Born in 1910 in Danville, Va., Rosser Reeves got into advertising by accident. Mr. Reeves was interested in law and history, but he was forced by economic difficulties to leave the University of Virginia in 1929 to take a job with a bank in Richmond, Va., where he eventually entered the advertising department.
After joining Cecil, Warwick & Cecil, New York, in 1934, Mr. Reeves became known as a brilliant theoretician of sales techniques. He moved to Ruthrauff & Ryan, then Blackett-Sample-Hummert before accepting a job at Benton & Bowles. In 1940, he left that agency to join Ted Bates, who was establishing his own agency, Ted Bates Inc.
At Bates, Mr. Reeves developed the idea of the "Unique Selling Proposition." To Mr. Reeves, consumers were not irrational creatures driven by hidden motives even they did not understand. Instead, he said, consumers received too many messages. The challenge to advertisers was to create memorable messages that the consumer could easily understand.
The USP, he said, must follow three rules: First, the advertiser must present a definite proposition: If you buy X, you will get a specific benefit; second, the benefit must be unique to the particular product, unavailable in the products offered by competitors; and third, the proposition must be a "selling" one?that is, the benefit must be one that many people will want. (For example, Colgate toothpaste "cleans your breath while it cleans your teeth.")
According to Mr. Reeves, the USP was the key element of an advertising campaign. Once the USP had been found, he contended, "any good copywriter can write a good ad."
The USP concept brought enormous success to the Bates agency, even though the ads it produced in the 1950s and 1960s were often disparaged by other advertising professionals for their lack of creativity. Mr. Reeves argued, however, that what mattered was the ads' effectiveness.
One advertisement Mr. Reeves created for Anacin is often cited as typical of his work. It showed three boxes, each symbolizing a different aspect of headache pain, superimposed on a drawing of a human head: one box depicted a jagged bolt of electricity; the next, a pounding hammer; the third, a coiling spring bolt. Beneath the three boxes appeared a trail of little bubbles of medicine making their way up from the Anacin logo at the bottom of the ad. While many creative professionals hated the campaign, Anacin sales increased in 18 months from $18 million to $54 million.
Many, including ad executive David Ogilvy, questioned the effectiveness of advertising based solely on logic and argument. Critics also pointed out that Mr. Reeves sometimes employed ethically questionable tactics, as his advertisements often skirted the truth. Many ads featured actors in white coats, looking and sounding like doctors as they promulgated sometimes-dubious USP claims.
The Federal Trade Commission forced the agency to drop claims for Carter's Little Liver Pills and issued additional complaints against a string of other advertisements, including a commercial that made it appear as if a shaving cream could work on sandpaper when, in fact, the surface shaved was not sandpaper.
In 1952, Mr. Reeves wrote the "Eisenhower Answers America" campaign for Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaign. Using information gathered in Gallup polls, Mr. Reeves determined the three most important issues to Americans at that time (the Korean War, economic problems and political corruption) and designed 30-second spots in which Gen. Eisenhower, filmed in an empty TV studio, answered scripted questions from voters. (The questions were filmed after Gen. Eisenhower's "responses.")
The ads were revolutionary because they represented the first time that a presidential candidate bought TV airtime for brief commercials rather than for lengthy political speeches. Mr. Reeves convinced Gen. Eisenhower to take this innovative approach because research showed that listeners did not retain information from speeches, whereas short, frequently repeated messages were more likely to stick in the voter's mind.
Like Mr. Reeves' commercial advertisements, these political ads attracted criticism: They were often described as "vulgar," and even Gen. Eisenhower himself deprecated the ads. Despite the criticism, "Eisenhower Answers America" was, like so many of Mr. Reeves' commercial campaigns, a success.
In 1966, Mr. Reeves, then chairman of the agency, retired from Bates. He died of a heart attack in 1984.
Born in Danville, Va., Sept. 10, 1910; attended University of Virginia, 1928-29; became a copywriter at Cecil, Warwick & Cecil, 1934; joined Ruthrauff & Ryan, 1934; joined Blackett-Sample-Hummert, 1938; moved to Benton & Bowles, 1939; joined Ted Bates Inc., where he created the concept of "unique selling proposition," 1940; retired as Bates chairman, 1966; died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., Jan. 24, 1984.