This is MarketCopywriter Blog’s third post in a series on Mad Women—pioneering women copywriters.
1933. The Great Depression continues to grip America. Four years after the stock market crash, a quarter of all US workers are unemployed.
Factories are ghostly, offices operate with skeletal staff. Suited men stand on street corners selling apples. Families hoard nickels and dimes.
Not a great time to launch an ambitious, national advertising campaign.
But that’s exactly what Erma Proetz did. What’s more she succeeded—big time. Her campaign for Pet Milk—a multimedia initiative that included a radio cooking show, radio soap opera, print ads and collateral—blasted sales of the now-iconic brand. Proetz’s immensely popular campaign ran for a record 21 years—the longest cooking show in the history of radio.
In this post you’ll learn more about Proetz, the first woman inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. You’ll see how, in the worst of all possible economic times, this creative ad woman harnessed a new medium to create opportunities for herself, the ad industry, her client and most of all, consumers: Proetz’s deep understanding and empathy for women consumers informed every aspect of her creative work.
Like other women ad pros, Proetz’s story is more than a slice of Madison Avenue history. I think you’ll find 80 years later, her work still provides inspiration and insights for copywriters and marketers.
Mad Woman beginnings
Erma Perham Proetz was born in Denver, Colorado in 1891. She graduated from Washington University, married—taking her husband’s name—and got a job at St. Louis’ Dry Goods Economist, a trade publication.
In 1923, St. Louis’ Gardner Advertising Company recruited Proetz to revive Pet Milk, a brand known to be “in trouble,” according to a news story of the day.
Proetz’s creative use of integrated media turned the account around. In 1923 and 1925, her work for the brand earned her the prestigious Harvard Advertising Award for “the most effective use of illustration in advertising.” In 1927, Harvard again recognized her outstanding achievement, this time with an award for “the best planned and executed national advertising campaign for a single product.”
Proetz was the only ad pro to ever win Harvard’s award three times.
How to revive a tired brand
Before Proetz took over the Pet Milk account, the brand had seen its share of ups and downs. Founded in 1885, Pet Milk sales rocketed during the Spanish-American War and World War I when the company won military contracts. But after the war, sales dwindled and Pet Milk was forced to close plants—despite an effort to reposition the product as a baby formula.
In assessing the brand, Proetz recognized its survival depended on yet another major repositioning. She wanted Americans to see Pet Milk as a family staple—a healthy, convenient, inexpensive and tasty food that could be used at every meal.
To accomplish this brand overhaul, Proetz reached out to America’s most influential consumers: Women. Like all ad pros, Proetz knew housewives made most purchasing decisions and controlled a significant portion of family income.
Mary Lee Taylor: cook, friend, brand ambassador
To hook and hold their attention, Proetz created radio programming just for women. She launched radio’s first cooking show, hosted by the friendly, well informed—and imaginary—home economist, Mary Lee Taylor. In reality, the show was written and creatively controlled by Proetz.
In addition to radio scripts and print ads, Proetz created recipes and opened a test kitchen to assure products lived up to company claims of thrift and taste.
Originally broadcast on CBS, the show’s 15-minute cooking show ran twice a week. Later it expanded to 30 minutes and included a domestic drama featuring newlyweds Sally and Jim Carter. During World War II, when many women entered the workforce, the show switched to Saturday mornings. In 1948, Mary Lee Taylor moved to NBC, where it became part of the “NBC Saturday Morning Parade of Stars.”
For a taste of Mary Lee Taylor, listen to this vintage broadcast:
Mad Woman’s legacy to today’s marketers
Proetz’s work lived long after her. She died in 1944, but her show continued dispensing Mary Lee’s homey mix of cooking tips, recipes and sisterly domestic wisdom to American women until 1954.
Erma Perham Proetz was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame—the first woman to be so honored—in 1952.
Erma Perham Proetz’s recipe for content marketing success
While Proetz’s campaign is almost a century old, her precepts are as useful today as in 1933. Here’s are 6 marketing takeaways from the formidable ad woman:
- Put a human face on brands. Mary Lee Taylor’s friendly advice and can-do attitude offered consumers reassurance—and empowerment. The Depression and war years rocked Americans to the core: Absent fathers and sons faced unknown horrors, but back home, mother held down the fort—with help from Mary Lee Taylor. Mary Lee reached out to customers and encouraged them to reach out to her. “And when you have a minute to spare,” crooned Mary Lee, “I hope you’ll write me and tell me how you enjoy our program. And tell me something about yourself and your family. Because the better I know you the better I can help you through this program to find happiness in everyday living.” Women responded, flooding her with letters and recipe requests—and buying millions of cans of Pet Milk.
- Tell stories. While wary of overt sales tactics, people love stories—and seem hard-wired to respond to narrative. Proetz gave them satisfying double doses: Rapt listeners tuned in weekly to follow Sally and Jim Carter’s kitchen dramas. And they stayed tuned for Mary Lee’s show, a culinary tale that let customers project themselves into the narrative. Listening to Mary Lee’s descriptive instructions, customers saw themselves preparing easy, delicious, inexpensive meals—while absorbing the reassuring subtextual message of nourishing and holding family together.
- Create content that provides value. Customers trusted Mary Lee Taylor—and by association, Pet Milk—because she gave them loads of free, useful, usable, non-salesy content. Each week customers listened to engaging audio content that walked them step-by-step through cooking techniques and recipes. They got more great, relevant content through Pet Milk’s free recipe booklets. And as a capper, there was the the pure escapism and entertainment of eavesdropping on Sally and Jim Carter, their folksy friends and neighbors and meddling in-laws. Branding bingo.
- Appeal to self-interest. Pet Milk copy always delivered on the brand’s value propositions. The product was tasty and money saving: “After this program,” intoned Mary Lee, “We’re going to plan a delicious meal that costs only $1.88 to feed a family of four.” Pet Milk was convenient: “Pet milk whips as easy as 1, 2, 3…” And it was reassuringly easy to use: “Even the beginning cook can make Prune Chiffon Party Pie perfectly the very first time.”
- Use technology to build relationships and community. In 1933, radio was new media. Proetz saw its implications and power to build relationships. In addition to reach and push, radio also provided pull-marketing opportunities: Customers controlled the medium, deciding when to tune in or out. When they tuned the dial, customers invited Mary Lee—and Pet Milk—into their homes. Proetz kept great content coming that turned strangers into friends and friends into customers.
- Integrate a variety of media. Proetz was not a one-trick broadcast pony. Her campaigns relied heavily on radio for pull and relationship building. She also crafted print ads that provided reach and support. And she bolstered and deepened relationships with collateral via recipe booklets.
What’s cooking in your content marketing kitchen?
What do you think of Erma Proetz? Is her work relevant to your marketing and copywriting? Please share your thoughts in comments.