Lord & Thomas. He had been spending $3,000 a month when I made my proposition. Instead of getting ten per cent on $3,000 a month, we were getting fifteen per cent on $20,000 a month.
I tried the same general copy idea with several other businesses. Sometimes it would pay out, sometimes it wouldn’t.
I fell in love with a girl in 1901, and married her in 1902 at the age of 22. By that time I had paid the debt to Lord & Thomas, and I was making $3,000 a year.
”…In any private firm whomever you saw open the mail was the head of the firm…”
I’ll give an example of how I did it. In 1899 there was a firm which was going to advertise in Cincinnati. Their firm name was Rheinstrom Brothers, they were making liqueurs. Ten thousand dollars was a large amount of money for a new advertiser to venture. Word had come that Charles Austin Bates was the sensation of advertising at that time. He was one of those pioneers who, intuitively, pretty well understood the principles of advertising.
It was said that Rheinstrom Brothers was going to do business with Bates. It was to be settled within two days at the time I heard about it.
It cost nothing to go there except sleeper fare, since we had passes, and so I went. Rheinstrom’s was “ way outside” of Cincinnati, at the end of the trolley line.
I had learned they would start work at eight o’clock in the morning. Everybody worked from eight to six, six days a week in those days.
In those days you could always spot the head of the firm if you came early in the morning.
In any private firm (even those run by intensely rich people) whomever you saw open the mail was the head of the firm. The head of the firm opened all the mail and signed all the checks.
I went to Rheinstrom’s straight from the train. At eight o’clock I entered. There was a man standing at a little raised desk opening the mail, and I knew that must be Mr. Abe Rheinstrom, the head of the firm.
He grunted at me and said, “What do you want?”
This greeting was frightening in itself, but I handed him my card and said I was with Lord & Thomas, that I had heard they were going to advertise, and that my firm had sent me down to solicit them.
He said, “How dare your firm send a young boy like you down—disturbing me in my most important work of the day, early in the morning? Get out!”
There I was. I had induced my firm to send me, and I couldn’t even get an interview. I looked foolish.
I knew a good deal about the habits of the German population of that time. There were many Germans in my family; my father was born a German. Every German went home for lunch. You could always bet on that. You could also bet that after lunch he took a nap. I knew that, so I went back and sat in the lobby of the hotel until about two o’clock, when I decided to take a chance to see whether Mr. Rheinstrom was up from his nap.
I called him at his home; he chanced to answer the phone and I spoke so fast that he couldn’t stop me. I remembered what had happened with Debs when I was a reporter, and I felt sure that it appealed to everyone to help a young man. Quick as I could, I said, “I’m-the-young-man-you-kicked-out-of-your-office-this-rnorning-I-came-down-frorn-Lord-&-Thomas-If-I-go-home-without-seeing-you-I’m-liable-to-lose-my-position - What - difference-does-it-make-to-you-just-to-give-me-a-few-minutes-Maybe-it’s-the-turning-point-in-the-career-of-a-young-man-It-may-be-the-making-or-breaking-of-me-Can’t-I-come-to-see-you for-a-few-minutes?”
He said, “Yes.” I went, and he turned me over to his brother who was to look after the advertising. That was about three o’clock. At six o’clock, his brother said that he was going to give Lord & Thomas the business. He sent a telegram to Charles Austin Bates, saying that he wasn’t going to give him the business—that he was going to give it to us.
When I was to be married, I asked Mr. Thomas to raise me to $5,000. He asked, “Don’t you want more than $5,000?—for you are earning more.”
I replied, “No, I don’t want more than $5,000. I want to work so cheaply for you that you turn every opportunity that comes your way over to me to explore, and someday you’ll give me a partnership.” But above all—more than to earn money—was the compulsion on me to learn what the force behind advertising really was. I had to know what this thing really was.
In 1904 I was taken in as a member of the firm and became the manager. After I was taken in as a partner, I could concentrate more of my energy and time on discovering what copy really was.
Mr. Lord retired six years after I came to the firm. With another man who was there, I acquired his interest in about 1903. Mr. Thomas died in 1906, and this other gentleman, Mr. Erwin, who had been with the firm for many years, acquired with me Mr. Thomas’ interest. In 1912 I bought Mr. Erwin out. From 1912 on I was the sole owner, although from time to time I gave stock to employees and associates.
