Hands down, the greatest copywriter in turn-of-the-century America was Claude Hopkins.
His career spanned many decades, and launched brand names you’ll recognize. What’s especially interesting is that he worked with companies which are now major consumer brand names, but he built them into powerhouses by using direct response, not typical mass market, brand or image advertising.
Some of his work touched on health and diet issues, so I thought it’d be fun to take a look at what health copywriters and health product and service providers can learn from this great pioneer.
Among other issues, I discovered his history contradicted some of the advice given in his classic work, Scientific Advertising. But, who is 100% consistent over a 30+ year career?
Besides, the basic theme of Scientific Advertising is not that you won’t mistakes, but to learn from them.
Claude Hopkins Neglected by Current Copywriters
Recently copywriter Ray Edwards interviewed a number of marketing and copywriting gurus, among them Brian Kurtz of Boardroom. Kurtz mentioned that when he spoke at live events he asked the audience if they had read or studied Claude Hopkins, and almost nobody had.
This shocked me. All the great copywriters revere Claude Hopkins. The advertising genius David Ogilvy famously said of Scientific Advertising, “Nobody should be allowed to have anything to do with advertising until he has read this book seven times. It changed the course of my life.” Marketing consultant Jay Abraham says he’s read it over 50 times.
Ogilvy founded the Ogilvy and Mather agency and, basically, shaped the Madison Avenue of the mid to late 20th century.
Rosser Reeves, inventor of the Unique Sales Proposition (USP) and greatest of the early Mad Men television commercial copywriters (“Better living through chemistry” and “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand” are two examples of his work.), also revered Hopkins.
When I began studying copywriting, I eagerly bought and read both Scientific Advertising and his business autogiography, My Life in Advertising. But, truth to tell, I hadn’t read them for years.
So, to learn the lessons they had for me as a health/fitness/anti-aging content strategist and direct marketing copywriter, I downloaded them. Put away your credit cards. I believe physical print versions are still available on Amazon, but plenty of sites only have free pdf files.
Claude Hopkins laid the foundation for modern direct response advertising. Therefore, I not only read these books, I applied Harry Lorayne-type memory techniques to remember their concepts, chapter by chapter.
To Put Hopkins into Proper Perspective, Let’s Go Back to the “Wet Nurse” of Modern Advertising
“Wet nurse” may seem a harsh phrase, but it came from Hopkins. I’m not sure whether he consciously meant to be sarcastic or whether he just considered the career of John E. Powers as the infancy of modern marketing.
John E. Powers was the earliest copywriter to acquire a reputation. He worked for the department store owner John Wannamaker, but eventually went freelance.
He’s famous for ads that told harsh truths. A store was bankrupt, and needed to raise money to pay off creditors. “We’re bankrupt,” Powers put in the headline. Help us raise money to pay off the creditors. Another client needed to get rid of rotten mackintoshes, so Powers described them just that way in the ad.
He angered the clients, but customers bought up the stock they needed to sell.
Consequently, in that period the epitome of modern advertising technique was marketing as news. In the early 1900s, that concept still prevailed in many places, including the agency handling the Post account in Chicago.
However, that Didn’t Satisfy the First Great Ad Agency Man, Albert Lasker
Lasker joined the agency of Lord & Thompson when ad agencies still lived off the 15% commission they made by placing ads in newspapers and magazines. He was expanding that role, but remained dissatisfied by the general concept of marketing.
Marketing as “news” didn’t satisfy him. Neither did the vague assumptions of most old-time advertising professionals they somehow helped clients by putting their names and ads in front of consumers.
John E. Kennedy Sends Lasker a Mysterious Note
In a famous incident, in 1904 copywriter John E. Kennedy sent Albert Lasker a note promising to reveal what advertising what.
Nobody has yet improved on Kennedy’s definition, though it’s been modified to include modern media.
Kennedy came up with the phrase, “Advertising is salesmanship in print.” Now, marketers say, Marketing is salesmanship multiplied.
Lasker hired Kennedy away from Dr. Shoop (more about Dr. Shoop later) at a salary far higher than any other copywriter, and went on to build a giant marketing machine on the strength of that definition.
However, Kennedy, although a great copywriter, was difficult to work with, and was gone within a few years, though he did leave us the book Reason Why Advertising.
Lasker needed a replacement for Kennedy who understood the salesmanship in print and reason why concepts. A friend of Lasker’s, a magazine publisher who wouldn’t allow alcohol to be advertised in his magazine, told Lasker he had just read an ad for Schiltz beer so compelling he actually bought and drank a bottle.
Find out who wrote the Schlitz Beer ad, Lasker’s friend insisted.
Lasker found Claude Hopkins on extended vacation, resting from a stressful business adventure we’ll get back to. Hopkins wanted to retire, but Lasker convinced Hopkins to write for Van Camp’s pork and beans, and the food industry hasn’t been the same since.
Back to Young Hopkins: a Bookkeeper Yearning to Go From the Debit to Credit Column
A few years out of high school, Claude Hopkins worked as head bookkeeper for Bissell Carpet Sweeper, which sold a kind of mechanical device for cleaning floors, a sort of nonelectric vacuum cleaner.
As a bookkeeper he knew the basic equation of business:
Sales – Expenses = Net Profit
Unlike many others, including myself years later as an Accounting major, he understood the algebraic consequences.
Businesses needed to increase the Net Profit, or right side, of the equals sign.
Simple algebra says that can be done in just two ways: Increase Sales or decrease Expenses.
As a bookkeeper, he realized, his salary was an expense, subject to cutting if necessary.
He could help Bissell cut expenses, but only so far.
But there was no limit to how much Sales could be increased.
John E. Powers Solicits Bissell Carpet Sweeper
Bissell Carpet Sweeper hired the famous copywriter Powers to write an ad for them, but Powers failed to study his market. He submitted a stupid slogan written on butcher paper.
Hopkins promised his employer he could do better, and within a few days came up with a letter to send to distributors offering them the opportunity to sell the carpet cleaners.
Nobody believed his idea would work, but 5,000 letters sent brought in 1,000 orders.
A few years later, Hopkins moved on to working for Armour Meat. A few years later, he worked for Dr. Shoop, before John E. Kennedy. Then, in exchange for a 25% equity position in the company (then nearly bankrupt), he took over marketing for Liquozone.
More about Dr. Shoop and Liquozone later. Fortunately, in line with his huge capacity for hard work, he took on other accounts.
It’s good he had those Schlitz Beer ads to attract Albert Lasker’s attention, so he didn’t have to rely on Liquozone, which made him a fortune and took him to the edge of physical ruin.
Schlitz Beer is Still One of His Most Famous Campaigns
I’ve heard copywriting teachers point out how Hopkins detailed the processes the brewery used to make its beer. How it’s cooled in plate glass rooms, in filtered air. About the Mother Yeast cell, and so on.
Some of the ads reference those technicalities, but many simply call Schlitz Beer healthy. It’s pure. It’s aged for months so it doesn’t cause “biliousness.”
(That old-fashioned term means sort of quasi-nauseated. Most people, at one time or another, have been bilious from drinking too much beer, aged or not. No amount of aging prevents alcohol from irritating the lining of your stomach.)
And it’s pasteurized, so it contains no germs. Just ask your doctor.
Another ad explains that beer is a beverage of health because it contains malt and hops, a food and a tonic. Its 3.5% alcohol content is just enough to aid digestion. It contains no germs, but the sweet drinks you give your children are full of germs. (So, maybe it’s healthier to let your children drink beer?)
He coined the “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” tag line.
Although Claude Hopkins, in Scientific Advertising, says not to engage in negative advertising, some of his Schlitz Beer ads do say that other beers don’t measure up to Schlitz’s purity and health quality.
In fact, the Schlitz Beer ad that drew Albert Lasker to him was “Poor Beer, Pure Beer,” comparing Schlitz directly to other, poor, beers.
Of course, we must also remember that Hopkins’s great legacy was the concept of testing and tracking results. He admitted making many mistakes during his career.
We know he wrote those ads. We know the campaign as a whole took Schlitz from 5th place in the market to a close second just behind Anheuser-Busch beers.
We can’t know which ads brought the best results. In Scientific Advertising he explains the process, and the lessons he drew from studying it, but doesn’t tell about specific ads.
Changing How America Cooks Baked Beans
Hopkins also said that advertisers should not be educators. Companies cannot afford to attempt to “convert” people who are not already in their target market.
Fortunately for health product and service providers, this doesn’t seem a critical obstacle. I say that because if we depended on the mainstream media, the government and the medical establishment to educate our prospects, taking Vitamin C for a cold would still be controversial.
Van Camp sold baked beans, no better and no worse than other brands. Hopkins admits to holding a taste contest, and nobody could tell the difference between Van Camp’s and the other brands.
