World’s Greatest Advertisement

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(Note: The below is taken from our book Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication and uses symbolism to analyze a legendary direct mail ad. Before reading our analysis below, read the original advertisement at famous-wsj-ad. The advertisement was written as a subscription solicitation for the Wall Street Journal and many consider it as “The Greatest Sales Letter of All Time.” It sold $2 billion worth of Wall St. Journal subscriptions and ran from 1975-2003 with only minor edits.)

 

The success of the Wall Street Journal certainly has much to do with what it delivers to millions of subscribers every business day. But part of this success can be attributed to what it has promised to deliver to would-be subscribers through a brilliant direct mail piece.  This promise is stated in the Wall Street Journal’s 18 year old control piece mailing which has come to be known as the “Two Young Men” control piece. As reported in Target Marketing  magazine (March 1993), it is the most successful advertisement in the history of the world. Certainly a big claim but there are some interesting statistics to prove the claim.

Written by freelancer Martin Conroy and first mailed in 1975, it is in the form of a two page letter. No other subscription piece for the WSJ has ever been able to beat it. As Denison Hatch writes in Target Marketing, “The highways and byways of North America are littered with the corpses of mailings tested against it by virtually every major (and minor) copywriter and designer in the United States and Canada since it was first mailed in 1975.”

In late 1991, Denison Hatch interviewed WSJ National Subscription Manger Paul Bell. He found out some interesting statistics about the WSJ and particularly the “Two Young Men” piece. According to Bell, the number of mail order subscribers to the WSJ brought in each year is approximately one million. The average subscription price for the Journal over the past 18 years is about $100 a year. And, here is the interesting part, approximately 55% of all mail order subscribers have come in as a result of the “Two Young Men” piece. A little math will quickly show that this two page letter is responsible for bringing in $1 billion to the WSJ and is therefore the most successful single piece of advertising in the history of the world.

Many businesses spend their entire history trying to find out exactly what it is they are selling. With the “Two Young Men” ad, Martin Conroy has hit on exactly what the WSJ is selling. In effect, he has discovered the real “promise” of the WSJ, the core mythology and symbolism of the publication. It is closely linked to the symbolism of place.

The promise is expressed in a story about two young men and the musings of the Publisher of the WSJ about their lives. It is a very personal note from the “Publisher” to the “Reader”. The story in the letter is about two young men who are very much alike. “Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.” They graduate from college at the same time.

* * *

Now, as the Publisher writes to the reader, it is 25 years later and the two young men have met for their 25th college reunion. They were still very much alike. “Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation and were still there.”

But there was a difference. “One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was the president.” The Publisher muses “Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives?” Interestingly, the ad employs two powerful words right alongside each other – the word “you” and the word “I”.  A common belief in direct marketing holds that “you” is one of the most important words to use. However, a more important word is “I”.  By the juxtaposition of “you” and “I” the writer brings the reader into a unique intimacy which sets a mood for the ad.

Then he reviews for us the facts of the story given to us and finds that the difference cannot be found in “native intelligence or talent or dedication” or in the fact that “one person wants success and the other person doesn’t.” The story confirms these musings of the Publisher because we are given two young men who are similar.

After musing about why the two men are different the Publisher goes quickly to the reason and says “The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.” The Publisher goes immediately to the purpose for writing. “And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about the Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: to give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.”

With a few sentences, the topic of knowledge is approached from various perspectives. A sense of immediacy is driven home.  “I see item after item that can affect you, your job, your future.” Note that the affect of the WSJ is expanded outside of the reader’s job by separating “you, your job” and in fact goes beyond the present to even extend to the future. The inside of the paper is discussed and more evidence provided of items which can affect the reader’s life.

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There are a number of interesting things going on in this simple two page letter which are not outwardly apparent to the reader. They involve more the context and the symbolism of place than content. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “The media is the message”. And so it is with the “Two Young Men” ad – the context of the ad is really the message more than the specific content. What do we mean by this?

