BNBranding how to choose the right message for your ads

Old-school Mad Men advice : Use a USP in your advertising

BNBranding logoLife in a 1960’s advertising agency makes for a great costume drama. Sometimes the powerful men of those fictitious Madison Avenue agencies can even teach us a thing or two. Like how to come up with a USP in advertising after downing five martinis over lunch.

(If you haven’t binged on MadMen, you should.  It’s one of the most riveting, most well-written dramas out there.)

the USP in advertising - MadMen advice on the Brand Insight Blog
Don Draper on MadMen
Rosser Reeves MadMen on using the USP in advertising - the Brand Insight Blog
Rosser Reeves

Donald Draper, the main character in Mad Men, is roughly based on a real-life ad man of the 50’s — Rosser Reeves. As chairman of the Ted Bates Agency, Reeves produced some of the most memorable slogans of all time, like “M&M’s… Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”

Creatively, Reeves’ TV ads were formulaic and boring by today’s standards.  He had blatant contempt for public intelligence and many of his commercials were banal and insulting

But by God, they worked!

If you ever find yourself staring at a blank screen wondering what to say in your next ad,  tweet or blog post, Reeves is not a bad source of inspiration.

See, even though the media landscape’s changing faster than you can say “Tc Toc” the fundamentals of good message development still hold true — 60 years after Reeves coined the phrase “Unique Selling Proposition.”

He defined the USP in advertising as “The quality by which a given product is demonstrably different than all others.”

“Demonstrably” is the key word here…

He could look at a product, size up the research, and extrapolate a USP that no client had ever considered. He was an expert at positioning, 30 years before the term was ever invented. Strategically, his work was brilliant.

His idea has evolved over the years, and ad agencies everywhere have conjured up their own version of the USP…

There’s the ESP: Emotional Selling Proposition. The OSP: Organizational Selling Proposition. The Brand Selling Proposition and even the HSP: Holistic Selling Proposition.

Leave it to the marketing guys to come up with a bunch of really stupid acronyms! Regardless of the acronym, there’s power in the idea…

USP in advertising - BN Branding


Here are the rules that Rosser Reeves lived by:

• When you have a USP, stick to one idea only.


Reeves was adamant about adhering to one simple USP in advertising that the viewer could easily absorb. He didn’t throw three ideas into a 30-second ad! That’s branding basics that still ring true today.

Back then, his Unique Selling Propositions really were unique.

For Colgate Reeves devised the claim “Cleans your breath as it cleans your teeth.” In reality, every toothpaste does that, but Colgate was the first to make the claim.

Reeves hammered that idea home over and over and over again on network television. He never deviated from that message, and it worked even though his executions were often seen a boring and unimaginative.

Takeaway For Today:  When it comes to a USP in advertising, or any marketing pitch, less is more. One idea only!

Your pitch needs to be honed down to seven words or less. Like you’re doing a billboard… You can’t have two or three ideas on a billboard or in a social media post, for that matter. Keep it simple.


• Leverage the drama of television and/or video.


In this age of faces-in-front-of-computer screens, everyone seems to have forgotten what video is really for.

Back in the 50’s product demonstrations were a required element of almost all television advertising. Reeves understood that, and he used television quite effectively.

The whole idea of a USP was to be demonstrably different. If it couldn’t be demonstrated for the world to see, it wasn’t a USP.

Takeaway For Today: Don’t just show your face and tell people about your product. Take a lesson from Reeves and demonstrate something.

YouTube is the perfect venue for that. Find the drama in your business or product, and feature that in your ads, online videos, or wherever you have an audience.

Have you ever seen “Does it Blend?” That’s a great example of modern demonstration advertising leveraged with social media.


• When using a USP in advertising, be relentlessly repetitive.


Back in the Mad Men days, ad agencies got paid on commission. More “frequency” translated to more revenues. (In other words, the more times a commercial aired, the more they made, so their media budgets were generous to say the least.)

They never abandoned a campaign that was working. Just because you’re tired of your own message doesn’t mean consumers are. Stop changing your ads every five seconds, and let them sink in! It takes an average of 7 exposures before people start taking notice.

With today’s fragmented media environment, it’s harder than ever to get your message across consistently. So its even more important to define your core brand message and stick with it.

If you have your value proposition (USP) nailed down, and a campaign that’s working, don’t quit. Milk it for all it’s worth. Keep the brand messaging consistent on everything from Facebook to outdoor boards.

Takeaway For Today: Use only one USP in Advertising at a time, and leverage it for all it’s worth.


• Make your ads, videos and posts sound good.


The human ear is an amazing thing. The latest brain research proves what Reeves knew intuitively… that audio mnemonic devices aid recall. He used sound cues and catchy jingles to help people remember the product.

His slogans would repeat certain sounds or words, to great effect. Like this: “Only Viceroy gives you 20,000 filter traps in every filter tip to filter, filter, filter your smoke while the rich, rich flavor comes through.” (Bad example, but you get the point.)

On TV or on the radio, every syllable should be scripted for its sound quality. Is there anything in that 30 seconds that’s memorable, or does it sound like everything else out there?

Takeaway For Today: Pay close attention to how your videos sound.


• USPs in advertising help establish credibility.


At the Ted Bates agency most TV spots featured official looking men in white lab coats demonstrating products and proving product claims. It was authoritative salesmanship. It was science. During that period in American history, it worked.

Credibility is still tremendously important. Maybe more than ever with all the Ai generated nonsense out there!  But now it’s about transparency. People want honest, user-generated reviews and third-party testimonials. Not pseudo-scientists or celebrity spokesmen.

Reeves focused exclusively on product-oriented USPs, like all those filter traps in the Viceroy cigarettes. But these days, we usually have to dig a little deeper to find a pitch that resonates with people.

Takeaway For Today: There can be no credibility without authenticity.

Got Milk print ad

Case in point… When Goodby, Silverstein started working on the California Milk account they learned that the health benefits of milk didn’t resonate with anyone. Just because healthiness is a benefit of milk, doesn’t mean it’s THE benefit to put in your ads.

“Milk. It does a body good” simply wasn’t doing much good for milk sales.

Instead of focusing on what happens when you drink milk, the account planners at Goodby decided to take the opposite approach and focus on what life is like without milk.

Much more provocative.

This insight was based on two universal truths revealed in the research:

  1. Milk is hardly ever consumed on it’s own. It’s always milk and cookies, or milk and something.
  2. Everyone has opened the fridge at least once only to find the milk carton empty.  So the idea was this: Stay stocked up on milk, or else!

No other organization was taking this approach, and the creative teams at Goodby did a superb job of executing the seemingly negative idea in fun, memorable ways. “Got Milk” will certainly go down in advertising history as one of the all time great campaigns.

Takeaway For Today: When it comes to your USP in advertising, don’t settle for the obvious.

You can’t just take your sales presentation and put it in a 30-second radio spot. You have to dig deeper than that. You have to step out of the bottle and approach it from an entirely different perspective. You have to take time to sift through all the trivial little details that come up in focus groups and sales meetings and hone in on one resonant truth.

One main benefit. One compelling message. One thing you can — and should — hang your hat on. The Donald Draper, Rosser Reeves USP.

Once that’s done you have to find a way to communicate the USP more creatively than Reeves ever could.

For more on USPs and how to choose the right advertising messages, try THIS post:

Want help?  Contact me here or reach out to John Furgurson on LinkedIn.

a new approach to website design BNBranding

2 thoughts on “Old-school Mad Men advice : Use a USP in your advertising”

  1. People can learn a lot from the show. I remember the episode in which Don transforms a slide projector from Kodak into a carousel (with the strong emotional story), now that’s a nice way to sell a slide projector.

    I love Mad Men.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Take your next agency for a spin.

You wouldn’t buy a BMW without getting behind the wheel. You have no idea what it can do. Same with BN Branding. So let’s go for a test drive… just one small assignment to prove how well we handle whatever you throw at us.

Scroll to Top