A lot of digital marketing today is direct response — only it’s
all done with electrons instead of ink on paper.
As a result of the rise of digital marketing, direct response has
now become mainstream.
But back when I got into direct response in the early 80s, DR was
considered the ugly stepchild of more respectable mainstream
Madison Avenue brand advertising.
One reason was that we direct people had the unmitigated gall to
want advertising to be profitable and actually sell something
with our copy. And not just win awards.
Another reason: while Madison Avenue worshipped beautiful graphic
design, direct marketers consistently found, sometimes to our
surprise, that “ugly” direct mail usually worked much better than
slick and colorful packages.
The third reason direct marketing was looked down on is that some
of the old-time practitioners had a … well, a penchant for
promoting questionable offers.
Promotions that bordered on sleazy. Offers that came close to
being deceptive — and a few that stepped over that line. Products
that were rip-offs.
One of the most famous was the mail order ad that offered “a
copper-engraved portrait of America’s 16th president” for only
When you sent in your ten-spot, the marketer fulfilled the order
by mailing you a penny.
Another mail order ad of this ilk had the headline, “Gets Rid of
Potato Bugs and Other Garden Insects Guaranteed.” The product
cost $5 in 1969.
When you ordered, you received two blocks of wood with
handwritten instructions on how to place the potato bug or other
insect on one piece of wood — and squash it with the other.
Says BC, a friend and fellow mail order old-timer who reminded me
of this ad the other day, “I laughed so hard, I was in tears.”
In addition, BC tells this classic mail order story: “A neighbor
of ours bought a set of lawn furniture for $12. Included 4
chairs, a table and umbrella.”
The neighbor received the actual scaled size furniture that was
in the print ad photo — good for a doll house or a little girl’s
toy, but not so good for a patio.
BC also reminded me of the mail order ad that sold a vibrating
lure designed to help you catch fish like crazy.
BC bought it when he was a kid and says: “I never caught a fish
on it. And I guess they have a contest every year and none of the
participants have ever caught a fish with it!”
Then there was the ad that said: “Turn your closet into a coat
room with sturdy metal coat hooks.” When you ordered, the
marketer sent you a dozen or so nails.
Another classic was “Portable Garage” — a plastic tarp you
placed over your car to keep the snow and rain off. Actually
quite handy for people who can’t put their car inside because
their real garage is filled with mowers, tools, boxes, and
The classic of all time is the pet sea monkeys — a vial of brine
shrimp eggs that hatched when placed in warm salty water.
The ad proclaimed: “Instant Pets — a Bowlful of Fun!”
As a kid, I actually did have a lot of fun with the sea monkeys.
And I didn’t feel ripped off at all.
In fact, the brine shrimp are great live food for tropical fish,
and so my having fish tanks made the sea monkeys not only fun but
practical as well.
Although on South Park, Cartman wasn’t quite as thrilled as I was
with his sea monkeys: