Welcome to our Throwback Thursday series. Today we explore new online marketing lessons we can learn from one credible retailer who overcame popular mistrust of advertising created by snake oil salesmen back in the turn of the century.


Imagine it is the year 1900 and you are trying to buy your mom face cream for her birthday (a luxury for the 1900s, we know). In the past, you would have gone to your local shopkeeper whom you know personally. But now, there is this new age, fancy thing called a department store with cheaper prices and more selection. So you put on your top hat, board the urban elevated passenger railway line and visit your local department store. They have Snake Oil Face Cream, which claims to make you look younger, cure your headaches and do your dishes for you. Next to it, you see Wanamaker’s Face Cream which only claims to keep your face moisturized or you get your money back. Lately, you’ve been concerned about the truth of advertising claims like the one on the snake oil cream. Meanwhile, the money-back guarantee reminds you of the trust you felt when buying from your hometown shopkeeper. Except now you get the cheaper department store price. So you buy Wanamaker’s to play it safe on the quality of the birthday gift.


At the turn of the century, outrageous snake oil-style claims slithered rampantly through advertising copy. Recognizing the extent to which this hurt consumer trust, John Wanamaker invented the “money back guarantee,” hired a full time advertising copywriter to spread this message, and quickly doubled his profits. There are a few takeaways from this story that apply to online marketing today.


Customers have psychological roadblocks to making purchases

In Wanamaker’s day, distrust of advertisers was a major roadblock to acquiring new customers. Today, there are other psychological factors that can impact sales. For example, in the travel vertical, airlines are facing headwinds when it comes to price conscious travelers. Deal-seeking travelers not only search multiple websites and aggregators to find the cheapest flights, but check different date ranges and airports, too. Adding to this, some consumers repeat the whole process mid-week  believing that prices drop on Wednesdays. The customer may have about 25 extraneous browser windows to close when it’s all said and done. What psychological factors like confusion or distrust are hindering your brand from acquiring new customers? 


Messaging matters

A key piece of Wanamaker’s success was not just the revolutionary money-back guarantee. He also invested in a talented copywriter to spread the word. What is the one thing your brand already does that eliminates psychological barriers to purchasing? Perhaps as an airline, you have the most user-friendly flight cancellation policy. If so, that belongs in your ad copy. What is your 21st century equivalent to Wanamaker’s money-back guarantee?

Fortunately today we aren’t up against snake oil salesmen. But there are many other factors that cause psychological roadblocks to purchase. It’s important to address these concerns and call out the solution directly in ad copy. Tune in next Thursday for another modern lesson from advertising and internet history.