Book Review: “My Life in Advertising” by Claude Hopkins

by | Copywriting, Reviews

I recently finished reading My Life in Advertising by Claude Hopkins. Hopkins is recognized as one of the “founding fathers” of modern advertising.

Although this book was written over 85 years ago it contains important lessons for those of us doing business in the twenty-first century.

Hopkins was hired by Albert Lasker, owner of Lord & Thomas advertising at a salary of $185,000 a year. That’s a good salary, right? Well, that was in 1907. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that’s the equivalent of roughly $4.2 million in today’s money.

Why would an ad agency pay one man $4.2 million a year? After you read this book you’ll understand the reason why.

And if you don’t have time to read the book right now you’ll find some of my favorite quotes below.

On Higher Education

“To poverty I owe the fact that I never went to college. I spent those four years in the school of experience instead of a school of theory. I know nothing of value which an advertising man can be taught in college. I know of many things taught there which he will need to unlearn before he can steer any practical course. Then higher education appears to me a handicap to a man whose lifetime work consisted in appealing to common people.

Of course we had no advertising courses in my school days, no courses in salesmanship or journalism. I am sure it would be better if we did not have them now. I have read some of those courses. They were so misleading, so impractical, that they exasperated me. Once a man brought me from a great technical school their course in advertising, and asked me how to improve it, When I read it I said: “Burn it. You have no right to occupy a young man’s most impressive years, most precious years, with rot like that. If he spends four years to learn such theories, he will spend a dozen years to unlearn them. Then he will be so far behind in the race that he will never attempt to catch up.” (page 10)


On Writing to the Individual

“In a wide-reaching campaign we are too apt to regard people in the mass. We try to broadcast our seed in the hope that some part will take root. That is too wasteful to ever bring a profit. We must get down to individuals. We must treat people in advertising as we treat them in person. Center on their desires. Consider the person who stands before you with certain expressed desires. However big your business, get down to the units, for those units are all that make size.” (page 82)


On Salesmanship-in-Print

“The lesson in this is the lesson in all salesmanship. One must know what buyers are thinking about and what they are coming to want. One must know the trends to be a leader in a winning trend.

Advertising to many is mere ad.-writing. Language and style are considered important. They are not. If fine writing is effective in any way it is a detriment. It suggests an effort to sell. And every effort to sell creates corresponding resistance.

Salesmanship-in-print is exactly the same as salesmanship-in-person. Style is a handicap. Anything that takes attention from the subject reduces the impression. One may say: “That is a beautiful ad. The pictures are perfect, the presentation is wonderful.” But that very idea prohibits one from being influenced by the ad. It indicates lack of sincerity. It suggests an effort to sell. And we are all on our guard when somebody, apparently, is trying to get our money away.

The only way to sell is in some way to seem to offer super-service. It may be offered in a crude way. The majority of advertising successes have been accomplished in crude ways. They struck a human chord in a human way. They seemed to offer wanted service. That is why so much “fine advertising” fails to bring results. People are wary of it. And why so many successes are made in ways that seem crude. They are made by super-salesman who forget themselves.” (page 124-125)


On Delivering Quickly

“Quick volume is more profitable than slowly-developed volume. When one proves that a plan is right and safe the great object is quick development. Attain the maximum as soon as you can.” (page 141)


Why the “Buy my brand” Approach Fails

“Anybody who reads this, interested in real advertising, should get the points I introduce. You cannot go into a well-occupied field on the simple appeal, “buy my brand.” That is a selfish appeal, repugnant to all. One must offer exceptional service to induce people to change from favorite brands to yours. The usual advertiser does not offer that exceptional service. It cannot be expected. But giving exact figures on that service which others fail to supply may establish great advantage.” (page 145)


Personalities vs. Corporations

“First, I established a personality… I have always done that wherever possible. Personalities appeal, while soulless corporations do not. Make a man famous and you make his creation famous. All of us love to study men and their accomplishments.” (page 148)


On Free Samples

“It never pays to cast samples on the doorstep. They are like waifs. Give samples only to people who take some action to acquire them because of an interest created. Give the product an atmosphere. Otherwise it will never make a lasting impression.” (page 149)


Preventions vs. Cures

“But my long experience had taught me that preventive measures were not popular. People will do anything to cure a trouble, but little to prevent it. Countless advertising ideas have been wrecked by not understanding that phase of human nature. Prevention offers slight appeal to humanity in general.” (page 155)


The Danger of Relying On Experience

“…none of us can afford to rely on judgment or experience. We must feel our way. New problems require new experience. We must test our undertakings in the most exact way possible. Learn our mistakes and correct them. Watch every appealing lead.” (page 159)


Ads are not written to amuse

“That is the hardest fact for an ad.-writer to learn or an advertiser to comprehend. The natural instinct is to make the ad. attractive. One must remember, however, ads. are not written to amuse, but to sell. And to sell at the lowest cost possible.” (page 161)


Why so much money is wasted on advertising

“That is why so much money is wasted on advertising. People do not know their costs, and they will not be guided by those who do.” (page 162)


I Learn More from Dead People

Claude C. Hopkins lived from (1866-1932) and this book was finished in 1927. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned far more from dead copywriters than I have from modern day self-proclaimed “gurus.”

The best books about copywriting and marketing were written by men who understood human behavior and how to use words to connect with the desires of the masses. I hope you add this to your reading list! Leave a comment below after you read it with your insights. 



About Josh Monen

Josh is a direct response copywriter and marketing strategist who makes a living by achieving remarkable results for his clients. His unique understanding of human psychology and marketing principles make him a valuable asset to the clients he serves.