Questions? (877) 643-7244
FutureNow Post
Monday, Aug. 3, 2009 at 9:29 am

Ogilvy’s Famous Rolls Royce Ad – Another Look

By Jeff Sexton
August 3rd, 2009

Did you know that Ogilvy was not the first to use the “electric clock” comparison in a headline?

Pierce Rolls ComparisonI came across this bit o’ trivia while writing my post on Ogilvy’s preferred ad layout.  I found it written up by Robert Rosenthal at Freaking Marketing, who had done the detective work to find and scan in this Pierce-Arrow ad that ran about 25 years before Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce campaign.

If you consider yourself a student of advertising, you’ll want to read Robert’s entire post to get all the historical details, but any copywriter should find it worthwhile to compare the two headlines and analyze the improvements Ogilvy made to his version.

First, let’s look at the two headlines

So here are the two headlines for comparison:

The only sound one can hear in the new Pierce-Arrows is the ticking of the electric clock


“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the ticking of its electric clock.”

Why the Ogilvy Headline was far more powerful

1) Specificity: The Ogilvy ad gives an actual speed.  Not only are specifics  always more believable than generalities, but in this case, the specific speed makes the reader think that an actual test was conducted to determine this fact.  By comparison, the Pierce-Arrows ad reads like hype.

2) Quote marks:  The quotation marks around the Rolls Royce headline indicate to the casual reader, scanning the page, that this was a remark made by someone, perhaps by a tester or engineer.   And indeed, the subdeck and first bullet point confirm that this is the case.  Again, the Pierce-Arrow headline has none of this credibility-building substantiation.

3) Believability of the claim itself: Notice the change from “only sound” to “loudest noise.”  For the reader, conjuring up a mental image of driving in a car in which the electric clock is actually louder than the engine is relatively easy, whereas the mind rejects the idea of a moving car making absolutely no noise except for that of the clock.  Consequently, the Pierce-Arrow ad practically provokes skepticism and dismissal from the reader.

4) Words fat with emotional associations: the difference between sound and noise may seem subtle, but the emotional connotations are miles apart.  Sound could be anything, and all else being equal, the word alone usually has positive associations.  Noise, on the other hand, is a nuisance.  Tell me I won’t hear a sound in a car, and I’ll think you’re exaggerating or  speaking figuratively – would anybody even want to drive in the kind of sensory deprivation chamber that that would require?  But tell me that the loudest noise in the car comes from a ticking lock, and I’ll want to experience the serenity of such an exquisitely engineered car/cabin that is capable of nullifying the unpleasant noises and nuisances of the road.

Why the Ogilvy Ad was far more modern

In some ways, my comparison is simply not fair since the Pierce-Arrow ad hails from a far less cynical age than the Rolls Royce Ad.  One could suppose that back in the days of the Pierce-Arrow ad, “yeah, sure” and “prove it” probably weren’t the automatic responses to any advertising claim that they are today.

But the transition in audience attitudes wasn’t instantaneous.  In fact, you can already see the need for proof and substantiation by the time Ogilvy’s ad rolls around.  That’s why the Rolls Royce ad:

  • Includes engineering and expert testimonials or quotes.
  • Provides no less than 12 bullet points of factual copy – facts proving the extreme quality, engineering, and attention to detail that goes into making a Rolls Royce
  • Openly states the price of the car without dancing around the subject.

How to apply this to the Web

If you are an online copywriter here’s what you need to ask yourself:

1) Are you doing the research that Ogilvy did in order to come up with powerful headlines?  And once you have that angle of approach, are you anywhere near as careful with your wordsmithing?

2) More importantly, do you think the public has grown any less cynical since the time of that Rolls Royce ad?

3) Most importantly, are you providing more substantiated copy, proof, and pricing information than Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce ad does?  Or are you providing less?

Add Your Comments

Comments (29)

  1. Very good piece of article indeed. The 4 reasons of why the Ogilvy Headline was far more powerful are priceless advices for online copywriting. I have got to bookmark this page.

  2. This is priceless information! Good observation and valuable when writing copy! It’s a saved page for sure.

  3. I enjoyed this analysis.

    But I gotta be honest… from my first glance at the two headlines, I personally resonated more with the first one and not the second.

    Maybe that’s because such an idea is more plausible now than it used to be. As I can imagine, at least in my mind, a nice Lexus for example… being so quiet that indeed you only do hear the ticking of the clock. And that doesn’t strike me as unpleasant either.

    I also find the opening of the first headline more engaging than the opening of the second.

    I trust that an improvement was made, but from my own glancing at the two headlines… The first one draws me in more.

  4. Great job using a concrete example to explain important copywriting concepts.

    I like that you pointed out how Oglivy’s headline sounded like a remark made by a scientist or engineer. Gives me something to think about when I’m writing my next headline.

