What You Can Learn From The Best Print Ad Ever

Nearly 100 years later, this ad has plenty to teach today’s brands about the elements of great storytelling.

When identifying the top print advertisements and best headlines in the last century of advertising, a 1926 ad written by a young, green copywriter always makes the cut. John Caples, only one year on the job, wrote: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano—but when I started to play!” Caples’ assignment was to entice people to buy piano lessons by correspondence from the U.S. School of Music. The hero of the ad was ridiculed by the guests when he sat down, but the ridicule turned to accolades and applause when he begins to play, only a few months after starting the correspondence course.

The ad was not only critically acclaimed but brought in a lot of customers. It illustrates the power of a story that has tension, emotion, challenge and a brand-driven resolution as opposed to a recitation of facts and functional benefits. A story, as we now know, is a powerful way to get people to get involved and remember a message. This story also nicely frames the subcategory by changing what the customer is buying and defining the relevant options.

There is a lot to learn today from this ad. It included almost no details about the actual course offering. Rather, the ad told a captivating story in graphic detail about what happened to someone who took the correspondence course, a story that brought tears of joy to readers happy for the piano player’s success.

The ad shows that functional benefits are not the sweet spot of persuasion and communication. Rather, what grabs people are emotional, self-expressive and social benefits. There is the emotion felt not only by the piano player who excelled but also by those hearing the story and bursting with pride that he accomplished his goal. The self-expressive benefit displays the ability of the man to express his talent, his perseverance and his ability to face those that had ridiculed him.

“A story, as we now know, is a powerful way to get people to get involved and remember a message.”

And there is the social benefit of the man being accepted into a desirable group. The brand was embedded so much in the story that a memory of the ad recalls a memory of the brand. Further, there was a specific call to action. You could send in a free brochure and a free sample lesson. Free! Think of the foot-in-the-door research that has shown how much impact a small action step can have.


Too often, brand strategists suffer from what I call the “product-attribute fixation trap” whereby there is a compulsion to focus on attributes under the faulty assumption that people are rational. Caple’s breakthrough idea was that a brand is more than its attributes and functional benefits. It has emotional benefits, self-expressive benefits, social benefits, a brand personality, organizational associations and more. When you understand that, your potential for creating deeper brand experiences and stronger brand/customer relationships will be realized.

As for Caple: One year after he wrote that ad, he joined BBDO where he enjoyed a career that extended well past a half-century. Among other accomplishments, he was one of the pioneers in ad research, published several books on advertising testing, became a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame, and was named by AdAge as number 21 of the 100 top advertising leaders of the century. One of his tenets was to only use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader because otherwise, you will not reach the average American. Another was to avoid humor because half of America lacks a sense of humor. His ad was an amazing start to an amazing career.