#009: The 2nd Most Famous Ad of All Time

John Caples 1927 1925 They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano But When I Started To Play – Header UnfairCopy

Today, you can take a course on any subject from anywhere in the U.S. using the internet.

In the 1900s, you could take a course on any subject from anywhere in the U.S.… using the postal service.

This was quite a big deal.

In the 1920s, about 500,000 people per year signed up to “correspondence schools.” To compare, about 900,000 people per year enrolled to college.

The economy was booming. And many correspondence schools popped up with it.

The right course could get you a job where degrees weren’t required. Surprisingly, this included jobs such as being a lawyer, an engineer and an architect.

And of course, there were courses to freelancers. Courses in art, in writing and even crime detective work.

Then there was the whole rainbow of self-improvement courses. Music. Foreign languages. Social skills. Religion. Physical fitness. Dancing. Golfing. And more.

But in this landscape of mail home study courses, there was one correspondence school that stood out.

Even more famous than this school is the ad a 25-year old wrote about it.

A Farm Boy From Ohio

In 1816, David Kemp was born on an Ohio farm. But unlike R.J. Reynolds who also grew up on a farm, David didn’t have an interest in working with the land.

By the time he was 16, he taught himself typing and stenography to become a law clerk. But for reasons we don’t know, he switched careers a lot.

From age 16 to 30, he held jobs as a:

  • Railroad surveyor
  • Construction worker
  • Subsistence farmer
  • Newspaper editor
  • Parade organizer, and 
  • An ad salesman.

At 30 years old, he was unemployed and married a talented pianist.

She told him that the famous composer Richard Wagner mostly taught himself music. You’ll remember that Wagner was one of the famous icons featured in the story of a how a piano maker boosted net profits by 1,616% in 1921.

This motivated David to make a correspondence school with her.

And in 1898, they started the U.S. School of Music to sell piano lessons by mail.

David asked his old advertising firm for a loan. And with the economy growing so much, they got 400 students in their first year.

That 400 quickly grew to 10,000 students enrolled.

They set up an “affiliate program” with Sears department stores. Basically, they’d get a cut of sales each time a student bought a musical instrument.

The U.S. School of Music became one of the most successful correspondence schools in the country.

By the early 1920s, the school offered dozens of courses. Including public speaking and singing.

The U.S. School of Music had an advertising agency for a while. They picked an agency that was good at direct mail-order advertising.

Ruthrauff & Ryan.

Ruthrauff & Ryan have appeared in this series before. They’re the same agency in Cody’s story of how he sold $70 million in English courses to native English speakers. And also the story of how the greatest copywriter you’ve never heard of sold 2 million books in 2 years.

Fun Fact: The U.S. School of Music bought the rights to Cody’s English course after his death. But they never did anything with it.

And in 1925, not long after Lillian Eichler retired, John Caples got hired as a new copywriter.

The Ad Legend Himself

A man named Ev Grady gave a young 25-year old his first copywriting job. And started the career of an advertising legend, John Caples.

Later in his 50s, John wrote about how the ad in this story was born. I will summarise it here but you can read the full story in Chapter 4 of Making Ads Pay

“John, I wish you would get up an ad for the U.S. School of Music,” said Ev Grady. “Write some headlines first, and we will go over them together.”

He got a definite assignment and a due date with it.

Just as he was trained on assignments before, he began with research. He looked at older, successful headlines that the U.S. School of Music used.

After several hours, he came up with eight headlines.

  • My Friends Laughed At This New Way To Learn Music–But Now They Beg Me To Play!
  • I Couldn’t Believe It Was My Wife Playing The Piano Until I Saw With My Own Eyes
  • Can You Play The Piano? Neither Could I Three Months Ago.
  • I Never Even Saw My Music Teacher But He Taught Me To Play Just The Same
  • They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano—But When I Started To Play!
  • I Couldn’t Believe My Ears—Mary Had Actually Learned Music Without A Teacher
  • Give Me 10 Minutes And I’ll Prove You Can Learn Music Without A Teacher
  • “What A Way To Learn Music!” They Laughed. Now My Friends Beg Me To Play.

He took those to Grady.

Grady looked at them for a minute. Then he circled one of them.

“Write copy to go with that headline,” he said.

The Full Ad

John Caples 1927 1925 They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano But When I Started To Play – Header UnfairCopy
The Full Ad – 1927 Print

The Headline

John based the headline on another headline that worked before, “It seemed so strange to hear her play.” The ad told a story of a woman who visited a friend. During her visit, the friend played the piano and the woman said the words in the headline.

John admits that this headline is simply an extension of that idea. A larger audience. A guy laughed at by his friends when he acted like he could play. And then that large audience being amazed he could play so well.

