What vintage ads can teach you about email marketing design

Study something old to learn something new: vintage ads

In the Japanese martial arts, there’s an aphorism worth noting: on ko chi shin, to study something old in order to learn something new. When you’re starving for new creative ideas for your email marketing, a step into the past might be called for.

Let’s specifically look at the golden age of newspaper advertising, from about 1880 to 1920. During this period of time in America, newspaper advertising was the only mass media channel available. Commercial radio didn’t really have a presence and there was certainly no Internet. Here’s why this period is worthy of study: advertisers had to pack a tremendous amount of punch into very little space and still be effective.

Sound familiar?

Take a look at this thumbnail collection below:

Vintage ads

What’s familiar? What’s obvious? Subject lines – the headlines of the ads – are prominent and the hooks are sharp. Too fat, asks one ad. Be your own boss, why work for others states another. Electric wonders at little cost. Even just tiny thumbnail sized images give us an indication of what’s in the ad and why we should consider reading it.

Take another look. Look how many of the creatives, how many of the designs put a human face prominently in the ad. Advertisers of that era used a time-tested method in their ads: the human face is something we are biologically wired to pay attention to first. We can’t not pay attention to a human face if we see it.

Let’s dig in more:

We always pay attention to the human face.

The headline, which not only functions as the subject line but also the leader of the copy, ends with a question. It’s designed to get people to ask themselves the question mentally as they read the ad and primes them for the benefits and details that follow. The primary benefit – not a feature, but a real benefit – follows immediately: make $2,000 a year. Bear in mind that this ad is saying you can earn $44,000 a year in 2010 terms – not bad!

Read into the copy and you see additional benefits – we tell you how, everything furnished, large profits, money coming in daily.

The closer is a powerful and simple pitch: write for free particulars and your starter kit. It’s an offer at little to no risk and with a clear, unmistakeable call to action.

The lessons that early newspaper advertisers learned shouldn’t lay in the dustbin of history if we can avoid it. The medium has changed many times since these ads first ran – radio, television, the Internet – but the human beings making purchasing decisions as consumers and businesses are still largely the same. Take the hard-won lessons of the past and apply them to your marketing today as it makes sense to do so, and you might indeed learn something new by studying something old.

For a large selection of vintage ads to browse through, check out the Early Advertising collection on Flickr.

Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts

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