Great Ad Campaigns: "We Make Money the Old Fashioned Way"
Picture the scene. It’s the late 1970s and an iconic actor appears on the screen delivering a message loud and clear. John Houseman, the voice of Smith Barney’s ad campaign for over a decade, sits at a table and utters the famous words, “Smith Barney: They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.”
The actor, who was known at the time for his role as a law professor on the TV and film series, The Paper Chase, delivered lines that still have an impact to this day. The Smith Barney commercial is widely regarded as one of the most effective of its day, particularly within the financial sector.
John Houseman appeared in almost 20 commercials for the investment firm from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. He was subsequently replaced by fellow actor Leo McKern.
The slogan “We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it” became synonymous with the investment firm. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the campaign and explore the reasons why it became so memorable.
We will also highlight key copywriting lessons writers can take from the commercials.
The campaign was created by Ogilvy & Mather New York Unit of the WPP Group and was later run by McCann New York after Houseman was replaced by McKern.
A review of the campaign
Smith Barney’s ad campaign became a talking point in the 1970s and ‘80s. An investment firm looking for new customers launched a series of commercials featuring a well-known actor in a bid to raise brand awareness and encourage consumers to choose Smith Barney.
The choice of actor was critical to getting the message across. At the time of the first ad, John Houseman was best-known for playing a steely law professor on screen and his presence gave the campaign gravitas and sway.
The plot line that runs throughout the campaign is very simple. The viewer is encouraged to sit and listen to Mr Houseman as he proceeds to talk about Smith Barney, highlighting the importance of undertaking research and working to achieve results.
After providing a succinct overview and laying the foundations, he delivers the iconic line, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.”
What was the impact of the Smith Barney ad campaign?
Smith Barney became a household name in the 1970s and 1980s partly due to its recognizable and memorable commercials starring John Houseman. Houseman was well-known, and the commercials helped to introduce Smith Barney to a wider, larger audience.
Consumer polls and tests showed high levels of unaided recall and brand awareness. Jonathan B Cranin, executive vice president and deputy creative director of McCann New York, which was part of the Smith Barney Group in the 1990s, said, “There’s no amount of money that could buy the equity it has” when talking about the tagline (source).
The success of the campaign was not enough to save Smith Barney, which was later taken over by Morgan Stanley, but it’s clear that the slogan will live on.
Television viewers recall the iconic line, and most people over the age of 40 are familiar with the commercial. The image of John Houseman sitting at a table delivering lines as though they were from a movie script is likely to be the first thing most people think about when they hear the words ‘Smith Barney.’
Key copywriting lessons from the Smith Barney ad campaign
Creating a great advert is not just about hiring actors and ensuring that the finished article looks slick and professional.
It’s also about creating the right script and using words, sentences and slogans to make commercials impactful and effective.
The Smith Barney ad campaign is one of the most famous of its era, and today, people remember the line and they instantly associate it with John Houseman and Smith Barney. The campaign teaches copywriters a number of valuable lessons, including:
1. Creating a sense of timelessness
The Smith Barney ads ran for several years and John Houseman starred in 18 commercials, but the campaign never felt old, dated or tired. This was a campaign that was designed to be timeless.
The advice was the same, the setting was similar, the message was unchanged, but people didn’t tire of hearing the words or get bored of seeing Houseman on their screens.
The script was designed to provide information and to give viewers a sense of what the brand is about and why the firm is different to others, but crucially, it became part of a tradition in many households.
During commercial breaks when families were sitting around the TV, the advert would come on and it would have an effect, regardless of how many times the audience had seen it.
The iconic slogan is timeless in itself despite the fact that it references times gone by with the use of ‘old-fashioned.’
Decades have passed, but people still value hard work and endeavor, especially when talking about investing money and choosing a firm. The fact that people still remember the catchphrase made famous by John Houseman is testament to its longevity.
2. Advertising the benefits of the product or service
The primary aim of any advertising campaign is to generate interest in products or services, and ultimately increase sales. The Smith Barney commercial is effective because it outlines the advantages of choosing the investment firm over others.
The writers responsible for the speech given by John Houseman have identified the brand’s USP and provided information for customers who may be thinking about investing funds.
The ad features a succinct description of what the firm does and why it is different. The slogan then summarizes the key advantage of working with Smith Barney: choosing a company that works hard to achieve results.
Smith Barney was an established investment firm, but there is no doubt that the advertising campaign played a critical role in expanding its client base.
Consumers bought into the brand messaging because the commercial made the benefits of choosing the firm clear.
Effective copywriting should enable prospective customers to see how taking the next step would benefit them and make a positive difference to their lives.
3. Appealing to the target market
Appealing to the target market is a golden rule when creating copy for any advertising campaign. Before launching a marketing or sales strategy, it’s imperative to define the ideal customer and get to know them.
Once you have an ideal customer, you can tailor the copy to create high-quality leads and find themes, language and ideas that will resonate with them.
One of the main reasons why the Smith Barney ads were so effective was their ability to connect with the target viewer.
People who wanted to invest and those who were in a position to invest liked the idea of a company working hard. Hard work, commitment and dedication were values that aligned with the consumer’s own values.
The slogan and the information provided in the rest of the commercial helped viewers to build confidence in the firm and gain an insight into how it works.
By devoting time and attention to research and preparation, brokers increased the chances of making the right calls and moves, which appealed to prospective investors.
4. A strong, clear message
The decision to use John Houseman as the star of the Smith Barney commercials made the campaign relevant to the target audience, but it also ensured that the message was loud and clear.
Houseman was known for his portrayal as a law professor and he brought gravitas and authority to the role. This is important in commercials for firms that operate within industries where expertise and confidence are essential.
In the financial sector, consumers don’t want mixed messages or wishy-washy delivery.
They want clarity, accurate information, fact-based advice and instruction. John Houseman’s tone helps to enforce critical messages delivered within the script, ensuring that customers have no doubt that they are making the right decision.
5. Building trust through familiarity
Trust is one of the driving factors for consumers who are looking to buy financial products or work with an investment firm or bank.
Building trust is essential when trying to persuade and convince prospective customers to part company with funds and hand them over to a broker or an investment firm.
The Smith Barney campaign encourages the audience to build trust and confidence in the brand through familiarity. People become familiar with John Houseman, the Smith Barney name and the “We make money the old-fashioned way” strapline.
Smith Barney’s commercials featuring the infamous line, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it” are among the most memorable of their time.
Decades after the first advert aired, people remember the line and they automatically recall the brand name. For copywriters, there are important lessons to learn from this great ad.
Writers can learn to build trust, target customers, forge relationships and highlight the benefits of products and services by analyzing this timeless campaign.