What My Dad Taught Me About Advertising

Here’s one advertising technique that may work for you. Ironically, I learned it from my dad. I say “ironically” because my father had no interest in advertising or marketing. His expertise was insurance. He was an insurance agent, and he knew the technical aspects of insurance inside and out. He ran a one-man insurance agency in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, using his own name — “F.W. ‘Dave’ Bly Insurance.” The “F” stood for Fabian, which he hated.

Most people who hate their first names go by their middle names — but the “W” in “F.W.” stood for “Wolf,” which he equally despised. Dad told me that when he was a kid and he met new kids who asked him his name, he would mumble “Fabe” — short for Fabian — and hope they couldn’t hear him clearly. One day, a kid asked, “Did you say ‘Dave’?” “Yeah,” said Dad, and from then on — for the rest of his life — he went by the name Dave. His major means of advertising his insurance agency was with an ad in the Yellow Pages.

As a small independent agent in the rather downscale city of Paterson, Dave Bly couldn’t afford the biggest ad on the page. Other, larger agencies could always outspend him. So one year, he decided to try something new. In his small display ad (I can’t remember the exact size), he put the headline “INSURANCE” in large, bold type. Underneath that, he had two columns of bullets — a laundry list of all the types of things he could insure. He focused on items that people frequently asked about but that other insurance agents did not actively pursue. Snowmobiles, I recall, were one of them. At the bottom of the ad, he had the name of his agency and the phone number.

Well, that bullet-list ad was far more successful than any other ad he ever ran, getting him at least one phone call a day from people needing insurance. They told him they were trying to find insurance for a particular item (like a snowmobile). When they opened the Yellow Pages to “insurance,” his ad was the ONLY one in the book with the word “snowmobiles” in it. So . . . they called him first. Other agents, of course, could also insure snowmobiles as well as all the other items on Dad’s bullet list. But if you wanted to buy a kiwi fruit, would you respond to an ad that said “fruits” or the one that said “kiwis”?

Consumer Reports used this technique in a recent mailing to sell subscriptions. The magazine evaluates consumer products in a wide variety of categories. Many people, however, think of Consumer Reports primarily for its new-car ratings. So, for this mailing, they used an oversized outer envelope. And printed on the envelope were the names of dozens of consumer products covered by Consumer Reports — everything from loudspeakers and soy milk to treadmills and microwave ovens.

Literally dozens of different products were listed. I’m sure that envelope got opened by many people who ordinarily would have tossed a Consumer Reports promotion in the trash. I don’t know what the response rate was, but I do know that my dad’s Yellow Pages ads always paid back their cost many times over.

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click on http://www.agora-inc.com/reports/700SCBMO/W700E418/.)