Can These Old-School Ads Help Your Bottom Line Today?

by Scott Martin

Last updated on January 16th, 2018

If you come across a marketing guru who claims to be “innovative” and “cutting edge,” then run the other way.

It’s true that innovative, cutting edge technology can make marketing easier (sometimes), but when it comes to direct marketing techniques, what worked 100 years ago (in those old-school ads we often roll our eyes at) still works today.

People are wired to respond to them, so these techniques will probably continue to work in 100 years. Any “expert” who says that direct response is obnoxious and doesn’t work is, as the Scots would say, “talking mince.”

In this blog, we’ll take a look at some classic direct response ads that have can share relevant lessons today. Apply them to your own marketing and you can easily maximize conversion in landing pages, direct mail, and other media.

The Ginzu Knives Infomercial

This direct response masterpiece ran in 1978.

It starts with arresting images to get your attention: a man splitting wood with his hand then trying to split a tomato using the same motion.

You see the benefit almost immediately—it’s easy to cut or slice anything.

The offer is incredibly clear: send us money and it will be easier to slice and dice.

They pound away with the additional goodies so the offer becomes totally irresistible.

There’s a “no brainer” price of just $9.95.

They provide a 50-year guarantee—so there’s no risk. (Although it would be interesting to see if the company would still honor it today. Has anyone tried?)

You may correctly wonder how the company made any money by selling all these items for less than $10. I don’t know the business model, but it’s likely this company gathered information then sold additional products and services on the back end to make their profit.

Notice how every infomercial today uses PRECISELY the same format. The reason? It’s effective.

The Two Young Men Letter for The Wall Street Journal

old Wall Street Journal ad

In this letter, copywriter Martin Conroy tells the story of two men, one who was successful, the other who was mega-successful.

The difference? The mega-successful guy subscribed to The Wall Street Journal.

You see versions of this ad used today…in comparison ads.

Remember those ads for Apple that featured the frumpy old guy who was a PC and the hip techno-dude who was a Mac? Same principle. Want to be cool? Get a Mac.

The technique that works so well in this letter is simple storytelling. Plus the offer is razor sharp: subscribe and be ultra-rich.

They Laughed When I Sat Down…

headline from "they laughed" ad

This display ad advertises a home study course for learning how to play the piano. Now just in case you think ads like this don’t work anymore, I recently received this promotion from The Motley Fool.

motley fool ad using old ad format

You might not want to use the exact headline but you can try the theme:

  • They said we couldn’t do it—but we did…and the achievement will benefit you in this way…
  • Yes—you can reach your goals but only with what we’re selling…
  • We’re shocking the world and turning our industry around…and this means cheaper prices for you.

While there aren’t many companies using a “they laughed” headline directly, many direct marketers are using similar approaches.

Bill Glazer’s Legal Pad Ads

Maybe you’ve seen this one before. Click here to download it as a PDF.

Before he joined forces with Dan Kennedy, Bill Glazer ran a men’s clothing store in Baltimore. He sent his database “hand-written” direct mail letters on legal pad paper. And yes, there are companies who can print these.

Glazer’s goal was to bring personality to his direct mail pieces and break through the clutter in the target’s mailbox.

The lesson: use a creative angle with direct response—you’ll get noticed.

Anything by Ron Popeil

Let’s circle back to the infomercial. Ron Popeil founded Ronco, a small direct response company that’s sold over $2 billion in household products. Here’s a classic Ronco ad from the 70s.

It’s the classic “problem-solution-proof-offer” model that remains powerful today.

  • The problem? Buttons that keep coming off.
  • The solution? The Buttoneer2 that attaches buttons to anything in 1 second.
  • Proof? A landslide of images showing the gadget in action.
  • The offer? It’s less than $5 and it’s a perfect holiday season gift.

Go through this exercise right now by taking these steps.

  1. Identify the main problem your customers face.
  2. Clearly detail your solution.
  3. Provide proof your solution works.
  4. Come up with an irresistible offer to persuade people to try your solution.

Bingo! You’ve got your next ad…and the copy for your website…and your social media strategy…and so on…

I recently worked for a client who is making a small fortune in the health space.

How did he get there? Just out of college and trying to understand marketing, he spent HOURS watching infomercials and direct marketing TV commercials. Now he uses traditional infomercial techniques to market his products.

If you’re new to marketing or new to direct response, it’s VITAL to study these and other classic direct response ads.

Spend an afternoon on YouTube watching old infomercials. Then spend a morning surfing around for ads by David Ogilvy, Gene Schwartz, Gary Bencivenga, Drayton Bird, and others.

These marketers sold billions. Use their techniques and you can enjoy off-the-charts response.



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Scott Martin

Scott Martin is a direct response copywriter based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has also written or edited 18 books including The Book of Caddyshack: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Greatest Movie Ever Made. Scott provides free resources for marketers including direct response checklists.


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  1. August 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks, Ashley for the comment. Yes…the ‘tried and true’ principles almost always work.

  2. August 30, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Hi Scott, it seems amazing that such “old” stuff can be so relevant. But I have heard similar sentiment from many people. I was actually watching an entrepreneurs workshop with Tim Ferriss and Noah Kegan the other day, and they mentioned exactly the same thing. Watch the stuff that works, learn from it, don’t reinvent the wheel. Thanks for the examples and names to check out , this really helps

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