The Man Who Sold America

LaskerRecommending the surprisingly lively narrative of Albert Lasker’s life: The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry, by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz.

Lasker ran the advertising agency Lord & Thomas from the 1910s through the 1930s, promulgating “reason-why” advertising, or “salesmanship in print,” in partnership with copywriters John E. Kennedy and Claude Hopkins. Lord & Thomas successfully advertised Kleenex, Pepsodent, Sunkist, Palmolive, Lucky Strikes, and Puffed Wheat, among other brands.

Lasker’s approach to advertising gave consumers many “reasons why” to buy, listing product attributes exhaustively. If one reason didn’t convince, maybe the next reason would.

Today, we can laugh at reason-why advertising; it looks primitive and unsophisticated to us.  That’s because it’s a strategy of rational appeals centered on product attributes. Reason-why copywriters assumed that product information was the main function of advertising. Reason-why copywriters also assumed their readers were not very intelligent and required information to be spelled out: P-E-P-S-O-D-E-N-T.

Modern advertising gradually shifted away from the “hard sell” of reason-why and rational appeals. As sophisticated modern consumers, we resent being talked down to.

Since the 1960s, the “soft sell,” or the reliance on irrational appeals based on emotions or associations, predominates. Information about the product rather than evocations of emotional bonds, or attractiveness, or winning, or ironic coolness, seems so archaic.

Reason-why predominated when advertisers thought that direct appeals would affect consumer behavior and influence purchasing. Today, advertisers understand that such directness risks creating consumer resistance instead.

To Lasker’s credit, he was aware of the gradual shift to the soft sell in the increasingly complex marketing environment of the mid-century, although he never deviated from his advertising philosophy. He bowed out of the advertising business in the 1940s, retiring to a life of philanthropy.

Lasker turned his powers of persuasion to greater social goods than selling toothpaste and cigarettes; he and his wife Mary Lasker helped create the American Cancer Society and Planned Parenthood. He seemed to be motivated by similar ideals in both advertising and philanthropy: making progress, improving the world. The grandiosity of a Lasker is not at all dissimilar from that of a Bill Gates.  Who’s to say that’s such a bad thing?

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