What is Advertising?

by buildingpharmabrands

John E. Kennedy (1864 - 1928)

John E. Kennedy (1864 – 1928)

What is advertising?

John E. Kennedy answered this deceptively simple question in 1904, about a hundred-and-ten years ago in three simple words:

Salesmanship in Print.

You cannot better that definition or make it more succinct even today.

Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz tell us the story behind this question and definition in their book, The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century.

Albert D. Lasker, who is often considered to be the founder of modern advertising, started his advertising career with Lord & Thomas, a Chicago based advertising agency in 1898. The story behind the definition of advertising happened sometime in 1904:

“A messenger boy came into the office of Ambrose Thomas, the cofounder of Lord & Thomas who was in a meeting with Albert Lasker, then an accounts executive and copywriter (Lasker later in 1912 became the agency’s sole owner) and handed over a note to Thomas. Thomas scanned the note and tossed it across the desk to Lasker with a chuckle. The note read:

I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is, and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy. 

– John E. Kennedy

While Thomas dismissed the note as cranky, Lasker intrigued by it, sent his response back downstairs – Yes and met him in his office. Here’s the essence of the most interesting conversation behind the historical definition of advertising.

Determined to learn Kennedy’s definition of advertising, Lasker asked a straight question – What is Advertising? Kennedy countered by asking Lasker what his conception of advertising was.

“It is news,” Lasker replied.

“No,” Kennedy said. “News is a technique of presentation, but advertising is a very simple thing. I can give it to you in three words.”

“Well,” Lasker exclaimed impatiently, “I am hungry! What are those three words?”

“Salesmanship in print: Kennedy said.”

Today, over a hundred-and-ten years later, this may not sound like a particularly powerful insight. But to Lasker’s ears it was a revelation.

Kennedy was the first of the copywriters to exploit the reason-why copy to the fullest. He was also the highest paid copywriter in 1904 earning over $16,000 a year, as compared to the average earnings of $4,000 of a top copywriter. Kennedy, as the chief copy writer of Lord & Thomas set out to learn everything about his clients’ businesses, develop selling points and test copy. He was known for his graphically distinctive ads with no-nonsense, hard-hitting copy.

Albert Lasker referred to Kennedy as the father of modern advertising, a title he could have easily claimed himself  for his contribution to the advertising industry.