The Opening Paragraphs

Arthur had just played “The Rosary.” The room rang with applause. I decided that this would be a dramatic moment for me to make my debut. To the amazement of all my friends, I strode confidently over to the piano and sat down.

“Jack is up to his old tricks,” somebody chuckled. The crowd laughed. They were all certain that I couldn’t play a single note.

“Can he really play?” I heard a girl whisper to Arthur.

“Heavens, no!” Arthur exclaimed “He never played a note in all his life… But just you watch him. This is going to be good.”

I decided to make the most of the situation. With mock dignity I drew out a silk handkerchief and lightly dusted off the piano keys. Then I rose and gave the revolving piano stool a quarter of a turn, just as I had seen an imitator of Paderewski do in a vaudeville sketch.

“What do you think of his execution?” called a voice from the rear. “We’re in favor of it!” came back the answer, and the crowd rocked with laughter.

Since Grady picked a story headline, John had to write a story.

So John simply set the scene he had in his head.

He added some humor to the story. Jack’s acting at the piano was inspired by a comedy sketch John saw. The execution joke was something he read in a magazine.

Notice that John didn’t try to write an original joke. Being funny to a cold audience is a very hard thing to do.

Even professional comedians spend hours and hours testing different jokes. They do it in small venues until they have enough tested jokes to record a comedy special or go on tour.

So, if you’re going to try being funny in your copy, better use something you know that works.

Then I Started To Play

Instantly a tense silence fell on the guests. The laughter died on their lips as if by magic. I played through the first few bars of Beethoven’s immortal Moonlight Sonata. I heard gasps of amazement. My friends sat breathless — spellbound!

I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade — seemed to grow dim — unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and visions it brought me. Visions as beautiful and as changing as the wind blown clouds and drifting moonlight that long ago inspired the master composer. It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me — speaking through the medium of music — not in words but in chords. Not in sentences but in exquisite melodies!

In this section, John uses lots of emotional copy.

John read a book called Advertising Copy by George Burton Hotchkiss. In that book, there was an ad with very emotional copy.

The ad was about someone who played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to a guest on a winter night.

He went back to read this ad to get himself feeling the emotions. And he wrote this section.

The entire goal is to also stir emotions in the reader. To get them to feel how beautifully Jack played the piano. And by feeling that beautiful performance, to want to do the same for themselves.

As much as possible, when you write an ad, try to stir emotions in the reader.

People buy with emotion and justify it with logic.

John took what we’ve read so far to Ev Grady.

Grady liked it. He  suggested that John should add Jack getting congratulations from his friends. And Jack telling everyone how he took the U.S. School of Music course.

A Complete Triumph!

As the last notes of the Moonlight Sonata died away, the room resounded with a sudden roar of applause. I found myself surrounded by excited faces. How my friends carried on! Men shook my hand — wildly congratulated me — pounded me on the back in their enthusiasm! Everybody was exclaiming with delight — plying me with rapid questions… “Jack! Why didn’t you tell us you could play like that?”… “Where did you learn?” — “How long have you studied?” — “Who was your teacher?”

“I have never even seen my teacher,” I replied. “And just a short while ago I couldn’t play a note.”

“Quit your kidding,” laughed Arthur, himself an accomplished pianist. “You’ve been studying for years. I can tell.”

“I have been studying only a short while,” I insisted. “I decided to keep it a secret so that I could surprise all you folks.”

Then I told them the whole story.

“Have you ever heard of the U.S. School of Music?” I asked.

A few of my friends nodded. “That’s a correspondence school, isn’t it?” they exclaimed. 

“Exactly,” I replied. “They have a new simplified method that can teach you to play any instrument by mail in just a few months.”

In this section, pay attention to how John weaves in a few selling points.

Jack doesn’t start by saying he learned by mail. He says he’s never even seen his teacher.

Jack doesn’t say that the course gave him years of progress in a few months. Arthur says he can tell Jack’s been playing for years.

Jack doesn’t say the U.S. School of Music is well-known. He asks his friends and some of them nod and say what it is.

Only in the last sentence does John come out to say what it is.

How I Learned To Play Without A Teacher

And then I explained how for years I had longed to play the piano.

“A few months ago,” I continued, “I saw an interesting ad for the U.S. School of Music — a new method of learning to play which only cost a few cents a day! The ad told how a woman had mastered the piano in her spare time at home — and without a teacher! Best of all, the wonderful new method she used, required no laborious scales — no heartless exercises — no tiresome practising. It sounded so convincing that I filled out the coupon requesting the Free Demonstration Lesson.”

“The free book arrived promptly and I started in that very night to study the Demonstration Lesson. I was amazed to see how easy it was to play this new way. Then I sent for the course. “When the course arrived I found it was just as the ad said — as easy as A.B.C.! And, as the lessons continued they got easier and easier. Before I knew it I was playing all the pieces I liked best. Nothing stopped me. I could play ballads or classical numbers or jazz, all with equal ease! And I never did have any special talent for music!”

