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Free is the Greatest Headline Ever Written

With the Super Bowl approaching, I went back and relooked at spots from previous years' games. Most were either misogynistic or humor for humor’s sake. There was one great spot, summarized in a word: Free. The massive queues for a free Denny’s breakfast is testament to the power of that word. Free has a magical quality – a siren call so captivating even savvy shoppers are unable to sail by it.

I have seen patrons at a county fair line up for a full hour in the hot summer sun for a free fake wooden coin. Beyond use as a spare checker piece, it was worthless ephemera. But they treasured it like it was drinking water.

P.T. Barnum knew the power of Free. Today he is incorrectly remembered for the line “There’s a sucker born every minute” and the circus that bears his name, but he never said the Sucker line and he actually got into the circus later in his life, after he had made (and lost and remade) his millions.

Barnum did it through advertising. He was a brilliant innovator — using many of the techniques still in use today: the advance team to generate a pre-event buzz; the loss leader, and recognizing the power of Free. Once, he ran a Wild West show on the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Admission was free – so the ferries were jammed with customers eager to take in the complimentary event on a fine afternoon — customers who were more than glad to pay Barnum for the ferry ride to the event.

Use Free in your advertising early and often. It doesn’t devalue the worth of your product or service to customers— it screams Value.

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