The Story Behind One of the Greatest Ads Ever

In 1925, John Caples was a rookie copywriter working on an ad for home-study piano courses.

He drafted several headlines that he shared with his boss.

Here are a few:

  • “Can you play the piano? Neither could I three months ago?”
  • “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…”
  • “I never saw my music teacher. But he taught me to play just the same.” 
  • “Give me 10 minutes, and I’ll prove you can learn music without a teacher.” 

Which headline did Caples’ boss choose?

In his great book, “Making Ads Pay: Timeless Tips for Successful Copywriting,” Caples tells the story:

“(My boss) spent a minute or two looking at the headlines and then he checked with a pencil the…one that begins with the words ‘They laughed.’ ‘Write copy to go with that headline,’ he said.”

Caples wrote four-pages of single-spaced copy below that headline.

That copy sold mountains of home-study courses for the U.S. School of Music. And it became one of the most celebrated — and copied — ads ever written.

Here’s a 1927 version of the ad:

And here’s why it worked…

Unlike the other headlines, the winning headline launches a story.

In fact, it’s a story all by itself.

Close your eyes and imagine that guy sitting at the piano. The dinner party guests snickering.

But then… What?

You know it’s something good.

You know he’s about to show ‘em.

You know he’s going to stop the laughter.

You don’t have to read four pages of copy to imagine the basic idea.

But if saw that ad in 1925, you WANT to read that copy because the headline has drawn you in.

The headline attracts you and keeps you tuned in. 

It’s made you curious. It’s promised a compelling story…

…And, most importantly, it’s a story you can relate to.

You can relate to wanting the last laugh, rather than being the butt of the joke.

You can relate to wanting to be the life of the party.

You can relate to wanting to wow your friends with your talents.

Caples hints at all of that stuff in a 15-word headline. He delivers the entire story in the copy that follows. And he closes the copy with a call-to-action: “Send For Our Free Booklet and Demonstration Lesson.” 

In the book where he breaks down the ad, Caples shares a few tips that reflected his process and can be part of yours.

Here are two:  

  • Start by writing headlines.
  • In addition to facts, get EMOTION into your copy. 

I can help you write better headlines, subject lines, and copy. I can show you how to get emotion into your copy to create stories that attract readers and keep them tuned in. 

That can start to happen if you sign up for a  free, 30-minute story assessment

I’ll review your business story. I will meet with you via Zoom and review how you’re telling your business story — on your website, social media, and other channels. Then, I’ll recommend how to make it work better during these strange days.  

I have a limited number of slots open on my calendar for these sessions. Please visit my calendar to book a time that works for you.


Tom Ruwitch

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Tom Ruwitch

Tom Ruwitch is the founder and CEO of Story Power Marketing. For more than 30 years, he has helped businesses grow by delivering powerful stories using a variety of different media.