John E. Kennedy came with us later, and he wrote a series of articles. His articles today wouldn’t sound like very much, but their impact on business and merchandising in America is the most memorable thing in my lifetime.
Under him we had a group of ten men. I don’t think any other agency had over two copy writers. When we had ten, it was the wonder of the whole advertising world. That was the beginning of the trained advertising writer in the United States.
Kennedy left us, for what reason I do not know, and I went on as best I could with the momentum of what I had learned from him and of what the others had learned. We were also learning lessons from the results we were getting.
A client, Frank Van Camp of the Van Camp Packing Company of Indianapolis, was the first man in the world to put soups into cans—the first man in the world to put spaghetti into cans. He was a large advertiser for those days. I think he spent $15,000 or $20,000 a year.
He became interested, instead of merely having us place his advertising, in having us do salesmanshipin-print advertising. However, he knew that Kennedy had left at just that time. He said, “I want you to get me a man who will be at least as good as Kennedy.”
I knew there was a man who was even better than Kennedy at writing copy—Claude C. Hopkins. In fact, I can say today in looking back that he was the greatest copy writer who ever lived. There was no one during his time who was comparable to him, and no one living today is comparable to him.
He had done free-lance work for Schlitz beer, and he had always done wonderful work for them. The thing which put Schlitz into first place was a campaign he ran for them—that every bottle was sterilized and you got only pure beer in Schlitz.
Schlitz had been a poor second to Anheuser-Busch, and for a while, under the impetus of that campaign which made them one of the largest if not the largest of advertisers, they went into first place. The advertising was very sharp advertising. It made an impression on everyone—that here was absolutely pure beer, as every bottle was sterilized in live, steam heat.
Hopkins told me this story. The Uhleins, who were the owners of the Schlitz brewery, wanted him to write their advertising, and they took him through their plant. They personally conducted him through the place. They showed him every operation in the plant, and he wasn’t impressed by anything until they brought him to a room full of steam where the bottles were being mechanically washed in steam.
They hurried through the room and said nothing. He asked them, “What is this process?”
They said, “This is the room where we sterilize the bottles in live steam to prevent germs.”
“Oh,” he said, “that’s most interesting.”
“There’s nothing to this. Every brewery does this. We’re not the only one. No brewery could exist without doing this to their bottles.”
He said nothing to them, but when he submitted the campaign, it was only around that. In no place did he say that every brewery did not do it. He merely stated specifically that Schlitz did it. That message, which was a salesmanship-in-print message, made such a terrific impression on the public that Schlitz beer grew by leaps and bounds, as if a magic wand had been put over the firm.
It was that campaign, among others, which made me know that Hopkins was the outstanding man of my time. I also knew that he was a man of great wealth, which he had made in a patent medicine business.
At the time Mr. Van Camp asked me to get someone. Mr. Hopkins had retired.
Mr. Hopkins and I had a mutual friend who was the head of a chain of drug stores in Chicago. I knew that Mr. Hopkins had an interest in that chain, so I went to my friend and told him my problem with Mr. Van Camp.
My friend said, “Look. From what you tell me, first, Hopkins knows much more about advertising than you do. Second, he can buy and sell you. But, yes, I think there is a basis on which you can get him. He’s a very, very tight man. He hates to part with money. He came from a family of poverty, and the mark never left him. His wife wants an electric automobile.”
If I remember rightly, electric automobiles cost around $2,000 or $2,500.
He said, “His wife has been begging him to get her an electric machine.” A big share of the cars sold at that time in the cities were electric, storage battery automobiles, which one could drive. They represented a handsome percentage of the business. “He won’t buy it for her. I’ll take you to lunch, and I’ll bring it around. Two things, I think, may play in such a way that you can induce him to write this campaign for you.
“One, he doesn’t want to feel that he’s working for money any more. Much as he cares for money, he’s become disgusted with business.
“Second, if you say that you wouldn’t pay him—because you know that no money could pay him—but that you would give his wife an electric automobile, I think you might induce him to do it.”
We met, and he accepted the proposal. He and I remained together for seventeen years! From that day on, he devoted his full time to me. I just enticed him into it. He was the greatest teacher of advertising and the greatest writer of advertising we ever had.
Kennedy had laboriously, through great intellectual processes, worked out his system. It was very difficult for him to apply it. He worked out the principle, but he lacked flair.
