Baked Beans Bring Hopkins Back (My Life in Advertising: Chapter 9)

Do you like to barbecue? How about baked beans, do you like them?

I like baked beans especially at a barbecue. They’re sweet, with a touch of tomato, brown sugar, and pork. They remind me of summer days and paper plates.

But I don’t eat baked beans weekly.

Summer barbecue in 1913. Looks refreshing, doesn't it? Photo courtesy Orange County Archives
Summer barbecue in 1913. I don’t know if they served baked beans. Looks refreshing, doesn’t it? Photo courtesy Orange County Archives

Apparently in the early 1900s, baked beans were all the rage. People couldn’t get enough. Baked beans were frequently homemade. They would sometimes ferment while cooking. Other times they would explode in the 16 hour cooking process. That didn’t stop anyone.

In Chapter 9 of our PRL Selection, the autobiographical My Life in Advertising, Claude C. Hopkins tells that he’s on the edge of retirement when he gets sucked into an advertising campaign for Van Camp’s Baked Beans. He wants to decline the offer but finds himself unable.

Hopkins begins to study the market. Only 6% of respondents say they buy canned beans at all. While baked beans are popular, they’re home cooked.

Of the existing brands, the competitors ads all read, “Give me your money which you give to others.” Tweet This Selfishness doesn’t work, Hopkins argues. “The greatest two faults in advertising lie in boasts and in selfishness…. People will listen if you talk service to them. They will turn their back… when you seek to impress an advantage for yourself.” Tweet This

Signs in lunch-counter windows got working people asking for Van Camps beans at home, too. Image "Van Camp's Boston Baked Pork and Beans 1896" by Nesster, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Signs in lunch-counter windows got working people asking for Van Camps beans at home, too. Image “Van Camp’s Boston Baked Pork and Beans 1896” by Nesster, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

For Van Camp’s Baked Beans, Hopkins creates advertising copy focusing on the benefits of store-bought beans over home-baked beans. He describes the process they use to make the beans. He invites comparisons with his competitors. Van Camps starts being served at lunch-counters, increasing the demand at home.

Their campaign is an enormous success.

Van Camp starts making evaporated milk, a commodity item with thin profit margins. Hokpins stokes the market for weeks ads promising a coupon for a free can. All the stores want a part of those sales. The distribution is quick and widespread when the coupon is released.

According to Hopkins, they have 97% distribution on New York City within a matter of weeks. Van Camp’s Evaporated Milk became a familiar brand extremely quickly.

In other cities, Hopkins offers a free gift for those mailing in six labels from Van Camp’s canned products.  The gift must not be cheap quality, Hopkins argues, but human curiosity is strong and people will work to get a secret gift.

Hopkins repeats that this is not dignified or orthodox advertising. He has no sympathy with that method. An ad-man is after results.

Tens of thousands of dollars are wasted on bad advertising, Hopkins says — in 1929.

You can be certain the number is higher now.


If you have any examples of glaringly-bad advertising, share them in the comments below!