Reality In Advertising by Rosser Reeves

“I am downstairs in the saloon. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. If you wish to know, send the word ‘yes’ down by the bellboy.” SIGNED—John E. Kennedy

The world of advertising looks a lot different today when Rosser Reeves wrote the book Reality in Advertising. It was 1961, and it was the age of radio, television and print.

It was the age of Don Draper and the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. In fact, Rosser Reeves is widely known as the model on which Don Draper based.

So what could a book from 1961 teach advertisers and marketers today?

A lot.

In fact, if you look past the examples and truly dig into the principles, you’ll find that the principles of effective advertising haven’t changed as much as you think they have in the last half century.

Ever wondered what it would be like to take a marketing class from Don Draper?

Wonder no more.


A definition of advertising

In the early 1960’s, it would be difficult to get a definition of what advertising really was. Reeves suggested that they needed a new definition, and here it is:

Advertising is the art of getting a unique selling proposition into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost.

Of course, Reeves probably wasn’t imagining a world where people spent their entire days on mobile devices connected to strange and wonderful social networks, consuming content marketing by the gallon.

But if you switch out “advertising” and put in “marketing”, you have what is probably the best definition of what marketing is (or at least, should be) today.

We’ll spend the rest of our time here today unpacking that statement, and figuring out how it applies to the world we live in today.

How do you judge effective marketing?

Up until the time when Reeves wrote this book, advertising was judged based on one of two things – sales, and “originality”, which Reeves described as the most dangerous word in advertising.

Judging a campaign by how creative or original it was is just as big of a problem today as it was in 1960. They have huge awards shows every year honouring the world’s most “creative” campaigns, regardless of whether or not it generated the business result the agency was paid to produce. This is only magnified today as companies around the world try and figure out how to produce great advertising for the multitude of social networks that keep popping up.

While judging a campaign by the direction of the sales numbers isn’t as bad as judging it by it’s originality, it lacks the right level of nuance to determine whether or not the marketing had any impact on it all. In good economic times, products might sell well despite poor advertising. Or a sales slump might happen that would have been much worse if it weren’t for great advertising.

The innovation that Reeves and his agency created at the time was the ability to determine the exact effect of the advertising by using two new metrics called Penetration and Usage Pull. Penetration was the percentage of people who remember your current advertising, and Usage Pull was the percentage of people who have been “pulled over” to your product by the advertising (the theory and reality being that some people would use your product without seeing the advertising).

Today, of course, we have much more sophisticated abilities to determine which marketing efforts are producing results, and which ones aren’t. In a world where almost anything can be A/B tested and budgets tracked down to the penny, there’s no excuse for figuring out where to best spend your marketing dollars and effort.

However, this remains a problem today. It’s fine to experiment with new channels and technologies, but as Reeves would tell us if he were still with us today, it’s not ok to do these initiatives on faith alone. Your advertising and marketing, no matter where it lives, must have a clear line of sight back to a business objective that can be measured.


I’d be shocked if you were reading this and hadn’t heard of the term Unique Selling Proposition. In fact, even in 1961, it was a term that had almost lost its meaning.

Reeves had coined the term years before he wrote the book, and it had caught on in the advertising world as a buzz word. So much so that a copywriter who read the first draft of Reality in Advertising commented to Reeves:

“My God, all campaigns have a U.S.P.”

Reeves responded with:

“Do they now, indeed? Let us see.”

In the book he goes on to give numerous examples of campaigns that do not have a true USP, and as such, failed to produce any tangible business results.

Here’s how Reeves defines the Unique Selling Proposition, in 3 parts:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique—either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions, i.e., pull over new customers to your product.

(As a side note, keep in mind that in the 1960s only very large corporations could afford mass media. Today, I’d suggest we change “mass millions” to “your target audience.”)

The creation of the USP alone was a stunning example of a USP. For some time, Ted Bates & Company (the agency that Reeves worked at) was the only advertising agency that specialized in creating advertising based on a USP (very meta, I know).

They created stunning results for their clients, but also for themselves. Their billings went from $4 million a year to $150,000,000 per year. That’s about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars.

It didn’t take very long for other agencies to take notice, and pretty soon every campaign had a USP (or so they thought).

Of course, it the USP only works if it’s applied correctly, so let’s take a look at that now.

3 ways to create a USP that works

There are 3 ways that you can create a winning USP, or as Reeves likes to call it – The Three Big Roads to Rome.

The first and most straightforward way is to find the USP directly in your product. If you’ve done your product development correctly and found a unique need your product or service can fill, you are well on your way.

If you don’t already have a USP baked-in to your product, the second way is to change your product – to build it around a USP you know will be successful.

But the first two options take time, and sometimes we need results today. So if you find yourself in a situation where you have an identical product or service to your competitors in the marketplace, the third option is to tell your prospects something about the product that has never been revealed before.

As Reeves points out, this is not a uniqueness of the product, but it assumes uniqueness, and cloaks itself in uniqueness as a claim.

Perhaps the best example of this was made famous in a memorable Mad Men scene, where Don Draper comes up with the tagline “It’s Toasted” to describe Lucky Strike cigarettes. As it turns out, this is an actual tagline used by Lucky Strike.

However, in the long run, keep in mind the following immutable law of marketing: the better product, advertised equally, will win in the long run.

Also, keep in mind that the difference you claim must be perceived in the product by the customer. To make a claim that the product does not possess merely increases the frequency with which the consumer observes its absence.

You’ve got a USP – now what? Consistency

Along with the USP, Reeves pioneered some more original thinking which came out of the data he collected through their agency work.

The times may have changed, but the people remain the same. Changing your campaigns back in 1960 too frequently ended up in a huge drop in penetration, and thus business results. Reeves called this the multi-million dollar error. Let’s think about this in terms of social media marketing today.

One of today’s masters of social media marketing is Gary Vaynerchuk. I suspect that Reeves and Vaynerchuk would have got along famously. Vaynerchuk built his family’s liquor business into one the largest and most successful wine merchants in America – taking the revenues from $3 million to $60 million. How did he do it? In part by building a cult following off a daily wine video blog that he produced over 1,000 times over a period of a few years.

He left that business to create a digital marketing agency that now employs 650 people and is on track to generate $100 million in revenue. How did he do this? In part by creating a new video blog titled #AskGaryVee, where he answers questions that his fans submit over Twitter. As of the time of this summary, he has produced 208 episodes.

The point? What works in marketing – in 1960 and today – is pounding the same message home day after day, year after year. You might get sick of saying it, but your customers and prospects won’t get sick of hearing it.

Reeves highlights a few important points here.

1. First, changing a story has the same effect as stopping the money, as far as penetration is concerned. Or in today’s terms, changing the story has the same effect as stopping the attention (which is what, in reality, advertising is attempting to buy).

2. Thus, if you run a brilliant campaign every year, but change it every year, your competitor can pass you with a campaign that is less than brilliant—providing he does not change his copy. In today’s terms, a decent content marketing strategy consistently executed over time will always beat a brilliant content marketing strategy, inconsistently executed.

3. Finally, unless a product becomes outmoded, a great campaign will not wear itself out. In fact, especially in today’s world, it will only grow stronger over time.


It’s tempting to think that a book from 1961 has nothing to teach you about marketing. But you’ll find that if you keep coming back to the principles of the USP (Reeve’s version), your marketing and business results will head up and to the right.