(BTW: this is normal. In college, one of my marketing teachers held such a contest for cola sodas. I could tell the difference between the cheap brands, such as RC Cola, and the big-name brands. But not between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I know many people believe they can – they told me so every night at the pizza restaurant where I worked at night – but I remain unconvinced.)
According to Hopkins’s research 94% of American housewives cooked the beans themselves. Only 6% bought them pre-cooked in cans, so Van Camp and the other brands were fighting over that 6%.
However, much of the content in the ads concerned the superiority of baked beans pre-cooked by Van Camp. It takes 16 hours to bake the beans. They come out crisped on top and undercooked on the bottom, indigestible.
As Claude Hopkins did with how Schlitz brewed beer, he went into a lot of technical detail about how Van Camp steam-cooked its beans, making them digestible and healthy while remaining cheap. He detailed and dramatized the process of making beans of uniform quality.
How long did that 94% of women continue to spend 16 hours home-baking their beans?
Drink an Orange
Actually, Hopkins said that an individual company cannot afford to educate the American consumer. He didn’t mean entire industries couldn’t. His boss Lasker took on the job, with Hopkins’s help, of convincing Americans to drink orange juice for breakfast. A California orange industry group hired them. Reportedly Hopkins coined the “Drank an orange” slogan.
(And the creation of eggs and bacon as the healthy American breakfast came from Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, but that’s another story.)
Rolled and Puffed Grains
Hopkins also took on the Quaker Oats account. He didn’t have so much success convincing people to eat oatmeal if they didn’t already, but he did make Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat popular cereals.
You’ll Wonder Where the Yellow Went
I don’t know how far back that jingle goes. I doubt Hopkins wrote it. I don’t know when they stopped singing it, but if you’re old enough, you know the next line is, “When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”
Thanks to Hopkins, Pepsodent was the first major brand of toothpaste. Although he says they could not afford to educate the people who didn’t already know to brush their teeth, it’s hard to believe his ads didn’t help change the United States into a country where failure to brush your teeth is a social sin.
Although he says the main appeal for Pepsodent was to the desire for beauty, clearly many of the ads also appeal to oral health, promoting tooth and gum health as well as making teeth whiter and more beautiful.
It removes that nasty “film” you can feel with your tongue and it firms the gums.
The Dr. Shoop Shoop Song – Maybe It Was in His Kiss (Sorry, I Couldn’t Resist)
However, prior to all his successes with such health products as Schlitz beer and baked beans, Hopkins worked for a patent medicine company, Dr. Shoop in Racine Wisconsin.
In his autobiography he is sorry for that time, and stopped many years ago, but, during that period, patent medicine was well accepted.
I found the book Hopkins wrote to promote Dr. Shoop’s Restorative at this site. It’s on pages 24-46 of this document, so it’s quite long.
Claude Hopkins used the guarantee as the main promise. If someone bought 6 bottles and wasn’t cured, they got their money back. They had about a 2% refund rate. Not bad. So, must we assume the other 98% were cured?
The copy goes on and on about various conditions, from dyspepsia to heart disease to liver trouble to kidney problems to female conditions. Basically, the cause of these problems is weakness of the inner nerves, what medicine today calls the autonomic or sympathetic nervous system, which is out of our conscious control.
Drink enough of Dr. Shoop’s Restorative, a tonic, and it strengthens those “inner” nerves (I’m not sure whether Hopkins coined that term or whether it was normal in medical usage at the time) to cure your problem.
The copy is liberally peppered with testimonials. This is interesting because, in general, Hopkins did NOT use testimonials. However, it was common practice in marketing patent medicines, so he obviously adopted it for Dr. Shoop.
If you read the entire book, you may find yourself asking an important question that Hopkins entirely ignores.
In between the outdated disease descriptions and the testimonials and the guarantee . . . what’s in Dr. Shoop’s Restorative?
At one point, Hopkins says there are no opiates. But how does it strengthen all those inner nerves?
He never says.
Isn’t that amazing? Can you imagine modern consumers buying a supplement on the promise of, “if it doesn’t cure everything short of cancer, we’ll refund your money?”
And here are some testimonials.
The Racine Post Satisfies Our Curiosity
This article takes a sort of old hometown nostalgic look at Dr. Shoop, but does list the ingredients.
Doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? The Restorative is so good for dyspepsia, yet contains “vomica” as a main ingredient.
