Rosser Reeves, Ad Legend

by | May 28, 2021

Rosser Reeves was a rule-breaker, a gifted writer, a visionary business person, licensed pilot, sailboat racer, chess player, and art collector. He was born in Virginia in 1910 and he wanted to become rich.

Reeves got what he wanted. In 1934, he moved to New York and went to work as a copywriter for a handful of agencies before landing a job at the Ted Bates and Co. in 1940, where he was able to help formulate the agency’s philosophy and “hard sell” and “reason why” approach to making ads.

Reeves was the vice-president and copy chief of Ted Bates and Co. He then became the chairman of the board in 1955. With his leadership, the agency’s fortunes rose on the strength of work for Viceroy, Anacin, Mobil Oil, M&Ms, Colgate, and others.

Rosser Reeves Invented And Perfected The Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

Reeves didn’t become an ad legend by happenstance. He had a plan and he worked his plan to perfection. His clients at Bates all benefitted from Reeve’s insistence on something he called The Unique Selling Proposition, which is still with us today.

In the 1961 best-selling book he wrote, Reality in Advertising, Reeves spells out the selling techniques that he is now famous for. In the book, he explains that The Unique Selling Proposition has three main parts:

  1. Each ad must make a proposition: Buy this product and you get these benefits.
  2. The proposition must be unique—something that your competitors do not, cannot, or will not offer.
  3. The proposition must sell—it must be something prospects really want; it pulls them over to your product.

Reeves’s USP relied on earlier thinking and work by ad legends, John E. Kennedy and Claude Hopkins. Reeves believed that the copy should highlight several product features, but emphasize the one most closely tied to the USP. Once the USP was decided upon, Reeves repeated the main selling line over and over, relying on continuity and simplicity to help shoppers recall the product and its most obvious benefit.

M&Ms Melt In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hands

The most memorable USP Reeves developed was the one for M&M’s. At the time, M&M’s was the first sugar-coated chocolate candy on the market. Reeves wrote, “It melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”

Anacin for Incredibly Fast Relief

Repeating the word “Fast” several times didn’t win over his peers in the ad-making business, but it did make the client a ton of money.

Reeves has this to say to his critics at the time: “You can come at me with all the subjective judgments you want…the artsy-crafty crowd; I have other criteria…a drug company doesn’t spend $86,400,000 unless they’re making money on it. That money was spent on one television commercial. It cost $8200 to produce and it made more money than ‘Gone with the Wind’.”

He Liked Ike

Utilizing USPs, the Bates agency leaped to be the fifth largest advertising agency in the world. Bates also helped to elect President Eisenhower with a series of hard-sell ads, the first of their kind for a presidential candidate.

Rosser Reeves Legacy

  • Invented the Unique Selling Proposition
  • Famous for the hard sell and for advancing “Reason Why” advertising
  • Created M&M’s “Melt’s In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hands”
  • Helped elect an American president twice
  • Wrote a best-selling book, Reality in Advertising

Rosser Reeves understood that a product had to be different and somehow better than other products of the same type, or there would be no reason for anyone to buy it. We could use much more of this raw honesty today. While his critics maintained that Reeves lacked finesse and style, it’s clear that Reeves had the last laugh. Let’s also give him the last word.

…writers can forget that an advertising campaign is not designed to express their individual ego or talent for entertaining. Rather, it is a functional tool whose purpose is to fully inform the public via maximum projection of the message.