Monday, October 12, 2020

An Anecdote about Claude Hopkins from Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants

As soon as I saw the title it caught my attention. Of course a lot of titles catch our attention, but fail to deliver. From the start I knew Tim Wu's book would deliver the goods.

As one who made a career of learning how to get peoples' attention and influence their behavior (ad man whose back pocket weapon was networking and PR) I've been an avid student of what's happening in the media and in the info age's digital space. Tim Wu's well-researched and anecdotally rich book places today's advertising/influence game into a historical context. 

David Ogilvy's books formed a portion of my education as an advertiser, as did the writings of Ries & Trout. Ogilvy pays tribute to Claude Hopkins, influential advertising "genius" who authored Scientific Advertising and My Life In Advertising, as the father of modern advertising.

The first chapter of the book is about how newspapers became more about marketing than about news. Rather, how the news papers became a different sort of business than merely leafleting stories. Then in chapter two he relates to us the story of Claude Hopkins and the formation of Hopkins' ideas as an early snake oil salesman. I've read both of Hopkins' classics on advertising and influence, but was unaware of his beginnings. 

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair was a turning point in the life of the young man from Michigan. (It's surprising how that singular event made an impact on so many people and their lives. Houdini immediately comes to mind as does the inspiration for "America the Beautiful.") For Claude Hopkins, he became mesmerized by a huckster named Clark Stanley. The audacious Stanley, dressed in cowboy attire with a beaded leather jacket and colorful bandana, would take rattlesnakes and throw them into a vat of boiling water, then skim off the material that floated to the top and sell it as medicine. "Good for what ails you." Indeed.

This was back in the days before truth in advertising laws existed. These were the days before FDA approval was required to sell medicines. There were plenty of these kinds of entrepreneurs making their way from town to town back in the day. You will even meet them in the tale of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. 

Hopkins felt inspired to write stories and ad copy for one of these products, Dr. Schoop's Elixir of Life. He was rewarded for his success in three ways. The first, financially. The second, the experience he gained. Third, the unexpected outcomes from his success.

His success with Dr Schoop's led to bigger things in Chicago. He began promoting the amazing Liquozone and was a pioneer of free samples. The claims for Liquozone included endorsements by doctors. Unfortunately, this was truly bad medicine. This was taking place during the time Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was bringing other cultural scourges to light. The government stepped up regulations and subsequent media excoriations led to the demise of Liquozone. 

The end of the story for Hopkins was disillusionment and something of a breakdown. He retreated to a cottage in Michigan and turned to writing, intending to give up the advertising game. Easier said than done. 

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The book is well researched and has much to offer readers, whether they be in the marketing game or targets of today's "attention machinery."

Here's a review by someone whose handle on Amazon is E l R:

A history of the attention industry. It's shocking. This book contextualises the current internet/smart phone attention grab as merely the last in a long line of technologies used by commercial forces to capture and resell your attention. Together with Adler's Irresistible, and Carr's The Shallows, this is in my view essential reading to anyone that uses modern media technology.

I will continue reading and keep you apprised. Currently I rate if 5 stars. If this changes I will let you know.

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I think it interesting that the cover of the book features a fishing lure as the graphic. A bare hook in the water will not catch fish, except by luck. Lures are designed to capture attention. 

1 comment:

LEWagner said...

Last week was the yearly lesson on writing advertising.
I have a picture penciled in my book of a fish with a baited hook in front of it.
I concentrate on the concepts of "click-bait", "testimonials", and "advertising claims", and then have the students write their own ad (for an imaginary product).
Some of them are hilarious.