For one thing, the Publisher has chosen to start his story at a very important contextual point in time.  It is that perennial time of the journey from youth into manhood – a college graduation. In ancient cultures and societies this special event would be an initiation ritual. But more, he has chosen to also highlight that enchanting and mysterious season of Spring.  The ad starts with “On a beautiful late spring afternoon”.  It is a deceptively enticing few words but notice the words “beautiful” and “late” and “spring” and “afternoon”.  It is the “afternoon” of a period of life for the two young men and the beginning of another period of life for them.  It is a time that has a deep identification to all of us. A very important time – that time between youth and manhood.

Are we making too much of the context of time and the season Spring? We don’t think so. By just the fifth word in the ad, the writer has managed to slip in one of the most emotion charged words in our language – the word “Spring”.  It has been the subject of almost all of our great works of literature in the twentieth century. In The Wasteland  T.S.Eliot talks about this period:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

Eliot captures this special time as a transition time between the past of winter and the hope of summer, between memory and desire. In the beginning of one of America’s most famous novels The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald also establishes the context of spring as a time background for the novel:

“I came East…in the spring of twenty-two. The practical thing was to find rooms in the city, but it was a warm season…And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees…I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with summer.”

Or what about the words of Thomas Wolfe in his short story “The Train And The City”:

“Spring came that year like magic and like music and like song. One day its breath was in the air, a haunting premonition of its spirit filled the hearts of men with its transforming loveliness, wreaking its sudden and incredible sorcery upon gray streets, gray pavements, and on gray faceless tides of manswarm ciphers.”

Or those of Joseph Conrad in his short story “The Shadow-Line.” In creating the copy in the ad, Martin Conroy has chosen this shadow-line period of life. As Conrad says about it:

“One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness – and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades grow with promise. Every turn has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind has steamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation…one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth…must be left behind.”

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There are many other examples in literature but the point should be clear – the writer has chosen to begin his mythological voyage at the season of transition from youth into adulthood.

So the two young men set forth on their life voyage on that “late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago”.  It is almost as if it is the beginning of a type of race, and an outwardly fair race at that. Both of the young men seem equal in the areas provided by the writer of the ad – they are both better than average students, both were personable and both are filled with “ambitious dreams for the future”.

Suddenly, we are brought into the present and placed at a college reunion. By the third sentence of this powerful advertising piece, the reader has gone from a graduation – the most important place in the transition from youth to manhood – to a reunion – the most important place for measuring the progress of adulthood. The symbolism of place is very important. More than anything else, a college reunion is a type of barometer of success in life. And not just any college reunion but probably the most important college reunion – the 25th college reunion. After being present at the beginning of the “race”, the graduation of the two young men from college, we are now observers at an important observation point in the “race”, the race of two lives.

In addition to the symbolism of time, the symbolism of space is also an important element of place in the ad. By space we mean the narrative voice of the ad. It begins as a narrative in the third person and works its way into both a first person and second person mode. It is after the basic facts of the myth of the two young men have been elaborated that the narrator finally imposes his voice into the narrative. Interestingly, the story shifts from third person talking about “two yong men” to second person asking “Have you ever wondered” and then to first person, “as I have”. This transition, like all the transitions in the ad, are done almost seamlessly. Here it is done within the short space of one sentence.

* * *

One cannot overestimate the importance of mixing narrative perspectives. By skillfully doing it, the way Martin Conroy does, one obtains the best of a number of worlds. The third person perspective is associated with the story of the two young men and it is this third person perspective which gives the story its credence. The writer of the ad is simply relating a story to the reader of the ad and not imposing any of his prejudices. It is a simple story about two men who started on equal footings and are now unequal.

But in the second part of the letter under the title of “What Made The Difference” the Publisher beckons the reader into the story by simply asking “Have you ever wondered …what makes this kind of difference in people’s life?” Now, it is no longer a story related to us but rather one that we are asked to participate in, to think about. And of course we have thought much about this topic. In fact, we have thought about this as much or more than we have thought about most things in life. Why do some men reach great success while others don’t? Especially when they both start out, apprarently, equal. To prove that it is a question worth thinking about, we are told that the Publisher has also thought about it. “Have you ever wondered, as I have,” the Publisher tells us. Its a question he has been giving thought to.