Unfortunately, the reality is even worse. WebMD says it might be effective for some medical conditions, including poor digestion, just be careful of the convulsions and death from the two poisons of strychnine and brucine.
Sounds like something an Agatha Christie murderer might have used to kill off an inconvenient, wealthy aunt.
This is not so clear. Native Americans used it for centuries for various medical purposes. However, its power demands caution. This online source loves blood root, but says to be careful.
And according to Wikipedia it is currently approved for use in toothpastes for its antibacterial and anti-plaque properties.
Apparently this refers to some form of golden seal. I took that once for a strong respiratory infection. I can’t say whether or not it helped, but it’s powerful. I realize that’s vague. It makes you feel as though something is going on inside your body.
This is best known these days as a way to poison roaches if you can trick them into eating enough (supposedly mixing it up with powdered sugar does the trick).
However, in dilute solution it serves as an antiseptic for minor wounds.
There appears no reason to take it internally. It’s poisonous only in large quantities, but, taken chronically, leads to kidney damage.
Alcohol – 12%
This one reminds me of the quote by W. C. Fields: “I drink for medicinal purposes only. I’ve been feeling poorly now for fifty years.”
With Dr. Shoop’s Restorative – and lots of other patent medicines as well – rivaling wine in alcohol content, Fields was not alone. Apparently these medicines served as a way for drinkers to get loaded even if they lived in a “dry” area where the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited.
Hey, at least Dr. Shoop Restorative, unlike many patent medicines, contained no morphine or cocaine. It didn’t even have any cannabis indica.
Claude Hopkins remains discreet. He doesn’t explain why he left Dr. Shoop.
However, in the next chapter of his book, and his life, he steps out of the frying pan . . . into the fire.
In or Out of the Zone With Liquozone?
A Chicago businessman bought up a failing “germicide,” and recruited Hopkins to take over its marketing in exchange for 25% of the company, which made him millions when a million dollars was still a lot of money, and before he had to pay federal income taxes on it.
His ad for Liquozone appears on pages 58-63 of this document.
Reportedly Claude Hopkins visited hospitals that used Liquozone and satisfied himself that it worked. Also, I read a reference that it allegedly saved one of his daughters.
His copy is interesting because it clearly sounds as though he’s describing an all-purpose antibiotic . . . over twenty years before Alexander Fleming nearly threw out his petri dishes of cultured bacteria ruined by a wild mold.
Also, when Hopkins took over Liquozone, viruses were mainly speculation. When Louis Pasteur couldn’t find the cause of rabies, he wondered if maybe it was just too small. The Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck coined the word “virus,” but thought they were liquid in nature. Nobody saw one until after the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930s.
Supposedly Liquozone killed all “germ diseases” as well as all inflammatory diseases and diseases from food and impure blood. Though why a substance that kills germs would also clear up inflammation and other kinds of medical problems isn’t clear.
Moreover, it proudly declares it’s not a patent medicine. Unlike such “quackery,” Liquozone worked.
Hopkins Spent 5 or So Years Turning Liquozone Into an International Success
If you read the Liquozone ad, you might notice that Hopkins is, like with Dr. Shoop’s Restorative, coy about revealing what this medical miracle consists of. There’s no alcohol. It’s not made from compounding acids and drugs like those low-class patent medicines. No, Liquozone is the real thing, derived solely from the “best oxygen producers.” And just who or what are “oxygen producers?” He doesn’t reveal the secret.
It gets a powerful yet harmless germicide into your blood to kill everything that doesn’t belong there. The oxygen part reminds us of the many claims made by some sellers of “oxygen” products exploiting Otto Warburg’s research. But during Liquozone’s heyday Warburg’s discoveries were years in the future.
Hopkins’s claim that “germs are vegetables” is quite confusing. Even the first man to put water under a microscope, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, described bacteria as animacules.
Despite all this, perhaps because the average person did not understand that Hopkins’s explanations made no sense, Liquozone sales exploded. He took it into at least eight other countries, making millions.
Then Colliers Magazine Published Muckraker Samuel Hopkins Adams’s Series of Expose Articles Targeting the Patent Medicine Industry
Adams detailed the alcohol, morphine, opium and various poisons in patent medicines. He didn’t target Dr. Shoop, but he dedicated the third article entirely to Liquozone.
He revealed what was actually in it.
Sulfuric acid. No joke. Highly diluted with 99% water, but, still, sulfuric acid.
He conducted tests on its effectiveness by injecting animals with bacteria, then timing how long it took for Liquozone to cure them.
