Advertising Ideas: Keep an Open Mind

An excerpt from Tested Sentences That Sell by Elmer Wheeler (now in the public domain):

Three Little Words that Sold Millions of Square Clothespins

(The Law of Averages)

“While individuals may be insoluble puzzles, in the aggregate they become mathematical certainties.”— Sherlock Holmes

This statement means that you can never foretell how any one person will react to a given selling sentence, but that you can say with scientific accuracy what the average will do. This philosophy of Sherlock Holmes is the best defense I know for the underlying philosophy of this book: that single sentences can be so constructed as to make a majority of people buy.

Several years ago manufacturers began to distribute square clothespins, instead of their famous round ones. Like most people I became curious and went into the first small store I came upon and asked the clerk what the difference was between the square and the round clothespins.

“Three cents a dozen difference!” said the salesgirl, snapping her gum in my face.

I asked the buyer in the little store and his answer was no better:

“I sell so many gross of clothespins a week, and this time they happened to come in square – why I don’t know! But I do know I’ll get stuck with them – for what woman will spend three cents extra a dozen for square ones!”

Many Reasons for Being Square

I went to the home office of this chain of small stores, and I was told by the merchandising division that these are the “sizzles” in a square clothespin:

1. They won’t slip out of wet hands so easily.
2. You can hold more in your wet hands.
3. They are polished and won’t tear delicate garments.
4. They won’t split on clotheslines.
5. They have knobs on the end so women can hold them in their mouths, especially if they have no teeth.

Everything about these square clothespins was scientific – except what the salesperson said to the customers. While I was hearing these “sizzles,” I accidentally dropped a clothespin on the floor, and a thought came to mind. I visualized a woman hanging up clothes. She has an armful of wash, clothespins in her wet hands and in her mouth as she starts across the kitchen floor. Suddenly a clothespin falls to the floor. Being round, it rolls under the stove. Like little dogs, clothespins love nothing better than to get under a stove and just lie there.

It may roll elsewhere. The woman fails to see it, and a few moments later she backs into it. Down goes the wash and the woman – and in comes the insurance adjuster!

Perhaps women would buy the square clothespins, I thought, if we told them this simple “sizzle”: A square clothespin won’t roll when it hits the floor; a woman drops one, she has only to bend down, pick it up, and go merrily on with her work. She would know at all times where the square clothespins were and would not trip up on them.

The Idea Clicks With Women

Taking this idea into our laboratory for polishing and smoothing, and then for tests behind the counters, we packed this selling point into a two-second “Tested Selling Sentence,” and instructed salespeople to say, when women wanted to know why they were square:

“They won’t roll!”

Three little words – yet they struck home across the busy counters, and customers began to buy them, showing again that what sells one woman often sells others!

As I read this chapter from the copywriting classic, I thought how important it is to not defeat yourself. The salesgirl described saw selling at the higher price as an impossible task. If she had simply said to herself that she needed to figure out HOW to sell these clothespins at the higher price, she might have sought out the answer described. As luck would have it Wheeler walked in and solved the problem, but it’s important to realize that great advertising ideas are not always going to be obvious!

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Expert Advice Column

Advertising in Sound Bites

Fame isn’t just for American Idol singers, Lady Gaga, and CEO's. Publicity coverage is available to anyone who has the right idea at the right time for the right audience— and can deliver it in the right way.

The last part is key. And it’s where most people fail.


Media coach, marketing strategist and author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul, Susan Harrow has been working with both famous and unknowns for over 20 years. She claims to have the secret sauce that can turn anyone into a media darling virtually overnight.

It’s called sound bites.


Click here for information on Susan's Sound Bites Course and tips on getting publicity
for your business (a.k.a Free Advertising).


Radio Publicity Guru

If you are looking for information about how to get on radio talk shows, then you should start at Alex Carroll's web site, get his free list of top radio talk shows, and discover if radio could be the right way for you to get your message out.