  5. Jeffrey,

    That’s actually really interesting. After you wrote that I went back and looked at the two headlines, then read them both aloud, and here’s what I’m thinking:

    1) The Pierce-Arrow headline sounds more pleasant to read aloud. It’s a simpler sentence precisely because it doesn’t have the opening prepositional phrase “At 60 miles an hour”

    2) Writers know to privilege the beginning and ending spots of a sentence – those are the power spots, with the end being slightly stronger than the beginning. Both headlines end with the ticking of the electric clock, but the Pierce-Arrow headline starts with SOUND vs. Ogilvy starting with a precise speed.

    3) For these reasons, the Pierce-Arrow headline reads, sounds, and feels smoother and a bit more poetic or pleasant. But the Rolls Royce headline reads, sounds, and feels more factual and believable.

    4) When it comes to advertising headlines, if I had to chose between poetry & credibility, I’d chose credibility every time.

    5) Some of this just might be driven by temperament. I’d imagine that the logical temperaments (competitives and methodicals) find the Ogilvy headline 100% better, and that perhaps the spontaneous and humanistic temperaments find that the Pierce-Arrow headline just “feels” nicer.

    - Jeff

  6. Another great article on Ogilvy. Thanks Jeff.

  7. Nice one for future advertisers.Its true that a lot of research is necessary to come up with something which grabs public attention.

  8. Emotional Marketing Value Headline Analyzer ~ ~ scores Ogilvy’s famous Rolls ad headline as a 9.52% ~

  9. [...] Future Now’s blog takes a look at legendary ad man David Ogilvy’s formula for print ads: 1) a picture with “story appeal,” 2) headline that supports the narrative, 3) supportive body copy with a lowered visual emphasis. [...]

  10. [...] Future Now’s blog takes a look at legendary ad man David Ogilvy’s formula for print ads: 1) a picture with “story appeal,” 2) headline that supports the narrative, 3) supportive body copy with a lowered visual emphasis. [...]

  11. An art car is a vehicle that has its appearance modified as an act of personal artistic expression. Art car artists usually drive and own their own work. They are sometimes referred to as “Cartists”. (car pictures) Art car artists or owners often dress in a matching motif when displaying their cars. Art cars and car artists come from all walks of life, uphold a wide range of personal philosophies and beliefs and come from all political groups.

  12. Nice post
    i can’t wait to share it.
    The article presents advices for online copywriting.
    Thanks for your advice

  13. This is priceless information! Good observation.I like that you pointed out how Oglivy’s headline sounded like a remark made by a scientist or engineer.

  14. Hi
    I think the brand Rolls Royce, is also a key element, as it an established and respected Brand Name. A sign of Quality too, the headline is a crucial factor also, very well demonstrated.
    Great Information

  15. Although I’m not an online copywriter but the question list above let me have known what the great online copywriting is.

  16. Some great insight there to keep in mind. Amazing how carefully written and how much research and psychology goes into an ad. I believe people today are more cynical, but human emotions and reactions haven’t changed. I am bookmarking this article.

  17. This ad is amazing, and it reminds us that we have so much to learn from the “old” advertisers. One of the best books written on advertisements (won’t mention it here) comes from 1920 and for people in today’s marketing, whether online or not, is a bible. Some things simply never change!

  18. Great article. They way you break down the details of the 2 headlines is very helpful. I usually don’t put that much detail and psychology into my writing but I will begin to do so. Thanks

  19. I think CBC ran a story line on Ogilvy this week end. I believe I heard that Oglivy fired his client Rolls Royce when he discovered that RR sent some deffective cars to the US. A couple of years later Ogilvy apparently drove off with the Mercedes Benz account. Integrity does pay off, but I am conflicted, was the original clock idea borrowed?

  20. I love old adverts like this and spent a large amount of time at Uni researching and writing about the heritage of Guinness ad campaigns. When you look back, some of the best and most creative ad copy was written and executed in some astounding campaigns from the 60′s onwards. Has the advent of the web diluted this art form, or has advertising become too “throw-away” like our modern, materialistic and aesthetic driven lifestyles to justify spending the time a great advert requires to put together?

    Did they do it better back then, are we more “Drive through” about campaigns these days?

  21. A very smart well written piece. I was just watching a documentary on Ogilvy and wanted to know more about the famous Rolls Royce ad – it is amazing the power of a few word changes.

  22. Nice comparison!I like the way you compare and share the research.Thanks for allowing us to analyze it more.I consider myself as a marketing student and a newbie to say.So this article is a great help to me.

  23. [...] [...]

  24. That is an incredible breakdown. It’s amazing how all of these little judgments are made almost instantaneously by the customer, but to actually stop and see what’s going on we have to really get deep into analysis.

  25. What an interesting artical the use to real comments in a very useful tip. We have been using customer quotes in our pay per click adverts to great effect.

  26. [...] Jeff Sexton’s story on why Ogilvy’s ad was [...]

  27. [...] * For a more detailed analysis of this famous Ogilvy Ad, check out my old GrokDotcom post. [...]

  28. [...] [...]

Add Your Comments


Print this Article

Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

More articles from Jeff Sexton

Marketing Optimization Blog
FREE Newsletter Sign-Up
send it once every: