The origins of advertising.

00:32 Thursday Sep 18, 2014

by Terrence Bull


Here is a modern day parable that illustrates nicely how advertising as we know it came to be. It also shows us why so many companies have problems with making their advertising work – even when using advertising agencies.

Way back when the Wild West was the Wild West there roamed a charlatan who wore a black pin striped suit, a small goatee and mustache and slicked back greasy black hair clamped down by a very un-American Bola hat. He had a long hooked nose, small black beady eyes and was know locally as the Snake Oil Merchant.

He went from town to town defrauding folks by selling them colored sugar water, with a touch of moonshine mixed in, that he called Snake Oil. He claimed that it was made from genuine snake’s venom and could cure any aliment, even broken bones.

He put on a show in each town he visited where he would hand out free Snake Oil to those most severely struck down by sickness to prove that it really worked. These ‘lucky’ people (his ‘cohorts in crime’ who just pretended to be sick) would be miraculously healed and jump from their wheel chairs or crutches to the delight of the on lookers – who would then rush up to buy some of this miracle elixir with magical healing properties.

In order to attract people to his shows, the Snake Oil Merchant would ride all around the district, some 600 square miles containing around 200 families, and pin up posters to every tree. These posters had stories on them about ordinary folk being healed by Genuine Snake Oil – ‘the miracle healing elixir’.

One day, after wearing out a lot of shoe leather, the Snake Oil Merchant happened on a local printer who was producing a small newsletter for the district. This newsletter contained stories about local events and important news – including such newsworthy events as Bob, the local merchant, selling off his flour at half price on account of there being a new shipment of flour arriving in a week – after all, this type of story was vital to the survival of many of the poorer families around about.

The Snake Oil Merchant, being a sharp fellow, convinced the printer, for a handsome fee, to include in his local newsletter one of his healing stories and a notice about the up coming Snake Oil Healing Show. The printer, surprised that he could actually make a bit of money from his newsletter, agreed to place the story and the notice.

That night, while typesetting the newsletter and reading over the editorial, the printer suddenly realised that the story from the Snake Oil Merchant that he had agreed to print was nothing more than thinly disguised lies. Afraid that the Snake Oil Merchant’s story might taint his high quality editorial and sully the good name of his newsletter, the printer decided to put a box around the story and write in the top right hand corner ‘Advertisement’.

From that day forward every advertisement has been directly associated with the Snake Oil Merchant. Since people figured that these ‘advertisements’ where just lies, they all but stopped reading them.

Over the years a whole industry has grown up around ‘experts’ trying to make people take notice of and read these ads. Unfortunately, the collective wisdom of all the ad people could only come up with the following two bits of ‘outstanding’ logic:

“People aren’t reading the words because there are too many of them, so let’s reduce the number of words in the ad” - this, of course, completely ignored the fact that people where in fact reading an entire newspaper full of almost nothing but words!

“People aren’t reading the ad because they haven’t noticed it, so lets put a nice picture in it that will draw their eyes to the ad” – and this piece of reasoning never took into account that most people were actually paying money to buy the stories inside the newspaper in order to have something to read!

The real reason that no one was reading the ad has never really dawned on the majority of the advertising fraternity. That is, that the content of the story is simply not credible because of its association with the Snake Oil Merchant.

Some, over the years, almost got it right when they decided to convince their client to start their own newsletter so that they could control what was put inside the ad box and, more importantly, what was not.

Unfortunately, the client, being focused on money and their own company above all else, determined that, since they were paying the bills, the newsletter must be called ‘CompanyName News’ and have their logo on every page and their company name in every article. Thus putting an imaginary ad box around the whole newsletter – associating the entire publication with the Snake Oil Merchant. This of course made the newsletter only worthy of being filed in ‘file 13’ or the ‘round tray’ – i.e. the rubbish bin.

Some even went as far as creating a nice independent looking publication, but filled it with stories focused solely on those things that most interested them – not their clients. For example, printers wrote about printing, not marketing and concrete merchants wrote about all things concrete, not about building in general.

Of course, printed media is not the only method of delivering a convincing and believable sales message. However, the thinking behind the strategy that delivers that message is exactly the same.

Marketing is simply about someone’s perceptions or beliefs. That is, if they believe your product or service is better, more cost-effective, safer, etc, etc than anything else then they will buy it regardless of whether in fact it is or not.

Take for example the VHS/Beta marketing war. Video production companies used beta as the professional standard, but VHS won the marketing war and was the only standard for domestic videotape. So a lower quality format won over a high quality format – why? Because people simply believed it was better!

So if marketing is about changing people’s perceptions or beliefs, how can a marketing campaign work if the basic method of communicating the marketing message is founded on a message delivery system, the ad, that has no credibility? That is, if the message is not believable, how can it change someone’s beliefs?

There is a marketing approach or methodology that is about how one can literally change people’s perceptions or beliefs. I created it in the early nineties and called it Doctrine Marketing. Since then many companies from a diverse range of industries have used it on numerous campaigns always with stunning results. It teaches you how to indoctrinate someone into believing in and, therefore, wanting your product or service.


Source: Dream: Profound Insights For Creating Business Success by Terrence Bull


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