The Soul of Advertising

“Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.”

Englishman Samuel Johnson wrote the above words in his magazine, The Idler, on January 20, 1759. And yet it could have been written yesterday.

Then Johnson wrote, “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement,”

Johnson’s quote got me thinking about advertising — both its promise and pitfalls.


First of all, advertising is a marketing tactic, not marketing itself. It can help a company but isn’t a magic bullet.

Because advertising is a relatively expensive tactic and highly visible, it gets an inordinate amount of attention from clients, ad agencies, creative types and others. Bright, well-intentioned people with competing interests agonize about ads.

All too often the ads themselves are casualties, a hodge-podge of opinions and preferences.

The way out of the advertising mess is found in Johnson’s famous quote. What is the large promise?

A large promise can reflect long-term positioning or be the basis for a short-term ad campaign.

For example, the large promise of Verizon Wireless ads used to be reliability. They banged the reliability drum in every ad.

Pick a large promise, only one. Find a clear way to show it and say it to the audience. Then repeat it, not just two or three times but six or seven (or more) times. Advertising, like other marketing tactics, takes time to work.

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