Hopkins was just born with it—inspiration.
I often had this experience with Hopkins. He would go to see a client. In 24 hours he would have the answer that could, and often did, quadruple their earnings—even increase them by eight times. Within 48 hours he would write a campaign which would run a year.
I’d always have to hold it back for perhaps six weeks before I’d show it to the clients, because they wouldn’t believe enough thought had been put into it if I gave it to them as soon as he finished it.
By 1909 the Quaker Oats Company was a large advertising spender, although they had done business through their own agency. They were selling two prepared breakfast foods, which they advertised with a very small appropriation—about $75,000 for each of the two items. One of them was called Wheat Berries, the other. Puffed Rice.
In the advertising for Puffed Rice they showed Japanese people and had Japanese figures. They showed that the rice was large, and they said that it was very delicious. They related it to the Japanese—here was something of a Japanese nature and therefore different—a novelty. The Wheat Berries they advertised as a delicious new wheat food enlarged. They showed dishes of fruit with the Wheat Berries. There was no story—no argument. They merely offered the merchandise.
They were not successful in introducing the goods and, I think, had lost considerable money.
They told us their problem. They charged, if I remember, ten cents a package. They disclosed to us their margin when we said that we had to know it in order to advise them, although they were very hesitant to do it. The margin seemed to us too small to educate the public, for the public must always pay for its education.
I won’t go into the economics, the ethics, or the social implications of advertising—whether it is a good or a bad thing. The only thing is this: if the public is to be educated to the use of goods, it must pay the cost of its education. However, that comes back to the public in time, because the volume increases so much that the goods are sold at decreasing prices, and the public is always sure of the quality.
Here is the story they had told us of how they got these goods. There was a Professor Anderson at the University of Minnesota who was making research experiments in dextrinizing starch—separating starch. That experiment never came to a successful conclusion. I do not know whether they have ever solved the problem.
One day in his test tube, where he had grains of wheat, he noticed a phenomenon. The wheat, without being destroyed, rose to eight times its normal size. He tried it with other grains with the same result. He at once realized that even though he had not discovered anything which would be of aid in the research he was doing, he had discovered something which might be worth while commercially.
The professor then made an arrangement with the Quaker Oats Company to pay him so much royalty a case. He became a very rich man—a millionaire—but at the time we came in, the process had not worked out very well.
”…We’ll advertise the food shot from guns…We’ll show the grains hitting the ceiling…”
The Quaker Oats people figured out how to make this commercially. They built in their plant, at Davenport, Iowa, a two- or three-story room with a platform. Then they built what looked like a wooden gun. Into this gun, they put the wheat or the rice. The room itself may have been a hundred feet long. This gun was really a drum which they subjected to great heat. The mouth was covered. Then, automatically, when it had reached this great heat, the covering of the gun was removed by means of a pulley. From the pressure, the grains came out and went up to the ceiling—all over the room—and expanded to eight times their size.
The first day Mr. Hopkins told me, “I know how they should advertise that. They should advertise the process, because they have something unique there. They have an exclusive thing.” He disclosed to me the first night that he would advertise, “The food shot from guns.” He said: “We’ll advertise the food shot from guns. We’ll show pictures—or drawings—of these guns. We’ll show the grains hitting the ceiling.”
We did this subsequently. It was so dramatic that business multiplied within six weeks—multiplied! The imaginations of the women of the whole country were captured.
Hopkins and I agreed that it was foolish to advertise the two cereals separately. We asked the Quaker Oats people, “Why do you advertise them separately?”
They said, “We want to build up two foods. People don’t use the same breakfast food every day. They use some of Kellogg’s one day, some of Post’s the next. We want them to use two of ours.”
We said, “We’d like to talk first about your present copy before we tell you what we’re going to do. Certainly advertising to the American people that you’re going to ‘Japanify’ them is not an appeal. They will not respond to an allure for a lower standard of living. You could do nothing worse than to associate your merchandise with that. That has been one of the big things that has held you back.”
They quickly saw that. One may wonder, with a concern as large and well-run as they were—for they were a large concern for those days—that that had not occurred to them. But they weren’t trained advertising minds. Psychologically it didn’t occur to them. They immediately conceded that point.
“All right,” we said, “who are you going to fool? These goods are processed goods. If you advertise these two things separately, you haven’t enough appropriation. We’ve got to combine those appropriations to get an impact. What we must do is advertise the process . We will say in terms that the public can understand that in order not to have sameness, they can vary it between wheat and rice. No matter how separately you advertise it, the public will know that it’s just wheat and rice processed the same way when they eat it. They’ll know that, and you won’t fool them.”
They said, “But what will we call them?”
“Simply change the name of Wheat Berries to Puffed Wheat.”
Thus Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice were born.
Then we said to them, “You haven’t margin enough.”
“Oh,” they said, “but look. We give 22 ounces of Quaker Oats for ten cents. We only give eight ounces of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice. It’s a very big package, but there’s so much air in it that it isn’t heavy. We couldn’t give more, because with the bulk it takes, the transportation charges would be too big. The stores wouldn’t handle it. Our overhead is such that for ten cents we can give them only eight ounces. We couldn’t charge more.”
We said, “Look, anyone who buys this knows he’s buying a luxury. Eight ounces for ten cents is no more out of line than is eight ounces for twelve cents. No one is being fooled, and you haven’t enough money to educate the public.”
We got them to raise the price. That became the campaign. Very quickly Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice became very large money earners, almost comparable to Quaker Oats itself.
I’m not speaking as one who is looking to the past, but there comes a time when you have to survey and return to fundamentals. Advertising today is done on the production line—synthetically. Several men will work on one copy. There’s a lot of research, but they haven’t the inspirational writers like Hopkins.
I’m not speaking in bitterness or with the thought of the “good old days.” I am saying that it’s largely because advertising appropriations are so great and that they are spending so much that they are getting results. There are certain techniques out of salesmanship-in-print that are fundamentally known—that you can get in as techniques and which will give you results as against general publicity or “keeping the name before the people.” But it’s lacking that added thing—the “food shot from guns”—which you can’t get through technique. You have to be a creative artist with imagination.
We had done some work for the American Tobacco Company back in 1910 or 1912, but it was too much for me to come to New York. I had closed the large New York office and had only a small office.
The big cigarette companies had started some time between 1912 and 1923 to make the present type of cigarettes, domestic Virginia and Turkish tobaccos mixed. I think the first two to make it were Camels and Chesterfields. The American Tobacco Company was late in starting. Up to 1923, or even 1925, the American Tobacco Company must have had over fifty brands, and those fifty brands would be pushed and advertised—each with a little appropriation.
Those fifty-odd brands not only included cigarettes, but also included smoking tobaccos, plug tobaccos, and so forth. The new type of cigarette—the new mixture—caught on very quickly. Belatedly, after Camel and Chesterfield got going, the American Tobacco Company put out a cigarette under the name of Lucky Strike.
Mr. Percival Hill was the president of the American Tobacco Company, and he asked me if I would see him and his son. I did see them at lunch at the Vanderbilt Hotel. At the end of our interview he offered me the Lucky Strike account, which was their biggest account and which, at that time, was spending perhaps from $600,000 to $800,000 a year.
Present at the lunch, besides him and myself, was Hill’s son, George Washington Hill. I do not think he was the vice-president of the company at that time. I think he was just the advertising manager, although he may have just been made a vice-president.
I said to Mr. Percival Hill, “Do you handle this advertising yourself? Do we deal with you? Whom do we deal with—because if we deal with you, and you feel that confidence in us, I’ll be very glad to do your advertising, but before I’d want to say that we’d do the advertising, I would have to know with whom we would deal and be sure that he had the confidence to cooperate with us. There’s nothing that is more distressing than to have a client who isn’t sympathetic.”
Mr. Hill answered, “My son George, here, looks after the advertising, but I make the decisions. It’s time enough for him to make the decisions when I’m dead.”
I said, “That’s fine, Mr. Hill, but I’ve got to deal with your son George, and I wouldn’t want to accept. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If he’ll come out to Chicago for a week and see how we work and talk to clients about us, and if he asks me to take it, then we will do it.”
That program was agreed to, and he came to Chicago. The net result was that we took the Lucky Strike advertising. They represented to me at that time that they were making some 35 billion cigarettes a year, I think, but many, many years later I learned that it was little more than half of that. They were really on the way out !
We tried several different ideas, and none of our first ideas went in a great way. However, they all did better than they had done before.
