The More Things Change, the More They (Mostly) Stay the Same

December 2020

By Ron Steblea

There is an early 18th-century inn, situated on Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., whose first-floor bar is entirely wallpapered with newspaper pages from the 1890s. If one were to relax with friends and take a few minutes to read the 125-year-old newspaper ads, you would be at the beginning of our story.

The American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell lived the last quarter-century of his life in this western Massachusetts town. And while opinions vary on the significance of his artistic output, one thing is clear: he depicted many situations with topics that showed how we were more similar than different.


What else is the same and different from more than 100 years ago? Maybe surprisingly, like Norman Rockwell showed, things are more similar than they may seem.

In Tested Advertising Methods, John Capels presents a case study where — more than a century ago — a marketer did an A/B split. A product was marketed for 10 cents and $1 shipping vs. $1 for the product and 10 cents shipping. The former offer won because at that time, nobody cared how much shipping cost. We all can agree that Amazon Prime has changed that attitude.


Some product categories have shifted, too. There is a print ad from the 19th century that has the headline: “Makes children and adults as fat as pigs.” We definitely do not push that category any longer. And while print advertising is still alive and well, it is certainly no longer the de facto medium of the day.


Marketers today are often nervous about change, and it is easy to understand why. The platforms we market on have always been in a state of flux; however, instead of sea changes occurring every five to 10 years, it’s as if we’re seeing major shifts every six months.


Looking at the range of change in just my nearly three-decade career, I have marketed in mail-order catalogs, in Sunday newspaper supplements, in credit-card billing inserts, and then TV, the internet, and now various e-commerce platforms. Layering on to that, as recently as 15 years ago, most direct-to-consumer marketers weren’t so worried about the back end (which was, at that time, mainly big-box retail), and I was testing TV commercials with only phone numbers and no URLs!


But what has stayed the same? Most categories advertised in the 1890s are in line with the successful direct-to-consumer ads we see today. One headline reads, “Does your husband snore?” There have been dozens of snoring aids marketed in our industry in the past couple of decades.

Another product marketed 125 years ago was a “Chin Reducer and Beautifier.” We have seen a successful product marketed recently in the same category. Sanitized tape worms were marketed to be eaten to help lose weight. And while the methods may be modernized, from Tae Bo to P90X to Nutrisystem, Peloton, and beyond, weight loss and fitness remain evergreen categories.


There are always the “put hair on” (balding cures) and “take hair off” categories, which are plentiful at every point in our recent and distant marketing history. And, as previously mentioned, the platforms by which we reach our consumers seem to be changing rapidly and frequently, but the underlying “how” is still the same.


Our marketing principles and fundamentals are as similar today as they were six months ago, as they were five or 25 years ago, or even 125 years ago: an answer to a mass market problem, a unique solution, and a great value. As Norman Rockwell once said, “Very interesting for an old duffer like me to try his hand at something new. If I don’t do that once in a while, I might just turn into a fossil, you know!”


Change is good and change is healthy — it’s what keeps us going. And as long as we keep applying what we know works, focusing on what the customer responds to, and learning the nuances of new marketing channels, direct-to-consumer marketing will undoubtedly still be here in another 125 years.