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Advertising Prescriptive Literature: 1925-1945

Hartman Center: Prescriptive Literature, 1926 - 1945

This book represents a reactionary to certain trends in the advertising industry, namely the emergence of multiple departments and divisions within the field. It argues against a non-hierarchical view of the field, in which each department and field enjoys equal importance. For Woolf, the advertisement does not succeed or fail because of the accomplishments of space buyers, research divisions, printers and typographers. The advertisement depends upon the work of the copywriter, which in turn means that there is nothing more important to the advertisement than the printed word. Throughout the various chapters, Woolf finds numerous ways of stating the same thing, that advertising is not a function or a science. Instead he argues that every copywriter should be equipped with relevant facts and information, as well as an understanding of the customer. But the copywriter most requires an appreciation of the allied creative arts, writing, painting and music. In a notable chapter entitled “Index of Human Desires,” Woolf lists twenty desires that commonly affect consumers, from the desire to attract the opposite sex to the desire to escape criticism.

Focusing primarily on copywriting, this book makes an intense effort to strip advertising of its reputation as a mysterious art from, which the talented practitioner picks up intuitively. We find these ethos exemplified in the title, which emphasizes the analytical and empirical aspect of public relations. Throughout, Caples reminds the readers of the difference between deciding on an advertising system based upon opinion and in selecting one based upon a scientific, and thereby presumably objective, set of reasons. The scientific approach for Caples can be summed up as an approach that has been tested, and for him all of the methods in the book have proven successful either by the market or by surveying sample audiences. One chapter in particular, distills a series of successful headlines down to a set of steps, which he uses to develop what he considers the eight headline formulas. 

The book presents a systematic approach to copy-writing that emphasizes the “semi-scientific” technical aspects of the profession. While much of the book focuses on selling stratagems, the first and most painstakingly researched chapter addresses the cultivation of written style and authorial voice. In this chapter, titled “The Magic of Words” Bedell finds examples of word magic in works of classic literature, including Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the poetry of A.E. Housman. In explaining the means by which one achieves similar effects in copywriting, he focuses on the elements of figurative language, including vocabulary, lively verbs, similes, metaphors, rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia, contrast and imagination. Between chapters, Bedell intersperses brief, impactful testimonials from experts, which reinforce his various arguments.


Tested Advertising Methods, 1932