Many years ago I worked in a very unpleasant and traditional "office job." In formulating my escape plan I initially wanted to go to graduate school and study/dissertate on the history of advertising. When I realized that this would entail joining a "cultural studies" or communication department I abruptly changed course. Really, one must salvage some dignity in academia. Nonetheless the topic remains fascinating to me. Advertising from 200, 100, 50, or even just a few years ago does not merely look dated or quaint – some of it looks like it was made on another planet.

Watching some old political ads on Thursday reminded me of the Rosser Reeves Hard Sell in all of its glory. Today's televised ads, even the ham-fisted ones, are incredibly subtle in comparison. An 18-wheeler barreling through a minefield is subtle compared to classic Reeves. While most people have no idea who he is (although I'll bet a quarter that some character on Mad Men is patterned after him) I can guarantee that everyone knows his work.

Reeves never believed that advertising could create demand. He regularly told his clients that he couldn't sell lousy products – the purpose of advertising was to increase demand by hammering home one point, one catchphrase, which summed up the "unique selling proposition" of a product. There are 50 different chocolate candies on the market, but M&Ms "melt in your mouth, not in your hand." There's a lot of aspirin, but Anacin is "what doctors recommend." "We like Ike" Eisenhower, the "Man from Abilene." Colgate creates an "invisible shield" around teeth. At Avis, "We Try Harder." Relief is spelled "R-O-L-A-I-D-S." Reeves created ad campaigns before the frickin' Korean War that can be recited flawlessly today by anyone who looked at a TV in the 1950s.

The amazing thing about Reeves and the Hard Sell, something which is apparent if you click through any of the links, is that people simply hated his ads. They're annoying as all hell. They consist of unappealing imagery paired with an announcer repetitively yelling at the viewer. Can you imagine a modern political ad screaming at you like "The Man from Abilene?" Reeves believed art, subtlety, cleverness, and style were for pussies. He thought that it didn't matter one bit if anyone enjoyed the ad. All that mattered was that those same people who said they hated the ads remembered them verbatim. The combination of repitition (few companies advertised on TV, hence a small group of commercials were in heavy rotation) and pointed delivery make Reeves' ads unusually enduring.

The Hard Sell fell out of favor in the 1960s when the prevailing philosophy in advertising shifted toward campaigns which tried to be cool, cinematic, artistic, and less "pitch-y." In other words, advertising that didn't look so much like advertising. Compared to the new Doyle-Dane-Bernbach style, which incorporated concepts like post-modernism and breaking down the fourth wall, Hard Sell ads began to look exceptionally corny (Thomas Frank's Conquest of Cool goes into significant detail about the transition). It's the difference between a modern Volkswagen commercial and a Billy Mays ad for Mighty Putty. It's the difference between an Obama ad and this 1964 Goldwater ad warning viewers of "JUVENILE DELINQUENCY!"

Consumers began to tune out ads that insulted their intelligence with direct "BUY THIS NOW" appeals. So the Hard Sell disappeared. Right? Not so much. Ad execs may distance themselves from Reeves, recoiling at the mere implication that they would subscribe to the crass theories of a bygone era, but many modern ad campaigns incorporate all of his principles (albeit in a prettier package). No, the real change was in the products. There simply aren't enough things being advertised to us that have "unique selling propositions" – even phony, dubious, and pseudoscientific ones like we saw in the 1950s. What makes Nike unique? Nothing. It's a shoe. So are Reeboks. All shoes cover your feet. The only way to pitch Nike versus Adidas versus Reebok is on style points; look how "hip" our ad campaign is, look at the awesome celebrity spokespeople, look at how cool everyone will find you in our shoes. Accordingly, most products adopt a new campaign (and a new slogan) every 9 months lest they get "stale" and hence un-hip. In 50 years I can guarantee you that no one will remember McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" slogan – or "Food, Folks and Fun" or "We Love to See You Smile" or any of their dozens of slogans since 1990. But in 2058 I bet that people will still be able to state exactly where M&Ms melt and where no such melting occurs.

3 thoughts on “THE HARD SELL”

  • classic last line.

    i too harbored an interest in advertising and marketing until i realized that pursuing that career involved this thing called "business school" so i quickly switch to reading faggy books by dead guys for a living. i too find some ad tactics fascinating. your mention of mighty putty is especially relevant. i love the idea of that commerical: (and i'm paraphrasing,) "mighty putty/sham wow is retarded! YOU are retarded! it's a match made in heaven!"

    however, i think you are skirting the real issue here: what the fuck is billy mays beard MADE of? it's like a dark matter forest from whence no light can escape.

  • I'm a Marketing VP at a big regional bank, and YOU HAVE NAILED IT.

    Just FYI – I'm going to completely steal your post and share with my colleagues. I do need to censor it just a touch – here in Alabama people tend to frown on using words like "pussies" in a corporate environment.


  • Interesting post. It is remarkable how the ads have evolved over the last few decades, but I would have attributed it more to increasing media saturation and consumer sophistication rather than any real change in the products. I feel like Madison Avenue was pushing as many largely fungible items then (toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, toothpaste) as it is now. But it simply became harder to penetrate the white noise and harder to make things stick. The simple addition of the remote control and cable TV must have had some impact on the ability to repeatedly haul out the sledgehammer hard sell.

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