A Timeless Lesson From John Caples (Part I)

Did you know that Reader’s Digest used to be the world’s largest-circulated publication?

I just learned that on p. 104 of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples.

And it turns out, according to Wikipedia, RD held the distinction of America’s Most Circulated  straight up to 2009.

I haven’t picked the old gal up in a while. The laundromat I used to go to when I was living on eastern Long Island usually had some tattered copies in a dirty plastic magazine holder next to the detergent vending machine.

I’d turn to the puzzle page and usually find them all 1/3 to 1/2 completed in pen.

The articles I remember  were  mostly about diets and health hacks… rounded out by some random-seeming travel, personal finance, and general “better living” tips.  They were all very short, many lists–sort of like webpages on paper.

I’m on their website now  trying to go through a slideshow about apple cider vinegar and I’m getting absolutely massacred with pop-ups. 

But it used to be such a pillar of quality and success that a top ad man like Caples used its articles as inspiration for how to communicate effectively.

Ever the data-amasser, Caples studied many issues and found six fundamental ways that heyday Readers’ Digest articles began.

They’re all great and I want to discuss all of them, so I won’t dare try to stuff them all in one post. Today the spotlight is on the Interrupting Ideawhich is:

“(A) startling statement or a novel twist that breaks through the boredom barrier that often exists in the mind of the reader.”

And among the examples he pulls is this brilliant one:

“While we humans think that penguins look and act like people, there’s sobering evidence that they think of us as just big penguins.”

My boredom barrier is obliterated, how about yours?


The value of a good interrupting idea has to be higher than ever today.

Boredom or whatever you call the glazed-eyes task-switching zombie-scanning that characterizes how we read stuff online needs a major kick in the face to free our attention.

Been interrupted by any good ideas lately?

P.S. Here’s another pair of Caples gems, from his New York Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ‘only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.’ He also advised copywriters to ‘use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader’ because ‘the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.”’

Leave a Reply

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