Reality in

“Much of the gibberish of modern advertising is meaningless. The petty striving to magnify miniscule differences, thrown into a slick Madison Avenue argot, [has] the flavor of wet cardboard.”

One could love this book for the sheer joy of the invective and disgust of those two sentences. One could love it for the way those sentences were written and the way they roll trippingly on the tongue. And one could even love this book for the sentiment expressed – for much of modern advertising IS meaningless and IS gibberish and who ever tires of hearing it said?

But the real reason one should love Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves is because of who Rosser Reeves was and because of what he lays out in this book.

The fact that Reeves is no longer as well known as, say, his brother-in-law, David Ogilvy, is as disastrous as it is indicative of what ails advertising today. Even the agency that his particular genius drove – Ted Bates – is gone, swallowed up by Saatchi & Saatchi in ‘86, merged with Backer Speilvogel in ‘87, renamed Cordiant plc in ‘95, spun off in ‘97, purchased in 2003 by WPP, and finally partnered with CHI & Partners in 2013.

So let us back up. Rosser Reeves was first the creative partner of Ted Bates, who founded the agency which bore his name in New York City, and then the agency’s chairman, retiring at age 55 when it was the fifth largest shop in the world.

But what he is most remembered for – and I use the term advisedly – is his creation of something called the U.S.P. – the unique selling proposition – a term which sounds as antiquated as an antimacassar now, and is probably as alien to most readers as one as well.

What is it? Reeves writes that, like Gaul, it is divided into three parts – it must be Unique, it must Sell and it must be a Proposition. That is, it must offer something that the competition either cannot or does not offer; it must sell, not just show up (what Reeves calls “show-window advertising”), it must tell the reader “Buy this product and you will get this specific benefit”; and it must be a proposition, it must be framed in such a way that it is so compelling and strong it pulls people to your product.

Sounds simple, right?

The trouble with Reeves’ USP, at least, the way it’s been handed down to us if its handed down at all, is that he tended to employ it as a counter argument to creativity of any kind – and certainly to creativity as it exploded during the “Creative Revolution”. For Reeves is most famously remembered for his Anacin commercials (which you can see here) which promised fast Fast FAST relief from pain – and which ran for decades. They were not, it must be admitted, creative. Or interesting. Or, in the long run, memorable, really. But they made Anacin a huge brand and a ton of money when they ran. And which brand manager doesn’t want that? (They also, it should be acknowledged, made a ton of money for Reeves and Bates, and which agency president doesn’t want that?)

And that, frankly, is why this book should still be read – hell, why it should at the very least still be in print. Because advertising is about selling. And in an age of overwhelming media choices, and in which, paradoxically, more and more marketers believe that simply showing up is the same thing as marketing, the idea that you must differentiate, that you must be compelling, that you must be clear and concise about why you are solving a particular person’s particular problem, has never been more important.

Is Reality in Advertising perfect? Of course not. Reeves is too blind to creativity as a powerful tool to solve the very challenges he identifies. Hell, even as an argument the book stumbles, for while it is full of examples of Reeves’ success, because the brands, details, statistics, and contexts are never identified, the case studies (such as they are) feel manufactured and lack power and are unconvincing.

But these are frankly the magnification of miniscule complaints. We are in advertising at a time when so much could be done and when so much is being left undone. Read Rosser Reeves’ Reality in Advertising. What it says is as timeless and important as it was the day he wrote it.

And it will help you make work that is timeless and important too.

Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves was published by Knopf in 1961 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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You May Also Want to Read:

Ogilvy on Advertising
by David Ogilvy
Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins