The Greatest Ad Swipe Ever – Martin Conroy’s Inspiration

Martin Conroy (December 13, 1922 – December 19, 2006) was best known for the Wall Street Journal sales letter he wrote that ran continuously from 1975 to 2003. It’s widely known as the “most successful” sales letter of all time.

It begins:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both — as young college graduates are — were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their college for their 25th reunion…

The letter goes on to show the vast difference in success obtained by the two men. One went on to become the President of a company while the other man became and remained a low-level manager. It’s implied in the sales copy that the Wall Street Journal made the difference for the man who became president.

Now let’s look at an advertisement printed in March of 1919…

The "Two Men" Letter Martin Conroy Most Likely Swiped to Create the Wall Street Journal "Two Young Men" Letter

It begins…

From a certain little town in Massachusetts two men went to the Civil
War. Each of them had enjoyed the same educational advantages, and so far as anyone could judge, their prospects for success were equally good.

One man accumulated a fortune. The other spent his last years almost entirely dependent upon his children for support…

I found this ad in 2003 right around the time that the original Conroy Wall Street Journal ad was beaten (with a similar ad). I shared it with a list of about 200 marketers and copywriters. Since that time it’s appeared in copy writing books, sales letters for copy writing services, blogs and as a bonus to a copywriting course on swiping- but always in the exact form that I transcribed it. I have never seen someone publish the actual ad as it appeared. I find this strange (after 7 years) only because I found the ad in one of the greatest books on copy writing ever written and the fact that the ad has never appeared in it’s original form makes me think many of these “great” copywriters never read this book. I could be wrong.

The reason this is relevant to the story is that I feel it is most likely that Martin Conroy got the idea for the Wall Street Journal sales letter that he wrote from seeing this ad in the same book I found it. Who knows – maybe he first saw it when he was just a student of copy writing.

And what a book it is. You could spend $1000′s on a copy writing guru’s training course or buy this book for less than $20. I would bet on the $20 book reader.

I’m not going to reveal the name of the book in this post, but I’m certain it will appear in the comments.

But I digress from the ad itself.

The Civil War ad above was written by a writer for the Alexander Hamilton Institute. I read one blog that claims Bruce Barton wrote it and while Bruce Barton did write for the Alexander Hamilton Institute I have found nothing that points definitively to Barton as the writer of the Civil War ad. I hope that someone reading this can shed more light. [Update 09/17/2010: Two copywriters I respect have suggested that Bruce Barton *is* in fact the author of the Civil War ad. In addition, I happened to be going through Julian Lewis Watkin's book of ads and he has this to say: "REMEMBER the advertisements for the Alexander Hamilton Institute? Bruce Barton wrote them in his human, inspiring style, and they remain to this day, among the finest examples of narrative technique in advertising."]

This ad was used as an example in multiple editions of the book that Conroy most likely studied. It appeared under the chapter “Story and Dramatic Copy.”

It’s also likely that Conroy studied other AHI ads. There are in fact more “two men” ads that AHI ran after this one.

Here’s how one starts:

“…The story concerns two young men who owned very modest homes in a middle western city. Their wives were friends. In the winter they played bridge together and tennis in the summer. One worked in a railroad office, the other for a manufacturing concern, and their incomes were almost the same. On Saturday afternoons they mowed their lawns shouting good naturedly to each other across the fence.”

This above ad seems to belabor the point that they were buddies and very alike before getting to the point, but the ad does the same thing as the Civil War ad and the Martin Conroy ad – the one man reads the Alexander Hamiltion Insititute book and becomes VP of a coal mining company. The other man is still where he was when the story started. Notice that The Civil War ad mentions “two men” but this ad mentions “two young men” – just like the Martin Conroy letter.

Here’s another one:

“In the Fall of 1949 two business men will be sitting in a mid-town restaurant. ‘I wonder what’s going to happen next year,’ one of them will say. ‘My business if fine now-but the next few years are going to be the hard ones, and we may as well face the facts.’
The man across the table will laugh…”

This ad goes on to say how even though this is a fictitious conversation, conversations very similar are happening all the time and ten years from now – one man will be feeling regret while the other is at the pinnacle of his career.

Are you starting to see a trend here?

The correspondence schools of the early 1900′s were exceptionally good at writing advertisements and the Alexander Hamilton Institute had some of the best of the best copywriters. Many of these advertisements were used as instructional examples to new copywriters.

It seems as if Martin Conroy took this to heart and translated the success of correspondence schools to a newspaper. Pure genius.

Before I sign off…

Would you like a 13 page PDF with all the ORIGINAL ads I referenced in this post plus several other ads?

Would you like to see the three OTHER ads that Martin Conroy might have used for inspiration for his “Two Young Men” letter?

If you answered “yes” then read this…

I was originally going to sell this but at the suggestion of some people I respect I’m going to give this PDF to you at no cost when you sign up for my newsletter (also free). Just fill out the subscription box below and my robot will RUSH you a confirmation e-mail. Once you have confirmed you really are who you say you are, the same trusty robot will fire off another e-mail with the download link for the 13 page PDF that – if you are an ad collector like me – you will cherish dearly as a part of your digital swipe file. So – Fill out the form and feel the joy…

  Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2010

Read These Posts and Develop Alien-Like Persuasive Powers

Learn about Roy Williams concept of “Seussing” and how you can use it to turn advertising from boring and bland to exciting and unique. Also find out about a boatload of Dr. Seuss illustrated ads that you can add to your swipe file. Continue reading

In 1924 a George Burton Hotchkiss copywriting book suggests that people use social proof in ad copy but calls it “imitative suggestion”. Are imitative suggestion and social proof the same and are they a form of hypnosis? Continue reading

October monthly update that includes a story on how the massive success of the Salty Droid blog has spawned a bunch of clones that make a mockery of the robot. Also how a motivational blog post by Frank Kern is really a disguised pitch. And finally some feedback I received on the Bill Bonner Video Sales Letter Post. Continue reading

Related posts:

  1. A Forerunner to the Wall Street Journal’s "Two Young Men" Ad

About Christopher Tomasulo

At home Christopher Tomasulo is your average dad with three kids. However, here at Covert Comm he is known as “Doc Sulo” and he mind-warps crowds with a tiny flutter of his left hand. He clothespins ideas to unsuspecting gray matter. He speaks lemon-yellow words that splash into ear canals and squeeze themselves into refreshing influence lemonade. It has also been said he's half-way decent at making complex persuasion and influence techniques simple.
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27 Responses to The Greatest Ad Swipe Ever – Martin Conroy’s Inspiration

  1. Chris,

    The book is Advertising Copy by George Hotchkiss.

    I just pulled my copy off the shelf.

    Best,

    David

  2. That was fast.

    I should have known a top copy writer would be the first.

    I'll be sending you the first of the five swipe PDFs although I'm sure you don't need it.

    Thanks for commenting David.

    -Christopher

  3. JJ says:

    Doc,

    I've often heard Gary Halbert's "Coat-of-Arms" letter is the most mailed in the world… and I doubt Gary would have ever disagreed. :)

    But I wouldn't be surprised if that 'fact' was actually manufactured by Gary but 'planting' it over many years through his seminar attendees.

    Whether it's a fact or not doesn't matter, the structure of how this belief came about is worth studying. Doc, I'd love your take on this.

    And thanks for letting the lesson above.

    I just bought the book… Many thanks to David Deutsch. :)

    Cheers,

    JJ

    • Thanks for writing JJ.

      You make a good point. I actually don't know if it's the most mailed letter of all time. I meant to write "most successful" – which thanks to computers will be corrected right now.

      I will research it though and update when I find out.

      Thanks again.

      -Christopher

  4. Jim Van Wyck says:

    Hey Christopher…..

    David Deutsch is on top of his game! As usual.

    I learned about the Civil War letter from you

    several years ago…. fascinating stuff.

    It's nice to see you "back in action"!

    Jim

    PS… there's just NO WAY that Halbert's

    coat of arms letter is the most mailed of all time.

    Besides, the success of that letter had less to do with

    the specific phrasing of the piece (brilliant though it is)

    than it had to do with the unique (at that time) offer……

    …. as well as Halbert's very creative way of doing database marketing

    which was way way ahead of it's time in targeting specific recipients

    according to their surname…..

    • Great to hear from you Jim.

      I didn't think that the coat of arms letter was the most mailed but I'm not sure if the WSJ one is either. Since Denny Hatch is the one that got the whole "most successful" letter of all time thing started, I'll have to refer back and see if he said it was the most mailed.

      And I totally forgot that when Halbert was doing the mailings that database marketing by surname was amazing – especially the way he did it.

      A guy I used to know and do business with was one of the first to use laser printers for personalization (and created a $50 million a year business because of it) and I thought that was amazing but Halbert did it with almost no tech.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      -Christopher

    • Big Jason says:

      hey jim,

      sure your point about the coat of arms copy isn’t just an assumption?

      it took 18 months to get to that point, and wasn’t the first version.

      so if Gary was testing it and finally got it right with that version, I would bet the copy did have something to do with it.

      again, that is an assumption on my part too, but I hang out and talk with the Halbert boys all the time.

      cheers,
      big jason

  5. Chris "Doc Sulo",

    As I recall some advice from one of my best mentors Gene Schwartz, he told me that the difference between effectively "borrowing" [swiping] from a previous winning ad was in NOT using the exact same wording of that ad (plagiarism) but the copy writers interpretation and then new application.

    The fact is that in today's world nearly everything seems to be put up on the internet, so the idea of plagiarism should be nearly impossible. But each day someone takes…swipes from a previous winning ad and then translates or "re-purposes" it for a new winner. Hence WHY we are called "copy" writers. Relatively little new under the sun. Which is also why Gene used to say that creativity was the obstacle to successful advertising. Why re-invent the wheel daily.

    The KEY to an effective use of a swipe is not plagiarism, or out right theft and then reprinting of the exact same words. The KEY IS in the application of the words, the CONTEXT, or the spirit of the new product or service, the CONTENT. The same words that produced a winner do not always produce a similar winning response when presented out of context.

    In specific comparison of the Wall Street ad and the Civil War ad it is the story idea that is the center of the either. But, a copy writer cannot steal or swipe a whole story and use it without any changes. That is obvious plagiarism.

    Had Conroy been alive today and doing the same thing he may well have possibly been attacked legally and labeled a plagiarist even though his Wall Street ad maintained a control status for so many years producing billions in revenue.

    As with David's comment above, I too have reviewed George Hotchiss''s "Advertising Copy" right off my shelf. I can find no reference anywhere to the author or copy writer of the earliest version, of the Civil War ad other than the Alexander Hamilton Institute. Good luck on your search.

    Cheers!

    Jonathan Dune

    unsung copywriter/marketer

    "quietly working in winning copy in the shadows"

    Two Comma Copy

    (where "two commas" equals million dollar producing copy)

    twitter: @TWOCOMMACOPY

    Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/TWOCOMMACOPY

    P.S. But…let me know if you do locate a verifiable reference to

    the actual author of the Civil War ad.

    P.S.S. Gene Schwartz's pivotal book, "Breakthrough Advertising" is

    still a corner stone reference manual for the novice and the

    veteran copywriter. Highly recommend.

  6. Russ says:

    Ahhhh… I can still recite the Wall Street letter in my sleep. A certain copywriting course suggests copying this and several other of the top sales letters throughout DM history.

    This one gets special attention because of the contrast of the 2 individuals. Doesn't surprise me that it 'may' have been 'borrowed' by one copywriter from another. It really is a brilliant letter.

    Would LOVE to see your 7+ page PDF. I'd probably be the first one in Canada to do so!

    Thanks Christopher

  7. mark goggin says:

    I think this is great. I'd like to have the complete originals so I can compare them side by side. I want to see how Martin changed the original and how closely he followed it. That's the way I learn best and would like the originals to make that kind of connection…

  8. mark goggin says:

    Is the original that David Ogilvy used for his Rolls Royce ad in this book, too?

  9. John Gilger says:

    Hi Christopher,

    It’s always great to read your posts and learn more about persuasion and copywriting. This was particularly interesting due to the historical aspect. It is fun to see how ideas and techniques evolved as they were “passed” from one old master to the next generation’s up and comers.

    If I recall correctly, Conroy’s WSJ letter generated the most revenue of any direct response sales letter… over $1 billion. But then again, memory has a way of playing tricks on us now and then.

    Your PDF will be a cherished addition to my collection. If I don’t win it, I’ll just have to keep collecting your insights one blog post at a time and that’s OK, too :)

  10. John Thomas says:

    Chris,

    I was just reading an analysis of the general structure of the WSJ letter the other day, and the writer of the commentary (Louis Burns) made a point that I hadn’t thought of until then… and has been on my mind ever since in terms of thinking about it’s usefulness.

    Burns makes the point that one of the fundamental structural principles of this ad is that it is a massive open loop/closed loop.

    Now, since I know you’re familiar with NLP, I won’t explain that, but I thought it was incredibly insightful that, like a spoken word open loop, the WSJ starts with the story, breaks at a key point, goes into listing benefits of the WSJ, and then closes the loop to ask for the order.

    I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of readers of this letter remembered the story but couldn’t tell you why they thought the WSJ was the cause of success and would benefit them as well.

    I keep thinking about that and the implications of using open loops in story in copy.

    When you think about it, a really brilliant ad, both in terms of it’s structural brilliance and in it’s power to produce results.

    Thanks for your post and bringing that to mind again.

    - John

  11. Ian Wallace says:

    It’s interesting to hear of the origins of great advertising. Old as I am I still think the feet of the Masters is the place to learn

  12. Jim Bettke says:

    Chris,

    Great stuff. Others here may see this in a different light but to me it comes down to this: there is always more than one way to do anything BUT there is always only one BEST way to do anything. When you use storytelling to demonstrate the BEST way, people will naturally make that choice.

