Learning From My Copywriting Hero
You can become a great copywriter without knowing anything about the history of copywriting. Or about the great, classic copywriters of the past.
… But I highly recommend against it.
Knowing your history as a copywriter adds depth to your understanding of the “why” behind copywriting.
You don’t simply adopt a strategy because of some “rule” you’ve learned. That blind approach invites violating the “rules” because … well, because rules are meant to be broken.
But, when you know the history of your craft, you understand how and why those rules developed. You learn they grew from years of practice and experimentation in the art and science of persuasive copywriting.
Plus, knowing this history is just plain fun.
So, today I’m going to delve into a part of our mutual history. I’m going to introduce you to my biggest copywriting hero.
A giant among men …
I admire people who dare cross arbitrary boundaries defined by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or gender.
My hero is one of these people … someone who wasn’t stopped by the notion that advertising and copywriting is a man’s world.
That person is Helen Lansdowne Resor. She holds the position of the first great female copywriter.
A little background about Helen …
Helen Lansdowne was the youngest of nine children. When she was four years old, her mother left her husband and took the nine children with her.
Her mother got a job as a clerk to support the family. She impressed on all the children – especially the girls – the importance of self-sufficiency.
“You’re never going to get caught the way I was,” she told Helen. “You’re going to learn how to work.”
And, did Helen work! In 1908, Stanley Resor – the man who would later become her husband – hired then 17-year-old Helen for industry giant J. Walter Thompson (JWT). Helen was the agency’s first female copywriter … and one of the first in the industry.
Not limited by a limited niche …
As was typical in advertising until after the Mad Men era, Helen worked exclusively on “women’s products” – soaps, toiletries, food products, and the like.
But, being confined to that niche didn’t limit her. It provided her an opportunity to learn … and to educate.
Helen figured out early the key to making sales was knowing her prospects intimately. Knowing them as she might know a personal friend. Because her prospects were women, she understood them more intimately than the men at JWT did.
But, she didn’t depend solely on herself as the model for the woman she wrote to. She insisted JWT do extensive research into female prospects. She herself interviewed women and talked to her friends. And significantly, she hired other women to write to them.
She made sure her ads reflected a woman’s point of view – in the promises she made, in the words she used, and in the look of the ads she wrote and supervised.
Her perspective worked. After Helen joined the firm, success at JWT was due largely to its focus on women.
She said, “The advertising appeal which seeks to increase the sales of products bought by women must be made with knowledge of the habits of women, their methods of reasoning, and their prejudices.”
A revolutionary in many ways …
Helen Lansdowne Resor revolutionized her industry. One of many examples is how she transformed endorsement advertising.
She persuaded society leaders and royalty who appealed to her female readers to appear in her Pond’s cold cream ads. This approach brought tone and elegance previous ads had lacked. This elegance appealed to the prospects she knew so well – women.
Resor is also credited with being the first copywriter to bring sex appeal into ads. Her famous Woodbury soap ad, “A Skin You Love to Touch,” was the first of many.
Of course, her approach was mild by today’s standards. Had it been more extreme – like we see today – it would have repelled her prospects. She understood this intimately … because she knew her prospects intimately.
Securing women a lasting place in copywriting …
Helen Resor actively mentored young women in advertising. This earned JWT a reputation as an agency where women could succeed. She set up a separate women’s editorial department. Being separate from the men’s group (as expected back then) allowed talented women to freely share ideas.
JWT employee Nancy Stephenson said, “Women in advertising … owe Mrs. Resor a great deal – not only for opportunities she opened up, but for inspiring standards she left for us to follow.”
Your biggest copywriting takeaways …
Helen Lansdowne Resor left a huge legacy for copywriters, both women and men. Her greatest contributions to you as a copywriter are …
- To be successful, you must know the habits of your prospects, their methods of reasoning, and their prejudices (paraphrasing her).
- Copy must be believable (quoting her directly).
- Gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or social status is no barrier to success in copywriting … if you’re willing to do the work.
I’d love to hear your feelings about Helen Lansdowne Resor’s pioneering efforts.
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