Unfortunately for the animals, they all died. The ones given Liquozone actually died sooner than the control group. Presumably, the sulfuric acid, although not enough to poison them, weakened their immune systems so they succumbed to the infection more quickly.
That series of articles, plus The Jungle, an expose of the meat packing industry by fasting advocate, raw food vegetarian Upton Sinclair, lit a fire under the rears of Washington D.C. politicians President Teddy Roosevelt and Congress, so they passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, establishing the Food and Drug Administration.
Because of the patent medicine industry, it’s now illegal for anyone to claim that a substance that’s not a drug approved by the FDA can cure, treat or prevent any disease, even if it can.
And this history explains why the FDA has such a long-term, institutional history of hatred toward all natural treatments. They tend to see all alternative health solutions as the modern equivalents of patent medicines.
And, unfortunately, some modern “health” marketers are just as deceptive and greedy, taking advantage of people’s gullibility, as the patent medicine hucksters.
I’m thinking of the likes of Kevin Trudeau. While claiming to be a broke health guru, he spent $900 in a liquor store and $920 on cigars. Cigars? Did he smoke them before or after irrigating his colon?
That Big Pharma is also greedy and deceptive, and many of its FDA-annointed drugs are even more dangerous than diluted sulfuric acid, is also true.
Besides, how useful were the medicines most doctors of the late 19th century prescribed? Right now, a lot of expensive and dangerous medication is getting a free ride on the effectiveness of antibiotics. Most of modern medicine for chronic diseases “manages” disease symptoms rather cures the underlying condition.
I’d bet most doctors of that period, especially in small towns and rural areas, didn’t give much concrete help at all to their patients. How long since doctors stopped bleeding patients, as they killed former President George Washington? How many women died of childbirth fever because doctors refused to wash their hands, long after Semmelweis demonstrated that simple step cut childbirth mortality to 1%.
We don’t know exactly how much Claude Hopkins lost (at one point in his autobiography he claimed Liquozone was still in business and still profitable, which seems unlikely), but it apparently explains why Albert Lasker found a man who spent most of his life working more than two other men combined on a vacation prescribed by a Paris physician.
So, What have We, as Health Copywriters and Marketers, Learned Here?
Honesty, I hope. The requirement to reveal all ingredients is a good one.
Stay up with medical science.
The placebo effect overrides highly diluted sulfuric acid?
If you want to be taken seriously as a health expert, don’t run up large tabs buying liquor and cigars, especially while you’re being investigated.
People Respond to Well-Aimed Health Copywriting
Personally, I’m grateful I’m living in an era when alternative doctors use the findings of medical research (on the value of exercise, telomeres, stem cells, mitochondria and more) and more mainstream doctors are recognizing the value of vitamins and many other alternative remedies.
I’m all for throwing out the greedy frauds on both sides.
Claude Hopkins went on to do a lot of good for public health.
Some of what he writes seems primitive because in the subsequent decades science has learned beer is not a health drink, food or tonic even though it it’s pasteurized. Oranges are a healthy fruit to start the day off with, though juice is full of sugar. Cereals aren’t the optimum food, but if you’re going to eat grains, they may as well be puffed to break down the cell walls.
My grandfather took wearing dentures for granted, even though it made eating some foods difficult for him. Thanks to regular toothbrushing, I will probably never wear them.
And I tremble to think of how little I’d have enjoyed baked beans as a child if my mother had spent 16 hours baking them herself.
As copywriters and marketers we can’t convert the unwilling masses against their wills, but it’s clear that the American people are becoming more health conscious.
This trend will continue as us baby boomers continue to age and as medical science continues to learn how to extend our healthspans and prevent and treat chronic diseases without dangerous drugs.
The pig in the python, we baby boomers have shaped the country to our needs since we turned a small little baby food company named Gerber into a giant business. And we don’t want to look, feel or fade into the shadows like our grandparents did.
We Can’t Afford to Neglect to Study Claude Hopkins
I haven’t discussed the principles. The greatest is to speak directly to your target market as though you were a salesperson knocking on their door.
As a former door-to-door cable TV salesperson, I can relate.
The second is . . . test.
Don’t assume you know your market. Claude Hopkins gives a lot of examples of how his clients wanted to brag about their factories and manufacturing processes and other things Hopkins knew their customers didn’t care about.
He said nothing was more ridiculous than older businessmen thinking they understood ordinary housewives.
That applies to health copywriting and marketing, and all niches.
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