Importantly, the Publisher says that knowledge has made the difference. Knowledge, rather than information. It is important because we all live in the “information age” rather than the “knowledge age”. Information is really unorganized facts while knowledge is organized facts. This is an important difference. Many publications, in fact most, claim to provide information. Few claim to provide knowledge. The claim is to make sense of all the information and it is a subtle claim based around the choice of one word over another word.

In the simple world the Publisher is creating we have two simple lives, a simple reason leading to their success and a simple entity which disseminates this magic into the world. It has the beauty of a modern fable, or, a story not based on fact which conveys a particular moral to us.

Towards the end of the letter, the parable of the two young men is returned to for one final visit. The Publisher has never told us directly in the letter that knowledge made the difference in their lives. But now he tells us directly that this in fact was the case. “So what made their lives in business different?” he asks. The answer is “Knowledge. Useful knowledge. And its application.” Again, much more than simply information. Rather knowledge. And much more than simply knowledge but rather “Useful knowledge”. And finally, even more than useful knowledge but rather the “application” of useful knowledge.

* * *

At the end of the letter, the Publisher asks us to make an investment in success. Again, this is not put into the advertising copy but is rather called out as one of the ads sub-heads. Under this sub-head the Publisher adds to his already strong credibility by telling the reader something that he cannot promise. But he does this in a very interesting way. “I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading the Wall Street Journal.” he says. He doesn’t say “I cannot promise you success”. No, here the focus is simply on when success will come and not if it will come. Indirectly, the Publisher is promising success but keeping his credibility by saying it will not be instant.

And even if instant success may be elusive, there is a guarantee that the Publisher can make. “I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesting, always reliable, and always useful.” Three important words and variations on the theme of knowledge. Even if instant success is elusive, this second string of benefits, the “bottom line” of being “interesting”, “reliable” and “useful” isn’t so bad.  A million readers a year for the past 18 years have thought so. They have bought into the myth of the Wall Street Journal which hides in the context of the ad rather than the specific words and the content. They really haven’t bought into anything because The Journal is really them or what they want to be. It is not something foreign out there. Rather it is the readers themselves – their “ambitious dreams for the future.” The overly simplfied story of two men’s lives. A simple view of the world. A business entity dedicated to only one purpose in this confusing world of ours. More than just another publication but rather a certain “place” of knowledge. More than a mere “subscription” but rather an “arrangement”.

And with an all-seeing high priest called Peter R. Kahn or “Publisher” ruling over the kingdom. He sees far more than those who write the hundreds of other ads and letters the readers get in the mail each year selling mere products. He tells a parable of two lives rather than sells a subscription. He seems to be able to be in all places and travel through time in the space of a few sentences. He is present at a college graduation 25 years ago. And he is present again at a reunion. Then he is in his office looking over The Journal with the reader.

He is somewhat like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby who is both inside and outside of life at the same time. The Publisher is both an observer of the story he relates and at the same time a participant in this story. He is a first person narrator, a second person narrator and a third person voice. Nick comments on this funny inside and outside space:

“…high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

This seems to be where the Publisher is also. Outside observing the lives of the two young men while at the same time wondering with the reader about these lives.

* * *

In the end, the reader is taken back to that time many years ago when he or she too graduated. There has been much “water under the bridge” and maybe even a reunion where the reader gazed in wonderment at an old friend who has risen to the presidency of a company. Like the Publisher the reader has indeed wondered why someone else and not him.

But sometimes second chances present themselves to you in life. And now, magically, a second chance has come to the reader through this simple little letter in the mail. And for a few magic minutes the reader is transported back to college graduation – a gate, a threshold – the beginning of the journey of adulthood.

He may have a pile of work projects on his desk and suffering from a bad hangover the night before trying to forget about his new boss. It may be the middle of the winter with a huge snowstorm whirling outside.

But no matter. For one magical moment it is again the late afternoon of one time of his life and on the verge of another time, another great adventure. He is in that magical place called Spring once again. Once he sends in that little card. It is spring again and life just might be able to start all over. Once again.

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