Caples, John (1900-1990)

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John Caples, born on May 1, 1900, in New York, was a pioneer in applying scientific methods to advertising. Admitted to New York's Columbia University, Mr. Caples, who was terror-stricken at speaking in public, eventually dropped out rather than deliver a two-minute speech in a required freshman English class. At this point, he believed himself to be a failure for life.

Mr. Caples next enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a regular seaman. He took the competitive exams and was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. After graduation in 1924, Mr. Caples worked for the New York Telephone Co. as an engineer, then for Certain-Teed Products Co., primarily performing clerical duties.

At the same time, he began taking writing courses at Columbia and set his sights on a career in copywriting. In 1925, Mr. Caples began his advertising career at Ruthrauff & Ryan, a leading mail-order company at the time. He quickly learned the secret behind mail-order copywriting: Responses show which ads are successful and which are not, so the wise copywriter learns what characteristics place an ad in the former category.

During his first year as a copywriter, Mr. Caples wrote one of the best-known direct-mail ads of all time. Advertising a home-study course offered by the U.S. School of Music, the piece was headlined, "They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play!" It was an overnight success, providing fodder for columnists, comedians and other copywriters.

Mr. Caples reworked that success into a subsequent ad for Doubleday, Page & Co.: "They grinned when the waiter spoke to me in French—but their laughter changed to amazement at my reply." It was another plum for the young adman.

Following his success with R&R, Mr. Caples sought a position that would allow him to learn more about the industry. In 1927, he joined Barton, Durstine & Osborn—which would become Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn—as a copywriter and account exec.

Mr. Caples' third major ad success was written for the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Co. in 1928. Showing an old man relaxing with a fishing rod, it was headlined: "To men who want to quit work some day." This ad, as well as "They Laughed," appear in Julius Watkins' book "The 100 Greatest Advertisements."

Mr. Caples worked for BBDO for the remainder of his career. He became a VP in 1941 and later was named creative director. His career was interrupted for a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II; he served from 1942 through 1945.

Mr. Caples spent his career as an advocate of testing the effectiveness of advertising. Although he was not a trained researcher, he supervised continuing test campaigns for The Wall Street Journal and Reader's Digest. He oversaw ad research for DuPont, U.S. Steel, General Electric Co., Johnson & Johnson, B.F. Goodrich, the U.S. Navy, Lever Brothers Co. and several other large organizations. Mr. Caples' research focused not only on the copy but also the medium, size, color, position and seasonal attraction of ads as well. He believed that only tried-and-tested elements should be used to create new ads.

He began to experiment with split-run ads in the 1940s; by the 1970s, he was running 40-way split-run testing. In a simple split-run, if an advertiser has two different ads, it runs both on the same day in a single publication with each appearing in only half the circulated copies. Coupons in each ad are coded, so the advertiser knows which ad is eliciting more response from consumers. Mr. Caples believed this to be the most scientific means of testing copy. While his methods were at first ridiculed, the concept eventually became an accepted part of ad testing and development.

Mr. Caples advocated reworking old successes as a first step in creating new ones, and he recommended a direct approach to writing ad copy. He also maintained that the headline of an ad is all-important. He followed some basic guidelines for writing headlines: self-interest of the reader, news, curiosity, maintaining a positive viewpoint and the suggestion of a quick and easy way to accomplish a task. "Keyed" advertising, which used the lure of samples or information to obtain a response, was one of Mr. Caples' mainstays. And he advocated the use of two campaigns at all times: one major national campaign and one local test campaign.

Mr. Caples went on to teach copywriting at Columbia Business School from 1952 to 1954. He authored dozens of articles for trade journals, as well as writing a column for Direct Marketing. He was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1973 and into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1977. The John Caples International Awards, established in 1978 to honor "creative solutions to direct marketing problems," are awarded annually by a volunteer board made up of members of the direct-marketing industry.

Mr. Caples was forced to retire in 1983, after 56 years with BBDO, when he fell off a ladder and broke his back. He died on June 10, 1990.


Born in New York, May 1, 1900; graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, 1924; began his career in advertising at Ruthrauff & Ryan, 1925; moved to Barton, Durstine & Osborn (later Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn) in 1927; retired from BBDO, 1983; died in New York, June 10, 1990.

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