In his book 'Scientific Advertising', Claude Hopkins asserts (and proves) that the ability to be successful in advertising isn’t an innate and non-transferable skill.

A note from our Co-founder

I’m sure you’ve been exposed to a number of Marketing books over the years. A couple of excellent books come to mind such as ‘Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind‘ by Trout and Ries and ‘Ogilvy on Advertising‘ by David Ogilvy, both great reads for anyone studying the art of persuasion.

But there is a marketing book that is superior to those great tomes. All of these books kind of derive from one source, a book called ‘Scientific Advertising‘ by Claude Hopkins. The book was written in 1923 and all the principles hold true to this day. You can download Scientific Advertising here or simply read our following book report. This little excerpt will give you some key nuggets of wisdom, then you can decide if you want to read more.

Gregg Meiklejohn
Enrollment Resources Inc

Common sense principles

Scientific Advertising is written like a how-to for business people interested in learning how-to quit wasting money on advertising. I don’t mean to say that Hopkins bashes advertising; he just does not have any time for ego. Your feelings, my assumptions, the mind-blowingly-rich ad executives’ advice and the industry’s general bluster are quickly and repeatedly dismissed in favor of experimentation, measurement, comparison, and fact.

In this book, Hopkins asserts (and proves) that the ability to be successful in advertising isn’t an innate and non-transferable skill. Advertising is not ruled by the accidental savant.

Hopkins’ insights derive from three grounding concepts:

  1. Your ad is a salesperson
  2. The mail order model is your base
  3. You don’t know enough people to average their desires

Scientific Advertising is a snapshot of American society in 1923: through any modern lense, much of the language used and assumptions made are sexist and outdated. Even so, Hopkins’ insights haven’t aged a day. I advise readers to look past its incongruities and avoid judging it by modern standards. The lessons in this book are just as relevant today as they were in the roaring twenties.

Principle 1: Your ad is a salesperson

Do you track the performance of your admissions reps? What they cost your business compared to what they bring in? How they compare with each other?

Of course you do.

And what would you do for an admissions rep who performs poorly against the rest? Change nothing and hope that, against all odds, your audience finally connects with them? Give them a makeover assuming a trendy haircut and skinny jeans will increase their ability to qualify leads?

Of course not.

And how do other reps fit into this scenario? Is their success simply luck? Would you make sure the highest performer never shared their knowledge with the struggling rep?

Now I’m just being absurd, right? This is all common sense.

Yet, for some reason, the common sense processes we apply to developing, managing and measuring admissions reps often aren’t applied to ads. And they should be. An admission rep’s purpose and an ad’s purpose are the same: to make sales. So treat your ad like you would treat an admissions rep.

Claude Hopkins Says...

“Force it to justify itself. Compare it with other salesmen. Figure its cost and result. Accept no excuses which good salesmen do not make. Then you will not go far wrong.”

Principle 2: The mail order model is your base

Mail order advertisements are not sexy. No one fawns over mail order ads at elite film festivals and fashion events. However, they are what Hopkins calls “proved advertising” and the source of many basic laws of advertising.

Mail order is…

1. Looking for action. The purpose of mail order is to make an immediate sale. There is probably a coupon attached to get action from the reader.

2. A reminder. The mail order model knows that readers forget and provides a coupon or other incentive as a reminder to act.

3. A complete story. The more you tell the more you sell.

4. Tracked and traced until “the cost per reply and cost per dollar of sale show up with utter exactness.”

5. A model.

Claude Hopkins Says...

“It is hard to sell goods which can’t be seen. Ads which do that are excellent examples of what advertising should be.”

Mail order isn’t…

1. Guesswork: Everything is compared: ad v. ad, method v. method, headline v. headline, picture v. picture, etc.

2. Decoration. Any picture used has earned the right to be there.

3. Wasting space: “Every line is utilized. Borders are rarely used. Remember that when you are tempted to leave valuable space unoccupied.”

4. Entertainment. Space is used to tell the story, to sell and to remind. There isn’t any space left to boast, amuse or entertain.

The cost of compromise

Use the mail order model as your base line. Eliminate all waste. Know the cost of every compromise you make away from this model to satisfy some desire.

Claude Hopkins Says...

“Let us know the cost of our pride. Then, if our advertising fails to bring the wanted returns, let us go back to our model–a good mail order ad–and eliminate some of our waste.”

