Wall Street Journal and the World's Greatest Ad
The success of the Wall Street Journal certainly has much to do with what it delivers to millions of subscribers every business day. But part of this success can be attributed to what it has promised to deliver to would-be subscribers through a brilliant direct mail piece. This promise is stated in the Wall Street Journal's 18 year old control piece mailing which has come to be known as the "Two Young Men" control piece. As reported in Target Marketing magazine (March 1993), it is the most successful advertisement in the history of the world. Certainly a big claim but there are some interesting statistics to prove the claim.
Written by freelancer Martin Conroy and first mailed in 1975, it is in the form of a two page letter. No other subscription piece for the WSJ has ever been able to beat it. As Denison Hatch writes in Target Marketing, "The highways and byways of North America are littered with the corpses of mailings tested against it by virtually every major (and minor) copywriter and designer in the United States and Canada since it was first mailed in 1975."
In late 1991, Denison Hatch interviewed WSJ National Subscription Manger Paul Bell. He found out some interesting statistics about the WSJ and particularly the "Two Young Men" piece. According to Bell, the number of mail order subscribers to the WSJ brought in each year is approximately one million. The average subscription price for the Journal over the past 18 years is about $100 a year. And, here is the interesting part, approximately 55% of all mail order subscribers have come in as a result of the "Two Young Men" piece. A little math will quickly show that this two page letter is responsible for bringing in $1 billion to the WSJ and is therefore the most successful single piece of advertising in the history of the world.
Many businesses spend their entire history trying to find out exactly what it is they are selling. With the "Two Young Men" ad, Martin Conroy has hit on exactly what the WSJ is selling. In effect, he has discovered the real "promise" of the WSJ, the core mythology and symbolism of the publication. It is closely linked to the symbolism of place.
The promise is expressed in a story about two young men and the musings of the Publisher of the WSJ about their lives. It is a very personal note from the "Publisher" to the "Reader". The story in the letter is about two young men who are very much alike. "Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both - as young college graduates - were filled with ambitious dreams for the future." They graduate from college at the same time.
Now, as the Publisher writes to the reader, it is 25 years later and the two young men have met for their 25th college reunion. They were still very much alike. "Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation and were still there."
But there was a difference. "One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was the president." The Publisher muses "Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people's lives?" Interestingly, the ad employs two powerful words right alongside each other - the word "you" and the word "I". A common belief in direct marketing holds that "you" is one of the most important words to use. However, a more important word is "I". By the juxtaposition of "you" and "I" the writer brings the reader into a unique intimacy which sets a mood for the ad.
Then he reviews for us the facts of the story given to us and finds that the difference cannot be found in "native intelligence or talent or dedication" or in the fact that "one person wants success and the other person doesn't." The story confirms these musings of the Publisher because we are given two young men who are similar.
After musing about why the two men are different the Publisher goes quickly to the reason and says "The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge." The Publisher goes immediately to the purpose for writing. "And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about the Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: to give its readers knowledge - knowledge that they can use in business."
With a few sentences, the topic of knowledge is approached from various perspectives. A sense of immediacy is driven home. "I see item after item that can affect you, your job, your future." Note that the affect of the WSJ is expanded outside of the reader's job by separating "you, your job" and in fact goes beyond the present to even extend to the future. The inside of the paper is discussed and more evidence provided of items which can affect the reader's life.
There are a number of interesting things going on in this simple two page letter which are not outwardly apparent to the reader. They involve more the context and the symbolism of place than content. As Marshall McLuhan once said, "The media is the message". And so it is with the "Two Young Men" ad - the context of the ad is really the message more than the specific content. What do we mean by this?
For one thing, the Publisher has chosen to start his story at a very important contextual point in time. It is that perennial time of the journey from youth into manhood - a college graduation. In ancient cultures and societies this special event would be an initiation ritual. But more, he has chosen to also highlight that enchanting and mysterious season of Spring. The ad starts with "On a beautiful late spring afternoon". It is a deceptively enticing few words but notice the words "beautiful" and "late" and "spring" and "afternoon". It is the "afternoon" of a period of life for the two young men and the beginning of another period of life for them. It is a time that has a deep identification to all of us. A very important time - that time between youth and manhood.
Are we making too much of the context of time and the season Spring? We don't think so. By just the fifth word in the ad, the writer has managed to slip in one of the most emotion charged words in our language - the word "Spring". It has been the subject of almost all of our great works of literature in the twentieth century. In The Wasteland T.S.Eliot talks about this period:
"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain."
Eliot captures this special time as a transition time between the past of winter and the hope of summer, between memory and desire. In the beginning of one of America's most famous novels The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald also establishes the context of spring as a time background for the novel:
"I came East...in the spring of twenty-two. The practical thing was to find rooms in the city, but it was a warm season...And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees...I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with summer."
Or what about the words of Thomas Wolfe in his short story "The Train And The City":
"Spring came that year like magic and like music and like song. One day its breath was in the air, a haunting premonition of its spirit filled the hearts of men with its transforming loveliness, wreaking its sudden and incredible sorcery upon gray streets, gray pavements, and on gray faceless tides of manswarm ciphers."