    Jim

  13. DaveC says:

    “You could spend $1000′s on a copy writing guru’s training course or buy this book for less than $20. I would bet on the $20 book reader.”

    And you’d win.

    How I wish I’d gone the book route too…

    Thank you for coming back Christopher.

  14. Rezbi says:

    I never actually wanted to question it in case I was wrong, considering there were so many people saying the same thing…

    However, I'm pretty certain I saw something which I thought the WSJ letter was based on and it was written in the 19th century.

    I've been looking for it ever since but have had no luck.

    • I would love to see any 19th century "two men" ads if anyone can find them. I have many 19th century ads in my collection but none with the "two men" angle.

      The whole use of stories in advertising was in very limited use in the late 1800's. Storied ads didn't really take off until the 1900's.

      Another thing that makes it unlikely that the WSJ ad was based off of 1800's ads is the fact that Martin Conroy was born in 1922. The chance that he read Hotchkiss's book on copy writing is pretty good I think. Especially since he was a freelance writer. The Hotchkiss book is the classic textbook on copywritng.

      He also could have read many of the other "two men" ads that appeared from the time he was born until 1940. In fact, that is also more likely than him using ads from the 1800's.

      But even so – I'd love to see a "two men" ad from the 1800's. If anyone has one – email me.

  15. Kevin Rogers says:

    Great post, Chris. Love your style, bro.

    You've been helping me sound smarter for almost a decade. (Thanks to a certain Canadian bookseller, the Hotchkiss book will soon be on my shelf as well.)

    So, what IS the most mailed ad of all time?

    KR

    • Thanks Kevin.

      I don't know what is the most mailed ad of all time. I'd like to find out though.

      I'm sure it would be a guess unless we compared notes with multiple mail houses.

      When I did consulting work for the travel industry the company my clients marketed for mailed over 1 million pieces a week and they have done that continuously from about 1994 through today. The letter has had minor changes through that period.

      That's a lot of mail.

      I'm sure there's lots of others just like that. But the fact that the WSJ ad ran for 28 years gives it a leg up on most letters I would think.

      Denny Hatch would be a good source – maybe he'll jump in on this thread.

      The Hotchkiss book is great. I'm semi-regretting I made it public. It NEVER shows up in any of the "top copywriting" book lists I've seen and I've always thought that was good.

      Oh well.

  16. William says:

    Thanks for the report. Ben Hart, has this ad in his book Blockbuster sales letters.

    I have read it several times and thought it was an excellent ad. I really need to be reading and writing these type of ads myself, instead of Gary Halberts and others masters of copy.

    Thanks again for the report.

    • Thanks for posting William. Never read the Ben Hart book. Did it have the ad in the original format or just the text? Also, how’s the rest of the book? I only saw one review on Amazon which makes me think it wasn’t very popular but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t good.

  17. NOT a straightforward book to get! (yet). Thanks so much for the swipe file Christopher.
    It’s a shame this book is not immediately available, but always good to hear of a good resource. I was amazed when Claude Hopkins’ scientific advertising was available as a free download, but I guess this really is less well known.

    And entirely unsurprising that David should have a copy!!!

    • Ha! The last book I recommended cleared out the remaining stock in book dealers worldwide. The book dealers were shocked.

      I still have one of the e-mails that one of my readers sent me after they bought the book from a book dealer:

      ===> Begin e-mail from book dealer
      From: Dan Martin
      To: *****
      Sent: Sunday, November 14, 2004 9:21 PM
      Subject: Re: my order

      ****:
      I have good news and, well, delayed news. In the past 10 days, I have
      received about 15 orders for this book, after it sat in my inventory for a few
      years. This happened once before when the Wall Street Journal suddenly
      announced that a book was fabulously rare. Fortunately my price was
      many times higher (on that one).

      Other potential customers have told me that someone on the internet
      recommended it. Since you placed your order first, I am hoping you will tell
      me what the heck in going on. In exchange, I will tell you what is going on
      here.

      It seems that you have purchased a rarity at a low price. I would
      appreciate any information you can give me about why that is the case. I used
      to pride myself on playing that trick on other book dealers, but the internet
      has overtaken us all.

      Oh, and I should apologize for the delay. I do apologize. Like all of us, I
      am trying to do more with less. But the book is here, and it is yours.

      Dan Martin, Books From X to Z

      =======> End book dealer e-mail

      Anyway. Thanks for posting Denis. I just looked and saw a few copies on Abebooks.com and even on Amazon unless the system hasn’t caught up with purchases.

  18. Pingback: Was the Wall Street Journal “Two Men” Sales Letter Idea Stolen? « The Persuasion Prescription

  19. James says:

    Thanks.
    I had been looking for this Bruce Burton for a while.

    Glad I found it on your site.

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