Principle 3: You don’t know enough people to average their desires

Think of your target audience. How many are there? A thousand? A couple hundred thousand? Millions?

Now think about all the people you know. How many of them fit into your target audience? Do they add up to a statistically representative amount?

The honest answer is no, the number of people you truly understand in your audience is not representative of the whole. Then it follows that we can’t “just know” what will resonate with our audience. So why do so many of us assume we know the best way to sell to them?

This is the other area where we don’t apply common sense to our advertising efforts. As I mentioned earlier, Hopkins has absolutely no time for ego. Assumptions and feelings should be replaced immediately with experimentation, measurement, comparison and fact. That process – the scientific process – is the only way to truly understand how to construct the most persuasive appeal.

The Scientific Advertising principles in action

Most of the lessons in Scientific Advertising are combinations of Hopkins’ three main common-sense principles:

  1. Your ad is a salesperson
  2. The mail order model is your base
  3. You don’t know enough people to average their desires

How do these three ideas work in action? And how do they interact with each other?

Combining Scientific Advertising Principles

Your ad is a salesperson plus The mail order model is your base

You’ll avoid a lot of mistakes if you remember to treat your ad like you treat your admissions reps. For instance, never dress your ad like a clown. Spending money is a serious business and people do not want to buy from a clown.

The direct mail model doesn’t seek to entertain and neither should your ad. People aren’t reading your ad for entertainment. If your ad is attracting people looking for laughs or distraction, it is likely attracting the wrong people.

Instead, the model teaches us to tell a complete story and eliminate waste. Your admissions reps can use as many words as necessary to sell your product, and the same courtesy should be shown to your ad. Likewise, your reps would never land a sale armed only with a logo and slogan.

Combining Scientific Advertising Principles

Your ad is a salesperson plus You don’t know enough people to average their desires

Your ad has a built-in advantage compared to your admissions reps – the headline. With the right headline, your ad can laser-target your desired audience and filter everyone else out.

But it has to be the right headline. When we apply the second principle to the first, it becomes obvious that the only way to know for sure you’re sending your ad out with the best headline is through testing.

“The appeals we like the best will rarely prove best, because we do not know enough people to average up their desires. So we learn on each line by experiment.” ~ Claude Hopkins

Send your ad out with proven, targeted headlines. Your ad will never again waste time on people who aren’t interested or waste uninterested people’s time.

Combining Scientific Advertising Principles

The mail order model is your base plus You don’t know enough people to average their desires

Hopkins cautions to ignore any and all advice that is not based on facts – measurable data. Have a feeling a certain appeal with perform really well? Test it. Your buddy says he got great hits with a certain offer? Test it. Read that some fabulously successful advertising tsar made a million dollars overnight with this one simple trick? Test it.

Before you act on anyone’s advice, ask for proof. Test every change you want to make on a representative sample of your audience, regardless of who suggested it. Remember principle #3 and replace ego and assumptions with scientific processes of experimentation, measurement, comparison and fact.

Spend resources on testing. The investment is nothing compared to the losses you’ll suffer otherwise. Know the cost of every compromise you make that takes you away from your proven mail-order-baseline.

Combining Scientific Advertising Principles

The Scientific Advertising Trifecta

What happens when we mix them all together?

You took great pains to get your ad (admissions rep) in the room with the right people who have some interest in the subject matter. Make sure it has the best chance of getting noticed with a proven headline. Make sure it can sell by giving it enough information to get action. And don’t waste energy trying to be clever.

If your ad falls short, review the cost of every compromise you made that took you away from the mail order model. Put your pride aside and rethink the giant brand, snappy slogan and picture of your adorable dog. Hopkins is as sure in the fact that no one wants to buy from a clown as he is that people don’t care how clever or beautiful your ad is. That is not in their interest. Always remember your audience’s interests.


Applying scientific methods to advertising processes (including creation) was incredibly innovative in 1923. Amazingly, Hopkins’ insights are just as relevant to the industry today as they were then.

Almost all the lessons in Scientific Advertising can be built from three grounding concepts:

  1. Your ad is a salesperson
  2. The mail order model is your base
  3. You don’t know enough people to average their desires

In Scientific Advertising, Hopkins shares generously of his knowledge and experience, proving that success in modern advertising isn’t achieved through magic or accident but by understanding and applying fundamental, universal principles that anyone can learn.

Revenue Finder - Enrollment Resources