”…I do not want to represent that we made the American Tobacco Company. I do represent…”
During the test period Mr. Percival died, and his son George became president. I said to his son, “Now look, you’re spending $600,000 or $800,000 a year. I’m going to work with you on certain ideas, and if in two or three years I can’t have this account to $5,000,000, it can’t live. We’ll have to agree to do certain things, but when we do $5,000,000, I never want to hear from you how much our commissions amount to. You won’t be paying them to us. We will have earned them ourselves.”
I must say that many years later in a very famous and rather unpleasant law case, I was forced to testify with Mr. Hill in the room that up to that time I had done $180,000,000 worth of business with them—as high as $20,000,000 a year—on which we got fifteen per cent commission (of course we had to pay expenses), and that I had never thought the division was fair. The company got too much for what we put in, and we got too little.
I wouldn’t say that we made the company a success, because you have to give the credit to the man who’s in charge. I have to give the credit to Mr. Hill because he let us do the work. If he had not let us do the work, or if we’d made mistakes, he’d have had to take the blame for the mistakes.
For example, I can put it this way. I’ll take credit for Lord & Thomas for whatever we contributed. Maybe some of my men developed the ideas, but I’ll take the credit (a) for having found the man (b) for having selected the ideas. I do not want to represent that we made the American Tobacco Company. I do represent that they were fast going out until we came into the picture, and that it wasn’t many years before they were first in place.
In the first place, when we started, Mr. Hill and I talked it over. I’ll show how I can’t take the credit. It took a lot of preparation. I said, “We haven’t enough money for a national campaign. You can’t live unless you have this one brand, because eighty or ninety per cent of the cigarette business in this country today is on this one type of cigarette.” These other cigarettes and other products were a different type of goods.
I said, “Instead of spending a little money and a moderate amount of money on each of these fifty products, milk them all. Take what you spend on them and the milking of their profits and put it in a big push behind Luckies. See with a big push if we can’t get it off.”
By that time Camel and Chesterfield were already spending vast sums out of earnings, when Mr. Hill made the decision to do that. It was a very brave and forward looking decision, and it saved the company. I myself would give the credit to the general who decided to take the course.
While I was working with my men on what we could do, I was lunching one day at the Tip Top Inn in Chicago, which was, at that time, on the top of the Pullman Building. The proprietor was a very great friend of ours.
Women did not smoke in public in this country, but with this new type of cigarette, women had begun smoking more and more. This was in the midst of the dizzy Prohibition era, when they were more or less uninhibited, but no public place in the United States would permit women to smoke. As a result, the ladies’ rooms were always jammed with women who would go in there for a smoke. Women did smoke at home, and although there were comparatively few who did, it was a growing thing. It showed that it was ready to break down the resistance which America had against women smoking cigarettes. Goodness knows, a hundred years before women had smoked pipes! But there’d grown a prejudice—such a prejudice that when Theodore Roosevelt was Governor of New York (which was before 1900), and the reporters saw his daughter Alice smoking a cigarette, it was first-page news for days in all the papers of the United States.
If you saw a woman smoke in public, it was something which people pointed out as if they were looking at some strange animal in a zoo. It was against the mores of the times, but already women had begun to smoke secretly at home. It wasn’t a great group, but compared to what it was before, it was considerable.
My wife had been to a doctor a short time before. She had been ill, and she was gaining weight. This doctor proposed to my wife (who almost thought he proposed something criminal to her, so strong was her prejudice) that before each meal, or between meals when she got hungry, she light a cigarette and then throw it away. He said that the smoke in the saliva would kill the appetite for a little while. I had to urge my wife to do it, since her prejudice was so strong.
The day we were having lunch at the Tip Top Inn, we sat there, and my wife lit a cigarette. The proprietor was a great friend of mine, and he came and said, “Look, I can’t let your wife smoke here in the restaurant. The sight of a woman smoking offends too many of my customers, but I have my own private dining room. You go in there with her, and she can smoke all she wants.”
It filled me with indignation that I had to do surreptitiously something which was perfectly normal in a place where I had gone so much. That determined me to break down the prejudice against women smoking, and that the recommendation I would make to Hill would be one to that end. If he could break down the prejudice against women smoking, he would be the first to get the women’s trade in a big way.
I talked it over with my men. I think this campaign was one of the few we put out under my direction in Lord & Thomas, and that was largely my own idea. I thought of the idea of getting foreign women to testify that they smoked Luckies. There was no prejudice in Europe against women smoking. They smoked then as now—the same as men—in public, out of public, and whenever they wanted.
As I worked it out, I said in my mind, “I must get foreign women who are resident in America for a time, and whom the public would know and who would not mind publicity.” It was very natural that my mind went to the opera stars, because at that time there were only one or two American stars, and the rest were foreign.
Then we developed what we called our “precious voice” campaign. As they were singers, they said, “My living is dependent on my being able to sing, and I protect my precious voice by smoking Lucky Strike.”
We showed beautiful pictures of the stars in their costumes, and practically all the men and women of the Metropolitan Opera Company used Luckies for a while and gave us testimony.
At that time, we paid them nothing, except that they got the publicity.
Just as I’d contemplated, we were able to get the stage and screen stars. Overnight the business of Luckies went up like the land in a boom field where oil has just been found. All other cigarettes went up, too. The women broke the prejudice down overnight and began smoking in public. I do not think two months passed before the prejudice was withering in the whole nation.
We’d hardly started the campaign when I made a trip to New York. Passing through Pittsburgh, I saw in one of the Pittsburgh morning papers which came on the train that the candy manufacturers were meeting there, and that the candy manufacturers had appropriated $150,000 to run a campaign against cigarette smoking. Already at the end of these few months the candy people were feeling it, since people have a limited amount of money. They wanted to stop the growth of cigarettes so that money could be used for candy, and they wanted a good argument for people to buy candy.
The main argument that they were going to put forward was that cigarette smoking was not good for the nervous system and for general health. The way to stop it was to eat a piece of candy. If you ate a piece of candy, the sweetness of that would so fix your saliva that you would lose your taste to smoke—which is a fact.
Then I remembered what had given me the original impulse for the “precious voice” campaign. It was that the doctor had told my wife to smoke to cut down on her appetite for sweets. So I said, “Well, if that idea is good for them with their little $150,000”—and they did run a few advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post —“that justifies us in reverse in using the several millions we have now in making the claim for Lucky Strike.”
So I went to see Mr. Hill, and I said to Mr. Hill, “I have a wonderful idea for you that we want to add to our ‘precious voice’ campaign. It will multiply the results.”
“Oh,” he said, “I have an idea I want to give you first. I have an idea I thought of myself, and I don’t want any of yours until I give you mine. I’m excited about mine.”
He pulled out of a drawer a piece of paper on which he had written these words, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a bonbon.”
He said, “What do you think of that?”
I said, “How did you come to think of that? What, for instance, made you think of that?”
He told me a story utterly different from mine, but of an incident which happened to him. Mr. Hill was a man, in certain ways, with very old-fashioned ideas. He didn’t call candy, candy. It was bonbon.
He said, “What do you think of it?”
I said, “I think it could be made terrific, but as it is, it’s no good. One word would have to be changed.”
He said, “What?”
I took a pencil and put a mark through the word “bonbon.” In its place I put the word “sweet,” and it read, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”
He said, “Why?”
I said, “Because ninety per cent of the people who will read this won’t know what bonbon means. You happen to have lived in France a lot. Second, there’s a swing to ‘sweet’—one word—that there isn’t to ‘bonbon.’ But third, why do we want to limit it to candy, which is just one item of sweets? We want people not to take pies and cakes.”
Everyone knows that anything with sugar in it is a sweet. I said it should be, “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” and he agreed to that.
Then we added to our copy with each of the testifiers that they protected their “precious voices” by smoking Luckies, and that they protected their figures by “reaching for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”
I think the earnings went from about $12,000,000 a year in 1926, to $40,000,000 in ’30 or ’31 and Luckies became the overwhelming leader of the line, and the pacemaker.
Then Mr. Hill became very excited over advertising, and we changed the programs a lot. “Nature in the raw is seldom mild” is a long story. It was overused, and it was hurtful to Luckies—but that is another story.
Hill was so obsessed with Luckies that I would not call him a completely well-balanced man. He was erratic and rough because he had this compulsion, which it would take a Freud to understand, regarding the selling of Luckies. It was just a religious crusade with him—which made it very difficult at times to work with a man so narrow-minded on a thing which was all out of focus. Within himself, he felt he was performing a great social service!