Here we have a subheading that challenges a common assumption. Challenging assumptions is a good way of grabbing someone’s attention.

The rest is basically an ad. Except it’s an ad that Jack “saw” and is repeating to the others.

To break it down a bit, we have a case study of sorts.

  • how a woman had mastered the piano in her spare time at home
  • I was playing all the pieces I liked best.
  • I could play ballads or classical numbers or jazz,

There’s a list of benefits.

  • only cost a few cents a day!
  • mastered the piano in her spare time at home
  • and without a teacher!
  • no laborious scales
  • no heartless exercises
  • no tiresome practising

It is all wrapped in the very powerful selling theme of “Easy” and “Low Effort / Effortless”:

  • no laborious scales
  • no heartless exercises
  • no tiresome practising
  • easy as A.B.C.
  • as the lessons continued they got easier and easier
  • all with equal ease!
  • never did have any special talent for music

Some buying instructions for a trial (‘I filled out the coupon requesting the Free Demonstration Lesson’)

The result is a section that is very, very dense with sales copy.

Play Any Instrument

You too, can now teach yourself to be an accomplished musician — right at home — in half the usual time. You can’t go wrong with this simple new method which has already shown 350,000 people how to play their favorite instruments. Forget the old-fashioned idea that you need special “talent.” Just read the list of instruments in the panel, decide which one you want to play and the U.S. School will do the rest. And bear in mind no matter which instrument you choose, the cost in each case will be the same — just a few cents a day. No matter whether you are a mere beginner or already a good performer, you will be interested in learning about this new and wonderful method.

Quite a few things to point at here as well.

John Caples upscales the course. It’s not learning how to play an instrument. It is teaching yourself to be an accomplished musician.

He uses social proof by mentioning the 350,000 students who have enrolled.

He gives simple buying instructions. Read the list of instruments. Decide what you want. And the U.S. School will do the rest.

John handles a price objection by saying all courses cost the same. And it minimises the price to just a few cents a day.

It also expands its audience by saying it can help no matter the skill level: beginner or good performer.

Send for Our Free Booklet and Demonstration Lesson

Thousands of successful students never dreamed they possessed musical ability until it was revealed to them by a remarkable “Musical Ability Test” which we send entirely without cost with our interesting free booklet.

If you are in earnest about wanting to play your favorite instrument — if you really want to gain happiness and increase your popularity — send at once for the free booklet and Demonstration Lesson. No cost — no obligation. Right now we are making a Special offer for a limited number of new students. Sign and send the convenient coupon now — before it’s too late to gain the benefits of this offer. Instruments supplied when needed, cash or credit. U.S. School of Music, 1031 Brunswick Bldg., New York City.

Here we have a powerful call to action made up of the following ingredients:

  • More social proof and a free trial offer.
  • Some final upscaling (‘gain happiness and increase your popularity’).
  • Repetition that it is free (‘no cost — no obligation’)
  • Uses scarcity with a limited quantity offer.
  • A call to action with urgency.
  • Mentions instruments are available in case the reader doesn’t have one.
  • A brief mention of payment methods.

All the elements of a great call-to-action and more.

The Results

I couldn’t find any sales numbers on how well this ad did.

“So why is it in this series?”

Well, John Caples wrote that he’s confident it was one of the best-selling ads that the U.S. School of Music ever ran.

It is arguably the most recognisable ad that John ever wrote.

And he’s an advertising legend among the likes of David Ogilvy.

Call it a special pass.

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Make the most of your copywriter. When hiring a copywriter, give a very specific task, a clear deadline and plenty of feedback. This is the fastest way to get the most effective copy.
  • Give potential customers a free taste of your product. Buying is a scary thing. It requires trust. One of the best ways to build that trust is to offer something for free.
  • Gather testimonials. While the story in this ad is made up, it still has a powerful truth that personal stories sell. Make sure you collect stories from customers and how your product has helped them. Better yet, let your copywriter interview your best customers to get genuine stories.

In your copy…

  • Always start with research. Ask your clients for any old successful ads. Look to competitors for successful ads. These can give you ideas to get you started.
  • Use a cliffhanger for a headline. It arouses curiosity and makes the reader want to get closure. And they’ll get that closure by reading your ad.
  • Use a story. It is a basic human trait to like stories. There are stories that define entire generations, such as Harry Potter. Stories hold immense power, so use them in your ads.
  • Don’t steal headlines, steal ideas. You might be tempted to steal this headline and use it in an ad. Don’t do it. You’ll be far better off if you look at the concept behind proven headlines (i.e. proving people wrong and getting public approval) than the exact words (i.e. They Laughed When I ____ But When I _____).
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